When Christian Dior established his eponymous house in 1947, he not only ushered in a revolutionary era in fashion with the “New Look” silhouette, he also helped restore hope and glamour in a ravaged post-war Europe. With an innate understanding of what women wanted, Dior made them the sole focus of his creations. He was dedicated to emphasizing their seductiveness, making them happier, and, of course, more beautiful. This underlying desire has endured through the long list of designers that have succeeded him, with a perpetually evolving “new look” that has become the underpinning of the brand.
To mark the House’s 70th anniversary, Dior has taken over the Les Arts Décoratifs Museum in Paris for a retrospective that is billed as the largest fashion exhibition to date. “Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve” (Christian Dior, Dream Couturier) features designs by the House’s founder and the six couturiers who followed in his footsteps – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and Maria Grazia Chiuri – spread over 3 000 square meters with an elaborate set design by interior architect Nathalie Crinière.
Crinière, who worked alongside curators Florence Müller, the Avenir Foundation curator of textile art and fashion at Denver Art Museum, and Olivier Gabet, museum director at Les Arts Décoratifs, presents themes in successive settings that evoke an art gallery, an atelier, a street, a boudoir, journeys, and a fabulous garden. “Nathalie has managed to construct an exhibition possessing rhythm, that’s sometimes calm, sometimes soaring, because an exhibition is, above all, an experience,” says Gabet.
The exhibition pays homage to the House’s stylistic vocabulary, while drawing on the beauty of the Arts Décoratifs building itself. This is particularly evident in the museum’s Grand Nave, which has been transformed into a ballroom inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles. A selection of Dior’s most spectacular gowns is showcased under the 15 meter high arched ceiling, and includes those worn by Princess Grace of Monaco, Princess Diana, and Charlize Theron.
The exhibition features more than 300 haute couture gowns, designed between 1947 and the present day, displayed alongside atelier toiles and fashion photographs, as well as hundreds of sketches, illustrations, letters, and campaigns. Dior was the first designer to recognize the economic relevance of branching out into perfume and luxury accessories and a vast collection of bags, shoes, jewelry, hats, and perfume bottles complement the exhibition. Additionally, a selection of paintings, furniture, and objets d’art, sourced from museums around the world, serve to record Dior’s sources of inspiration.
The bar suit from the debut collection is arguably Dior’s most iconic silhouette. Epitomizing the New Look, with its voluminous skirt, tiny waist, and exaggerated bust line, it cemented the image of the chic 1950s Parisian woman in the collective consciousness. “We can speak of the New Look as a revolution,” says Muller. “Never has a collection managed to erase, overnight, everything that came before or to impose a new aesthetic, a new structure and line. I see no other example in the history of fashion. It was radical, a total game changer.”
It remains a key shape that continues to run throughout Dior catwalk collections. In this exhibition, the bar suit is presented with a new perspective. Spanning across several decades, one wall displays garments inspired by the design, including creations by Balenciaga, Lanvin, Balmain, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, and Comme des Garçons.
Dior was a lifelong art lover, who, prior to working as a couturier, ran an art gallery, collected art nouveau, and was an aficionado of 18th century interior design. The link between art and Dior’s work is diligently chronicled in the exhibition. Gabet spent months selecting works by past and contemporary artists in order to create a dialogue between Dior’s creations and the sculptures and paintings. “It’s important to remember that Christian Dior knew and visited this museum. We wanted his spirit to be present. It was, therefore, necessary to be especially accurate in telling his story,” says Gabet. “These creations are the product of someone who is highly cultivated, with a deep knowledge of art history.”
Dior’s sources of inspiration and artistic references, such as the drawings of his friend Emilio Terry, a talented 20th century architect, are scattered throughout. “Le Printemps” by Romaine Brooks, which depicts a woman in a black floral dressing gown, hangs in the Garden room.
There is also the huge portrait of Lady Alston by Thomas Gainsborough, which leaves the Louvre Museum for the first time and is displayed in the Great Nave.
At times, the dialogue is more direct. In the second room of the exhibition, Dior’s previous career in art is marked with artists whose works he displayed in his gallery, including Leonor Fini and Salvador Dalí. An additional room focuses on works of art that have inspired the House’s various creative directors, such as a Sterling Ruby painting positioned opposite a dress by Raf Simons.
The exhibition is dazzling, if at times overwhelming. It not only pays tribute to Dior’s legacy but also offers a glimpse into the life of the man behind the legendary and prolific career. In the first room, which shares biographical information on the designer, there is an archived letter he wrote to a friend, in which Dior shares his apprehension before the opening of the House. “It’s a very touching admission,” says Müller. “At that point, he couldn’t guess at the phenomenal success he was about to have.”