Inside Christian Dior's Designer of Dreams Exhibition
In the grand Sainsbury Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is the entry to the Christian Dior exhibit, there is a quote by the designer written on a wall: “There is no other country in the world, besides my own, whose way of life I like so much. I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture. I even love English cooking.”
Dior’s fascination with British culture enabled a fresh take on the House of Dior’s rich history with this much-awaited exhibition. Originally based on the 2015 Dior exhibit “Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams presents an entirely new exhibition dedicated to Dior’s immense love for all things British.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams Museum ran for seven months, from February to September 2019. After tickets were sold out within the first three weeks and the exhibit was extended by a further seven weeks, the show was declared the most-visited exhibition in the history of the V&A with about half a million people walking through the Sainsbury Room doors. This comes as no surprise, after seeing the stunning displays, which featured over 500 Dior pieces showcasing the House of Dior’s extensive history over seven decades, from 1947 to the present day. The exhibit is also known to be the largest undertaken by the House of Dior.
Establishing the House of Dior
Christian Dior was born to a wealthy family in 1905 in Granville, France. The designer was deeply interested in fine arts and architecture, however, his parents were quite traditional and hoped for him to become a diplomat.
With the assistance of his parents, Dior opened an art gallery in 1928 together with businessman Jacques Bonjean, on one condition—that the Dior family name not be mentioned in the title of the business. In 1931, his father unexpectedly lost his fortune due to failed investments. Dior turned to fashion, working under well-known designers such as Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong.
After working in the industry for several years, he opened the Dior couture house at 30 Avenue Montaigne, Paris in 1946, with three ateliers and a staff of 85 people. The House of Dior is still located there to this day. Dior designed over 150 looks within 22 collections before his death in 1957.
The New Look
His first collection entitled Corolle and En 8 was later nicknamed by the public as The New Look because of its innovative and groundbreaking style. After World War II, a masculine and boxy silhouette had taken over the fashion world as a response to the need for resourcefulness and strict rationing. Europe had suffered immensely from the war, hence fashion was seemingly demoted to utilitarian use.
Dior strayed away from this and reinvented a feminine and full-skirted silhouette, focusing on the woman’s tiny waist, and patterning skirts after inverted flowers or corolla, which inspired the name of his first collection. His second type of silhouette featured a hip-hugging pencil skirt with the same nipped-in waist as the Corolle collection. The New Look eventually changed the face of European fashion.
The exhibition features the iconic Bar Suit, which became the symbol of the New Look with its shaped jacket and full skirt. Christian Dior later told British reporter Anne Edwards in 1947, "I am giving women the dresses they want... They're fed up with war restrictions. My full skirts are a release." This was only the beginning with the New Look silhouette making its way into many of Dior’s future designs.
Princess Margaret’s 21st Birthday Ball Gown
One of the highlights of the exhibition is the famed dress of King George VI’s second daughter, Princess Margaret. This jaw-dropping gown was worn by the princess in 1951 for her 21st birthday.
The chiffon off-shoulder dress, boasting the iconic New Look silhouette was on loan from the British Museum. It was also proclaimed by Princess Margaret as her favorite dress. The display also features her birthday portrait, taken by British photographer, Cecil Beaton.
Designers for Dior
The Designers for Dior room might be the most interesting of them all, honoring all six carefully selected creative directors of the House of Dior and their homage to the founder’s unique and timeless style.
The exhibition begins with the young and bright Yves Saint Laurent, who was only 21 years old in 1957 when he became the first creative director of the House of Dior after Christian Dior had passed away.
The designers’ sections are arranged chronologically, allowing museum-goers to witness the transition of each designer’s style; from the controversial John Galliano, to the eccentric Raf Simons, to the dainty and iridescent touch of Maria Grazia Chiuri.
Dior's death left the fashion house under the helm of numerous creative directors. Each one was challenged to bring their own distinctive style to the fashion house, while still adhering to the codes of the House of Dior.
Dior in Britain
Aside from Princess Margaret, Dior famously dressed many British debutants. His first British fashion show was at the Savoy Hotel in 1950, followed by several displays at grand English country houses, often for the benefit of various charity causes.
Two years after his first fashion show in England, C.D. Models was established, featuring ready-to-wear garments sold in exclusive department stores all over the country. He collaborated with well-known English brands for accessories and fabrics, such as Ascher, Cumberland Mills, Symington’s Corsets, and Dents Gloves. Marc Bohan was hired as the first head of the House of Dior U.K., before later transferring to Dior Paris.
One of the most unique rooms of the display was the Diorama, which features various accessories that complete the Dior look. A wide array of delicate gloves, exquisite hats, elegant jewelry, and tiny perfume bottles are displayed in this section. The ethereal miniature gowns highlight the incredible craftsmanship put into each look.
Dior often partnered with various designers for shoes, jewelry, and other accessories to complete his designs. These included shoe designer Roger Vivier, crystal house Swarovski, and the fashion illustrator René Gruau.
Included in the room are various vintage magazines from over seven decades, featuring Dior designs on the front covers.
The Dior Ball
Dior once said, “The evening is a time when you escape from the realities of life.” The Dior Ball room encapsulated the idea, probably leading most visitors to dream of wearing any of the beautiful gowns.
This was the most impressive room by far, as it was filled with 70 of Dior’s most exquisite couture gowns. Some of these were worn by well-known personas such as Charlize Theron, Elle Fanning, Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence, and Lupita Nyong’o.
This particular section was a manifestation of the House of Dior’s incredible attention to detail and obsession with perfecting each design, evident through the delicate application of feathers, detailed beading, and high-quality fabrics used in all the Dior gowns. Dresses in almost every hue imaginable adorned the room. This was further highlighted by the dramatic lighting.
The exhibition finished with Maria Grazia Chiuri’s latest design for the Shanghai presentation of her Spring/Summer 2018 haute couture collection. Based on an iconic 1950s promotional fan for the House of Dior. The skirt echoes one of the legendary silhouettes of Dior’s New Look, the Corolla, or inverted flower, evidence of Dior’s lasting influence and legacy in the fashion industry.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams was an incredible showcase of Dior’s work. Not only did Dior reinvent the fashion industry of the 20th century with his inventive silhouettes and unrivaled workmanship, but he also paved the way for many other couturiers to follow suit. From his disruptive post-war designs to his refined and graceful couture gowns, his contribution to British fashion indeed defined an era.