It’s 70 years since Dior shook the fashion world
Picture yourself strolling down a Parisian lane. At the end, behind glass, is a mannequin dressed in a nipped-in cream jacket, black pleated skirt and a straw hat shaped like an upturned bowl.
Those with a passion for fashion might recognise it, but most may not realise they’re looking at one of the most famous and important pieces of fashion of the 20th century.
These deceptively understated pieces form an outfit known as “Bar”, an “afternoon ensemble” from designer Christian Dior’s spring/summer 1947 collection – his very first.
At 10.30am on February 12, 1947, Dior, aged 42, presented his debut collection at 30 Avenue Montaigne, Paris. Public anticipation had been intense, with invites to the event highly coveted – some even sold on the black market.
At the end of the show, in response to the unique shapes, unexpected lengths and dramatically different design details, Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, was said to have exclaimed: “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have such a new look!” And so a new movement in fashion was born, changing the face of the industry and shaping it right up to today, 70 years on.
Take in the impeccable attention to detail, the signature hourglass waist and curved forms of the silk shantung “morning coat”, the then-revolutionary pleats of the skirt that lent it an elegant movement never before seen in a garment.
Then leave the lane and enter a room full of original Dior designs, impeccably crafted and the height of sophistication. Through that room and you’ll find a grand sweeping staircase, which looks a lot like the one at 30 Avenue Montaigne and leads you up to even more astounding Dior pieces from across the decades.
From this elegant landing, you can look out across yet another long room filled with gorgeously dressed mannequins. Directly below you are a duo of artisans from the Christian Dior Couture atelier, busily working on the most intricate of pieces, demonstrating the extraordinary technical skills required in such a position.
There’s a cavernous, carefully lit space tucked away to the side, brimming with daring and decadent hats, shoes and perfume bottles, and a grand ballroom of a space where spectacular gowns spin, sparkle and astound. You’re not in Paris, but you can pretend to be. You’re actually in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, the NGV, at an exhibition celebrating 70 years of Dior, which has taken more than three and a half years to come together.
“The NGV acquired its first Christian Dior work [a stunning hat from 1968] in 1972,” says Katie Somerville, senior curator of fashion and textiles at the gallery, “and we’ve been building our collection ever since.”
Somerville says there has long been a desire to curate a major exhibition at the NGV that focused on the House of Dior, and with its 70th anniversary on the horizon, an “ambitious proposal” was developed, presented and then confirmed in early 2014.
“We’ve been working towards [the exhibition] for the last three and half years,” she says.
“Much of the time was dedicated to securing the wonderful loans from 13 private and public collections around the world, developing a compelling exhibition design and writing and producing the substantial book that accompanies the exhibition.
“We had a team of specialist staff from Paris, Kyoto, New York, London and Melbourne working to prepare the 140 dressed mannequins for the exhibition.
“We worked for a month using 250 pairs of tights, 700 pairs of tailor’s padding and 50 metres of tulle to
At 10.30am on February 12, 1947, Dior, aged 42, presented his debut collection. Public anticipation had been intense.
skilfully pad and sculpt every mannequin into the correct shape before dressing each garment.”
The result is an extraordinary showcase – covering the breadth of the House of Dior’s inimitable approach to style – which not only provides luscious sartorial eye candy but also traces fashion and history across the past 70 years.
There are nearly 150 garments to gaze upon, including some very rare early works (which Somerville says were the most challenging to source) as well as the masterpiece “La Cigale” from Dior’s 1952 line, which she describes as a “real coup”.
“[‘La Cigale’] is a sculptural masterpiece and I was truly delighted when the Met in New York confirmed that it could travel to Melbourne,” says Somerville.
“Similarly the dazzling ‘Mexique’ from autumn/winter 1951-52, from the collection of Les Arts Decoratifs, Paris was a very welcome addition. It’s an exemplary work in multiple layers of exquisitely embroidered tulle from Christian Dior’s own favourite collection.”
The final, last-minute addition to the exhibition is also one that’s likely to pull the crowds – supermodel Miranda Kerr’s wedding gown from her wedding to Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel in May.
Inspired by Grace Kelly’s wedding dress and designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, the long-sleeved gown is made of mikado silk, organza and taffeta and finished with hand-sewn lily of the valley applique. Kerr’s pearl encrusted headpiece, created by Dior milliner Stephen Jones, accompanies the dress.
There are other “famous” pieces too, dresses worn by Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence, Naomi Watts and Marion Cotillard.
