Inside the Exhibition Celebrating 70 Years of Dior
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams has opened in Paris
It was known as the "New Look," a new style for a new woman - but mostly for a new France. On February 12, 1947, less than two years after the bitter end of World War II, a largely unknown 42-year-old couturier debuted his first collection under his own name. In the past, Christian Dior had only ever known meager success, but on that day, in the perfumed salons of his studio on Paris's Avenue Montaigne, he would make history.
The designs he presented in that inaugural show were significant in and of themselves: after years of war and occupation - when, to say the least, utility had supplanted beauty as the metric that mattered - here, enfin, were whimsical designs that celebrated decadence and sensuality, harking back to the glory days of the Belle Époque and the Russian ballet.
Regardless of the clothes, however, what happened then was a crucial moment in the reimagination and reconstruction of French culture after the utter devastation of World War II. Christian Dior was a fashion designer, but he was also among the principal architects of France's postwar ascendancy, who guided its transition from misery to majesty.
This, in any case, is the argument presented in Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, which opened this week at Paris's Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the largest-ever retrospective of the designer and the legendary couture house he founded in the late 1940s.
On one level, the exhibition is a sprawling homage to Dior's creations - those imagined by the designer himself in the 1940s and 1950s as well as by the various luminaries who took over the house after his death in 1957: first, his apprentice Yves Saint Laurent, followed in more recent decades by the likes of Gianfranco Ferré and Raf Simons.
But on another, the monumental show is not so much about fashion as it is the redefinition of a country and a culture through fashion.
"[Christian Dior] wasn't a revolutionary," says Florence Muller, one of the show's curators and a prominent fashion historian. "He was a reactionary, who reinvented national pride after a terrible moment."
France was still a grim place in February 1947: Much of the country that had been reduced to rubble had yet to be rebuilt, the national economy was still depressed, and many people would continue surviving on rations until 1949. The glamour and the intellectual activity that had characterized Parisian life in the heady prewar days of the 1920s and the early 1930s had all but vanished, with New York gradually becoming seen as the new cultural capital of the Western world.
Enter the "New Look," the name given to Dior's inaugural collection by Carmel Snow, then the editor of Harper's Bazaar.
In his autobiography, Dior would later describe his project this way: "In December 1946, as a result of the war and uniforms, women still looked and dressed like Amazons," he wrote. "But I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and hand-spun waists above enormous spreading skirts."
The essential idea, fashion historians say, was to reclaim a sense of fantasy. "What he did was create a space of beauty," says Laurence Benaïm, the author of several acclaimed books on Dior and his legacy. "He reinvented the taste of seduction. For me, it's Christian Dior first, with his magic wand. He created a world."
At the center of that world was the iconic "Bar suit," named after the bar of the Hotel Plaza Athénée, a stone's throw from Dior's headquarters on the Avenue Montaigne. Then as now, it was among the city's more fashionable watering holes.
With a white jacket made of shantung - a natural silk that shows the occasional impurity - the suit also included a black skirt that fell below the knee, made of pleated wool. The reason the Bar suit became such a powerful symbol, Muller says, is that, through its tight waists and stark contrasts, it was the exact opposite of the monochrome and masculine style in favor at the time.
"It's very rare in the world of fashion for there to be a shock so profound and so lasting," Muller said.
Of course, not everyone loved this design - or the idealized image of femininity that came with it. When Dior came to Chicago to promote the "New Look" later in 1947, a number of American women were there to greet him with the following sign: "Mr. Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor!"
The Bar suit has since evolved, and the most recent iteration - by Dior's new creative director, Maria Grazia Chiruri - features a white T-shirt that reads: "We Should All Be Feminists," a direct reference to the oft-quoted essay by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. It, too, is on display in the exhibition.
Benaïm and Muller make the same argument: There would be no Paris today without Christian Dior. "He re-established Paris," says Muller, "as a city that could arbitrate taste and elegance."
- The Washington Post
- Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams is at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris until January 7, 2018.