On a freezing Wednesday morning in February 1947, a line of immaculately dressed women huddled in their thick furs outside Dior’s Avenue Montaigne boutique in Paris. Inside, one of the greatest couturiers of the 20th century was putting the final touches to his new collection, refusing to open the doors to the aristocrats and actresses shivering outside until every last detail was perfect.
More than 70 years later, a similar queue formed outside the Victoria & Albert Museum on an equally bone-chilling day in London. Only this time, it was made up of couture lovers hoping to see the fruits of the groundbreaking 1947 collection in the exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams.
Oriole Cullen, fashion and textiles curator at the V&A, traces both Dior’s work and his enduring legacy in this delicious visual story made up of 200 pieces of haute-couture clothing, which are exhibited alongside shoes, handbags, perfume, illustrations, make-up and magazines. It’s the museum’s largest fashion exhibition since the epic Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which was visited by 493,043 people during its 21-week run in 2015.
A single mannequin opens the show in the Sainsbury Gallery of the museum’s new Exhibition Road Quarter, dressed in a two-piece suit that defines both the joyful femininity of the post-war period and Dior himself. The Bar suit was deemed wasteful and extravagant in an era of rationing, but women flocked to this “New Look” for its opulent swathes of fabric and nipped-in waist, which suggested a future filled with glamour and sex.
It sits sultrily under a facade modelled on Dior’s first store at 30 Avenue Montaigne, through which you walk to find a replica of Blenheim Palace containing an off-the-shoulder sequin, pearl and raffia gown made for Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday.
“We wanted to explore the notions of dreams and aspirations,” says Cullen over coffee in The Lanesborough hotel. “Princess Margaret was a dream-like figure in the 1950s. We think of celebrity culture as being a contemporary thing, but the press and the public were obsessed with her — she was young and beautiful and glamorous, and represented a future after the war. She embodied the concept of dreaming and transporting us far away, and this Dior dress, with its colours and effects, was designed to heighten that sensation.”
This ethereal exhibition is a reimagining of last year’s critically acclaimed show at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which documented Dior’s 70 years of fairy-tale-like appeal. But this being London, Cullen has also dedicated a significant part of the show to the designer’s love for Britain. And at a time when the country is grappling with its relationship to Europe, there’s something particularly joyful about the delight this quintessential Parisian took in England.
“There is no other country in the world, beside my own, whose way of life I like so much,” Dior swooned in his memoir. A self-described royalist, he was enamoured with the stately homes of England, the two princesses and their aristocratic friends. Nancy Mitford, after trying on his New Look suits, wrote in her diary, “My life has been made a desert of gloom by a collection which at one stroke renders all one’s clothes unwearable.”
Dior’s love of post-war England roots the entire exhibition. “It’s a fascinating history,” Cullen says. “He was a real Anglophile and had a wonderfully romantic notion of Britain. He loved English women in tweeds and ball gowns, and had a series of shows all over the country in different grand houses. It was the opposite of the glamorous sophistication of Paris — the British thing is more about a charming elegance.”
Dior today is so much more than Christian, and the exhibition is careful to celebrate the work of the six creative directors who have been at the helm since Dior’s death in 1957. From his then 21-year-old assistant-turned-successor, Yves Saint Laurent, to Maria Grazia Chiuri today, each designer’s work is displayed with equal weighting.
One of the most visually sumptuous displays belongs to the travels room — an ornate chamber dedicated to the countries the house has been inspired by, including China, Japan, India and Egypt. Through this exhibition, Cullen hopes to appeal to a global audience. “The Paris show had such a big impact around the world,” she says. “With the kind of international audience we get here in London that should be repeated. Yes, it’s partly about Dior in Britain, but the ethos is also about looking outwards.”
For unbridled prettiness, the garden room reigns supreme. Bathed in light, where many of the other displays are dark, it shows a series of floral dresses in ever-more edible colours sitting under a ceiling of pale mauve paper petals. A beautiful array of gowns in an ethereal setting such as this one illustrates to what extent couture truly is an art form. And these hand-stitched pieces of wearable beauty feel like a much-needed antidote to the cheap highs of fast fashion outside.
“It’s so wonderful to see these dresses up close,” says Cullen. “There are so many details that you can’t always get from a photograph — like those super-light layers of tulle. There’s almost nothing to them, as if you could blow them away. People yearn for something like this in the modern world. I think, by showing haute couture, it allows us to reflecton the value of clothing and the idea of sustainability. We need to look at these amazing things that make you dream.”
From the airy light of the sumptuous garden room, we move to the Designers for Dior display, which meticulously shows how each of the brand’s six creative directors shaped the maison. “What I loved most about this exhibition was seeing the moments of great change every time a new designer came in,” says Cullen. “Each was very reflective of the times they were working in.
“Marc Bowan is often overlooked but he had some truly beautiful pieces and brought the house through a difficult period in the 1960s, when ready-to-wear began,” she continues. “Galliano is an example of how imagination and creativity come together in an excessive explosion of fashion I don’t think we will see again. Raf [Simons] is so of his time, so relevant and so modern, and now Maria Grazia is very connected with what is going on culturally.”
I’m lucky enough to visit the exhibition during the press preview and Chiuri — Dior’s first female creative director — is there, dressed entirely in black and laughing uproariously with the journalists from Milan, making me wish I’d paid a little more attention in Italian class at school. Unlike during the Paris exhibition last year, Chiuri now has a strong body of work for Dior, and her thoughtful, beautifully made pieces are an important addition.
From there, we move through to the arresting ateliers room — stark surgical white, showing the tireless nature of handcrafted work — to a kaleidoscopic display of make-up, perfume, illustrations and shoes. Part of the wow factor of this exhibition must go to the immersive sets designed by Nathalie Crinière, particularly the pure fantasy walk the exhibition ends on. This ballroom evokes the lavish interiors of the great houses of Britain and shows off the skill needed to create these fairy-tale-like gowns.
On my way out of the museum, I wander past haughty stone statues, expensive Dutch vases and rows of bored schoolchildren, and realise thatnot even these priceless objets d’art can hold a candle to the unabashed celebration of Christian Dior I’ve just witnessed. But then again, very little beats the joie de vivre of haute couture at its most opulent.