Possibly the most significant of these, says Somerville, is “Absinthe”, a long sheath dinner dress designed by John Galliano for his debut spring summer 1997 collection.
“This dress was worn by Nicole Kidman to the Oscars that year and was considered a ground-breaking moment for red carpet fashion.”
There’s even a New Zealand connection – a highimpact gown with a beaded tribal-style bodice and tiered swathes of fiery silk tulle and organza from John Galliano’s first collection at Dior for spring/summer 1997. Titled “Kamata”, it was famously worn by New Zealand model Kylie Bax for a 1997 French Vogue photo shoot.
THE DIOR EFFECT
It’s not well known that Christian Dior only had a decade at the helm of his eponymously named fashion house before he died of a heart attack in 1957, aged just 52.
So why have his name, his designs and his legacy lived on?
“Christian Dior was an extraordinary designer, entrepreneur and visionary who made a lasting impact on mid-20th century fashion and culture,” says Somerville. “Founding his couture house at age 41 in December 1946, and presenting his first collection in February 1947, Dior reinvigorated an ailing post-war French fashion industry.”
Somerville says Dior’s New Look transformed how women dressed, “reasserting femininity and restoring luxury, and introduced a silhouette comprising rounded shoulders, exaggerated padded hips and full skirts made with an abundance of fabric”. It is still one of the most recognisable styles in the history of fashion.
“With every collection, Christian Dior introduced a new line, silhouette and series of themes that established a repertoire of design codes now synonymous with the House of Dior.
“Dior was an exceptionally skilled designer who knew how to read the mood of the times and was also a very astute businessman who strove to ensure that his designs reached as many women as possible globally.
“From its establishment, the vision for the House of Dior encompassed all aspects of what it meant to be fashionably well-dressed. This extended beyond skirts, suits and evening attire to include a ‘top to toe’ approach to dressing that included hosiery, hats, shoes, bags, makeup and fragrance.
“Christian Dior pioneered the idea of a fashion house offering a whole look. This has now become a standard practice for many contemporary fashion houses.”
Each subsequent head designer at Dior – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Bill Gaytten, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri – has brought their own interpretation of Christian Dior’s original design codes, such as the New Look, flowers and the 18th century (a period he
“Christian Dior pioneered the idea of a fashion house offering a whole look. This has now become a standard practice.”
was enamoured with), interpreting and reinventing them in their own ways.
THE ANTIPODEAN CONNECTION
In March 1947, Mr AS McMeechan and Ms Molly Murray, “fashion experts” at David Jones department store, flew to Paris on a seven-week buying trip.
Their purchases included several Dior outfits, which became the very first from the French fashion house to be shown in Australia.
The same year, Mary Horden, fashion editor at the Australian Women’s Weekly, also secured Dior looks (including the famous “Bar” suit) for the magazine’s annual French fashion parades held in Melbourne and Sydney.
By 1948, Dior was the biggest name in fashion, and David Jones’ announcement that it would be exhibiting the first collection of original Dior fashion to be shown outside Paris was met with near hysteria Down Under.
The 50-piece range of day, cocktail and eveningwear, modelled by 12 Australian mannequins (as models were then known), launched on July 31 – ahead of both New York and London – to great fanfare.
When Dior died unexpectedly in 1957, there were already plans in place to bring a second major couture collection to Australia, and so the event still went ahead, with 83 outfits from Dior’s final collection, “Fuseau” (Spindle), travelling from Paris along with seven of Dior’s house mannequins, including Svetlana Lloyd.
Born in Egypt to Russian parents, Lloyd became one of Dior’s 15 house mannequins after walking the streets of Paris looking for work as a shop assistant. The former ballerina was instead whisked upstairs, popped into a dress and presented to the man himself. She started the next day.
Sixty years after her first visit to Australia, Lloyd returned to celebrate the opening of the NGV Dior exhibition. The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture runs until November 7, 2017, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Josie Steenhart travelled to Melbourne with Qantas.
It took a team of specialist staff a month – and 250 pairs of tights – to dress the 140 mannequins featured in NGV’s Dior exhibition.
From day dresses to eveningwear, Dior’s focus on femininity and luxury breathed new life into the French fashion industry, which was ailing after the ravages of World War II.
French artist Christian Bérard’s illustration of the “Bar” afternoon ensemble 1947.
Dior mannequins arriving in Australia for the presentation of Christian Dior’s last collection – autumn/winter 1957 – in November 1957.