From Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday dress to Jennifer Lawrence’s red-carpet couture, curator Oriole Cullen gives Vogue an exclusive preview of what to expect from Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams.
In February 2019, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum will open the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever staged in the UK on the house of Dior. Spanning 1947 to the present day, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will trace the history and impact of the couturier, and the six artistic directors who have succeeded him at his namesake brand, in what will be the museum’s biggest fashion exhibition since Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty in 2015.
The V&A team, led by fashion and textiles curator Oriole Cullen and set designer Nathalie Crinière, will reimagine the major exhibition Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, organized by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, for the south-west London gallery space. “We have about 50% new content and it is all haute couture,” Cullen tells Vogue. “It’s quite phenomenal to think that every single garment in the show is handmade. Throughout the 70 years of the house, we see the high points and the amazing imagination of the designers at the helm. The garments themselves speak volumes, so this is very much a show that focuses on the fashion.”
Within the 11 sections, which include “The New Look” (a focus on Dior’s famed Bar suit) and “The Dior Line” (the designer’s 10 defining looks from his 1947 and 1957 tenure at the house), will sit a new installation exploring the designer’s fascination with Britain. “It’s a story that hasn’t really been told before,” Cullen says of her extensive research into what the 21-year-old man from Normandy connected with upon his first visit to the country to perfect his English. “It was a very formative moment, and something he really associates with freedom and falling in love. From the grandeur of the great houses and gardens and British-designed ocean liners to the food he ate, which, most found less than appealing in the 50s, the culture became an endless pool of inspiration for him. “And he loved British women – the way they wore their tweeds as well as their ballgowns,” adds Cullen.
Princess Margaret, who paid his boutique a visit during her first European holiday in 1949, was one such woman Dior was “delighted” to count as a client. “He was very proud of the secret shows he staged for the royal family,” Cullen explains. After he had shown his first collection at The Savoy in 1950, he presented the looks to the Queen, Princess Margaret, Princess Marina and Princess Olga of Greece at the French embassy. “The models were told they were going there for lunch!,” Cullen laughs of the covert operation. Accordingly, a highlight of the exhibition will be the Dior dress Margaret wore for her 21st birthday celebrations on loan from the Museum of London.
Dior’s historical approach to fashion – he said of Britain, “I love this country because the past lies all around” – is often linked with the sober figure he presented in later life. But, Cullen advises, one of the most striking personal possessions on display will be a portrait of Dior from the 1920s. “He’s portrayed as a young, colorful figure, not the grey suited one that comes to mind,” she says. Another piece that piqued the interest of the curator was Dior’s lucky star – an old metal token the designer found outside the British embassy in Paris. “He spotted it just when he was being approached to set up his own house, saw it as a sign and retained it as a lucky charm throughout his life,” notes Cullen. “He was always very superstitious – he consulted a medium and believed in signs and symbols. What’s lovely, though, is that the star has survived and it’s something that his successors have referenced.”
Each successive artistic director – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri – and the sensibilities each has brought to the house are given equal weight within the exhibition, as well as the beauty division that has thrived under each helmsman. “Dior was always very interested in scent, it’s an important part of his story,” Cullen says of how the two have been interlinked since 1947, thanks to his childhood friend Serge Heftler-Louiche and his sister, Catherine, who worked closely on the perfume business with him.
Though the curation of 500 objects and transformation of the Sainsbury Gallery into the Dior world has been quick in relation to the V&A’s usual time frame, the museum laid the foundations of Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams long ago. “We’ve worked closely with the house and Soizic Pfaff, the wonderful archivist there, since the 60s, so they were happy for the Paris exhibition to come to us,” Cullen surmises. “The V&A audience has a real hunger for fashion, so we thought it would be great to show the amazing spectacle through our own lens.”
The exhibition “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” runs from February 2 – July 14, 2019 in the V&A’s Sainsbury Gallery. Tickets will go on sale in fall 2018.
This article first appeared on Vogue.co.uk