LONDON—The rich and powerful have long delighted in wearing Dior. At the Victoria and Albert Museum's blockbuster exhibition, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, you can see the dresses worn by Princess Margaret, ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, and several more recent designs shown off on the red carpet by actresses including Jennifer Lawrence.
“Christian Dior only designed for his ‘maison’ for ten years (owing to his sudden death in 1957),” said Oriole Cullen, the curator of the V&A’s biggest fashion exhibition since its blockbuster Alexander McQueen show, Savage Beauty, in 2015.
“Still, his name is known all over the world, speaking to the legacy of the six talented designers that have carried the name forward,” she added, referring to the half-dozen artistic directors that have succeeded Dior, including Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Raf Simons, Gianfranco Ferre, and, most strikingly, John Galliano, who was fired from Dior in 2011, after being caught on film shouting “I love Hitler,” and anti-Semitic slurs. (He is now creative director of Maison Margiela.)
The giant exhibition, housed in the London institution’s new wing, includes over 500 objects, and 200 rare couture garments.
Born in 1905 to a wealthy French family in the Normandy coastal town of Granville, which still boasts a museum in his name, Dior’s fascination with all things anglophone opens the exhibition with the section, Dior in Britain. (The exhibition is based on “Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve,” shown at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. It has been re-imagined for the V&A, and is the most comprehensive Dior show ever in the U.K. The Paris exhibition didn’t include the British focus.)
Dior’s first British show, staged at the fancy Savoy Hotel in 1950, raised funds to open England’s leading, dedicated fashion gallery, the Museum of Costume in Bath. (It has since become the Fashion Museum, Bath.)
Included in the exhibition is a dress Dior designed in 1951 for Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday, alongside creations for other British aristocrats who loved Dior’s most famous invention, the New Look, which he launched in Paris before hitting Britain.
The New Look revolutionized, with its cinched waist and full skirt, the frumpy, post-WWII designs that had dominated women’s fashions. In Britain, he staged shows in period homes, including Blenheim Palace.
Dior was a bit of a history buff, as we learn in another section on Historicism. It shows how Dior, and the other artistic directors, reworked French, and other histories, for the house’s designs. The tight waists of the Belle Époque and sumptuous materials and silks favored in the 18th century have inspired some of the house’s more flamboyant designs.
Another design featured here is a dress from the Autumn/Winter 2018 collection, designed by current artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri which features a pattern inspired by an 18th century French toile de jouy pattern.
In the first few sections of the show, designs from all six artistic directors, and Dior himself, are shown side by side, revealing how each reinterpreted the themes that inspired Dior whilst sticking to house codes.
One gorgeous room is dedicated to Gardens. Each of Dior’s artistic directors reworked Dior’s love of flowers or gardens into the collections, from a stunning John Galliano piece resembling a vivid blue tulip, created in 2010, to an oddly shaped, but richly embroidered, Raf Simons design from 2013 that looks like a flower head.
Dior learned to love gardening with his mother Madeleine, and often designed his pieces in gardens. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s floral interpretations have included a design featuring hand-dyed silk petals, held between layers of tulle, like pressed flowers.
A section entitled Travels looks at how the house’s artistic directors have drawn upon the idea of travel which was another great inspiration for Dior.
Countries featured include Mexico, Japan, and Egypt. Most striking in this section are a couple of Galliano designs. One influenced by Egypt is based on a pharaoh look: a golden snake-like, tight-fitting long dress, resembling a bangle, worn with a matching pharaoh head-piece, designed by British milliner Stephen Jones, with whom Galliano often collaborated. (It is Galliano's design genius that consistently steals the show.)
Another section, the largest stand-alone section of the exhibition, is dedicated to ballgowns. A Dior quote from 1954, included on a placard reads: “A ball gown is a dream, and it must make you a dream.”
Some of the most stunning ballroom pieces include John Galliano’s Silvery Water Harlequin dress from Spring/Summer 1998, and Dior’s silk tulle and sequined Junon couture dress from Autumn/Winter 1949. Gianfranco Ferre’s Cantharis Dress, from the Haute Couture Spring/Summer 1995 collection, resembles a revealing, hooped full-length undergarment worn as a dress.
A fun section of the exhibition is the Diorama hallway which showcases accessories that Dior dreamed up to create a complete look, like bright pink shoes and gloves, or a cabinet of beautiful red headpieces and sassy stiletto shoes. This exhibit, like Dior's ballgowns, makes the visitor dream.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is at the V&A, London, February 2—July 14, 2019.