It’s 70 years since Dior shook the fash­ion world

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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.


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.


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.

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