Christian Dior died suddenly in 1957, just 11 years after he founded his eponymous fashion house, yet his legacy has lived on for decades since and is regarded as one of the most successful design houses in the world.
Based on the major exhibition Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve organised by the Musée des Art Décoratifs in Paris, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams has been reimagined for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Plotting the life of Christian Dior, from his comfortable childhood in Normandy and Paris to the success of his critically acclaimed 22 collections, the exhibition takes its visitor on a glamorous journey through Dior’s established career and even greater legacy.
Born into a wealthy family, Dior’s parents hoped he would become a diplomat however, Dior was creative and wished to be involved in art. After leaving school he quickly dabbled in the art world, opening a gallery which sold works by Picasso and other modernists. However, the gallery’s success was short lived and after the financial crisis the Dior family’s wealth had dwindled meaning properties like the art gallery needed to be closed down. Unperturbed, Dior set his sights on drawing and he quickly caught the attention of fashion designer, Robert Piguet who offered him the job of designing three Piguet collections. Soon after, war broke out and the young Dior was called up for military service.
With the war over and his military services completed, Dior was back within the fashion world, making waves and establishing his name amongst other icons such as Pierre Balmain and Marc Bohan (who would later become head of design for Christian Dior Paris). In December 1946, the House of Dior was founded, quickly followed by a debut haute couture collection launching in February 1947.
The exhibition opens with highlights from his debut collection which hailed Dior’s “New Look”. Exquisite day dresses with nipped in waists, sinuous curves and elegant fabrics drape rub shoulders with perfectly flared woollen overcoats and sleek pump heels. Next, visitors are taken on a journey through Dior’s relatively short career, explaining the French designer’s passion and obsession with English design and style. A ball gown designed for Princess Margaret for her 21st birthday party takes centre stage, showcasing the young princess pushing boundaries with a daring off the shoulder neck line. Moving through to the next room, Dior’s penchant for citing historic periods in his designs – the soft curve of Belle Époque dress from the late 1800s; the tightly waisted mid-century styles worn by the French Empress Eugénie however it was the sumptuous silks and dramatic silhouettes of the 18th century that held a particular fascination (these can later be seen once again during John Galliano’s tenure as Head of Design). Exquisite craftsmanship is evident in fine bead detailing, soft applique and feather accents.
Dior’s travels are also well documented throughout the exhibition space, showing off the designer’s flare to reference new cultures; patterns and colours formed the basis to these designs, whilst Dior’s trademark soft tailoring ensured his work was aligned with the brand’s foundations. We also get a taste for Dior’s love of gardening which was frequently referenced in his work, as well as forming the basis to his iconic scent Miss Dior. Flowing dresses hand stitched with handmade flower buds stand next to skirts crafted from gather tulle, creating the shape of bulbous flower heads. Everything is as delicate as a petal, brimming with personality.
Christian Dior died prematurely however, his legacy has lived on thanks to his talented successors; Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and now Maria Grazia Chiuri. Each designer has brought a new perspective and all have harnessed the unrivalled skills of the couture workshops or ateliers to recreate the Dior aesthetic for successive generations. Their work has helped reimagine Dior and ensured his “New Look” has been experienced by generations of women- past, present and future. Dior is now a timeless and iconic brand which instantly conjures up images of luxury, craftsmanship and elegance. Whilst each Head of Design embraced their own designs and identities, they all embraced and embodied Christian Dior’s original passion.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams
2nd February - 14th July 2019
Victoria & Albert Museum
Photography by Victoria & Albert Museum and MBDS