THE EMPIRE LINEA
A new exhibition commemorates a milestone for the house of Christian Dior, the saviour of haute couture, and its connection to Australia.
new exhibition commemorates a milestone for the house of Christian Dior, the saviour of haute couture, and its connection to Australia.
“(Australia is) a young country relatively unscathed by war, something that made the land the perfect place to showcase my designs” – Christian Dior, 1948.
When Paris-based models travelled to Australia to exclusively model Christian Dior’s couture collection in 1957, there was one rule for the seven women with the tiny waists and perfectly coiffed French chignons: no sunbathing.
“Although I visited Bondi Beach, we certainly had to be very careful not get a suntan, because it would not go with the clothes,” recalls Svetlana Lloyd of the historic Australian tour.
A former ballerina, Ms Lloyd was one of seven models – then known as mannequins – who paraded the 83-piece collection in David Jones’s Sydney and Melbourne stores. It was an extraordinary coup for the Australian department store, albeit one marked with extra poignancy: Monsieur Dior had died suddenly just a month before the Sydney event took place. Remarkably, however, it was not the first time Christian Dior had been presented in Australia; nine years earlier, just a year after the founder had created his eponymous house, 50 Dior dresses had been shipped to our shores and modelled by local mannequins whose body shapes replicated the couture models with the infamous 20-inch waists in Paris. It was the first time an entire Christian Dior collection had been shown outside Paris.
“Tiny waists and whirlaway skirts cause a sensation,” ran a local headline of the show. These proportions had become synonymous with Christian Dior’s designs, most famously represented by the Bar suit, which debuted in the iconic New Look collection in 1947 – a tiny waist cinched atop a voluminous skirt with irregular hemline, and sheath dresses accentuating the curves of a woman’s hips. It revolutionised the post-World War II fashion industry, and in turn the way women viewed fashion.
It is this remarkable history and the house’s 70th anniversary that are being celebrated with The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture, a groundbreaking exhibition that opens at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) this month. On display are more than 140 garments created by Christian Dior Couture, including outfits from every decade of the history of the house and every creative director, including Monsieur Dior himself.
“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body,” the founder wrote in his 1957 autobiography Dior by Dior. It was from this idea of beauty, born
in his childhood home by the sea in Normandy surrounded by gardens, that Monsieur Dior’s vision of forming a couture house, and in turn creating an empire brand, was formed. It was to be an empire, he dreamt, that used fashion to “sell the dream” of a range of perfumes, luxury goods and cosmetics. And so, on February 21, 1947, when he presented his debut collection at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, the house of Dior was officially born. Seven decades and seven head designers later, it remains one of the most iconic fashion brands, turning over a reported $56 billion in revenue last year, still from 30 Avenue Montaigne, which is now the headquarters of the house of Dior.
Monsieur Dior once said his dream was simply “to make women happier and more beautiful”. And this included women from all walks of life: royalty, Hollywood, society. Princess Margaret, who was Monsieur Dior’s special guest at the Blenheim Palace show in 1954 (the same aristocratic venue hosted Dior again in 1958 and for its resort ’17 presentation last year) famously wore a romantic white Christian Dior couture ball gown for her 21st birthday party, describing it as “my favourite dress of all”. In the decades since, the house has remained a favourite among the rich and famous, from Diana, Princess of Wales, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor to the current faces of the brand – Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna and Bella Hadid – and the high-society couture clientele who fly to Paris from around the globe every season for personal fitting sessions. These are women who can afford to pay up to $100,000 for a custom gown that can take more than 150 hours to create in the Christian Dior atelier by the extraordinary team of white-lab-coated seamstresses, embroiderers and tailors. Women whose body shapes – of all different sizes and fits – are recreated in scores of personalised dressmaker’s dummies that line the walls of the couture atelier in the light-filled rooftop of the Avenue Montaigne headquarters.
Monsieur Dior was “always extremely courteous”, recalls Svetlana Lloyd. “He cared very much for his ladies, as he called us; he didn’t like us to be too tired. In fact, during the frantic two weeks of a new collection being shown, he would make sure a second lot of 15 mannequins was hired to do the other showings. They didn’t have to be anything to look at, so long as they [could] get into the clothes, and could just stand there.
“[Monsieur Dior] was very soft-spoken. He had a high-pitched but very soft voice. When I knew him, he was a diabetic, and he was a bit portly. He had problems with not being allowed to eat chocolates, which he loved! He was extremely courteous, and thoughtful, and pleasant, and treated us with immense respect.”
The famed couturier would use a stick to point to the gowns during fittings so as not to touch the garment, she recalls. “He was so deferential, in that he didn’t want to be putting his hand on his mannequin’s shoulder or sleeve, he didn’t want to handle with his hands; he was possibly thinking about the fabric, he didn’t want to touch the fabric, in case one could leave a mark or something. It was also practical that if he pointed with a stick, everybody else would be able to see what he was talking about.”
During those rehearsals the hats, gloves, jewellery, sometimes even an umbrella, would be selected, however, the rest of the styling was already complete: the mannequins wore standard issue beige or flesh-coloured satin shoes for evening and black suede for daytime, would do their own make-up, and were given chits to go to the hairdresser every week. “But there was only one style permitted,” adds Ms Lloyd: “the French chignon.”
As for their walk, Lloyd says, the women were given no guidance: “When I asked the matron in charge of outfits and mannequins, when I asked her how, she said: ‘You just walk.’” She says the famous couture glide – where mannequins seemingly floated through the salon with no hip movement – was completely different to today’s model walk. “The position of the body is totally different,” she says. “Now they have a different sort of walk, much more determined … and it’s the prevailing taste. I happen to not particularly like it, but I wouldn’t, would I? There’s 60 years between us!” Continued on page 168
A John Galliano-designed couture gown from spring/summer ’09.
An Yves Saint Laurent-designed couture gown from autumn/winter ’59/’60.