WHEN PARIS CAME TO BLENHEIM
In the 1950s Dior held two groundbreaking fashion shows at Blenheim Palace, in front of luminaries including Princess Margaret. Now, the couture house is returning to the stately home, for an event that promises to be just as beautiful as the ones that ca
When Dior brings its much anticipated cruise collection to Blenheim Palace next week, it will be returning to the historic scene of two previous shows, staged there in 1954 and 1958.
Both were organised in aid of the Red Cross by Blenheim’s chatelaine, the Duchess of Marlborough, with Princess Margaret the guest of honour at this, the stateliest of homes, a vast English baroque mansion that was the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
The Princess was already a devotee of Christian Dior; indeed, after the launch of his couture house in February 1947 with the iconic New Look, a private viewing was held for the Royal family later that year, at the French embassy in London. The audience included the Queen (subsequently the Queen Mother), along with her younger daughter, Princess Margaret, who ordered a number of Dior outfts. These included the romantic white ballgown that she wore for her 21st birthday in 1951 – immortalised in Cecil Beaton’s famous portrait of the Princess – and which she later described as ‘my favourite dress of all’. Dior returned the compliment, observing that Princess Margaret was ‘a real fairy-tale princess, delicate, graceful, exquisite’. And he was
Princess Margaret described the romantic white Christian Dior ballgown that she wore for her 21st birthday as ‘my favourite dress of all’
equally admiring of her mother: ‘I was instantly struck by her elegance, which I had been quite unprepared for; that, and the atmosphere of graciousness which she radiates. The mauve dress and draped hat which she wore would have been quite inconceivable on anyone else – as it was, on her they looked wonderful, and I felt nothing else would have shown her to such advantage.’
In fact, for all that Dior was hailed as the creator of quintessential French style, he was also an Anglophile, and had been so ever since he first visited London as a young man in the 1920s. ‘I adore the English,’ he wrote in his memoir, ‘dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well, but also in those fowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.’ It was then that he became fluent in English, and developed a taste for the local food. ‘I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture, I even love English cooking!’ he declared. ‘I dote on Yorkshire pudding, mince pies, stuffed chicken, and above all I worship the English breakfast of tea, porridge, eggs and bacon.’
And so it was that Dior came to England in November 1954, with 13 models and 100 couture pieces, including ‘la robe Blenheim’, a pale rose-pink satin evening gown embroidered with myriad pearls and sequins. Sixteen hundred guests had paid fve guineas each to watch the show (among them my husband’s mother, Lady Irene Astor, herself a stylish Dior client, whose face can be seen peeking out from just behind Princess Margaret in several photographs of the proceedings).
According to The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent, ‘Paris came to Blenheim by air and rail with… a cloud of Dior perfume. Oxfordshire
came by car, through rural scenes heavy with the scent of wood smoke and autumn leaves. The two met in the halls of the first stately home to stage a dress show.’ The Telegraph also reported on Princess Margaret’s outfit: ‘a black velvet afternoon dress with fitted waist and full skirt, a mink cape, and a tiny black hat encircled with white fur.’
But it took the ever-perceptive Monsieur Dior to note the historic significance of the occasion; for, as he observed, Blenheim Palace ‘had been built for the Duke of Marlborough, by Queen Anne, in recognition of his great victories over the French. When I saw the two fags of France and England fluttering together in the afternoon wind over the palace, I silently asked Marlborough’s pardon for having set up the triumphant standard of French fashion in such a place. At any moment I expected his indignant ghost to join the line of mannequins.’
In the event, no such ghost appeared, and the show was hailed as a triumph, raising much- needed funds (more than £9,000) for the Red Cross, and bringing dazzling Parisian glamour to wintry England, where post-war austerity measures and rationing had only just come to an end. Tragically, a little less than three years later, in October 1957, Dior died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 52. His brilliant young assistant, Yves Saint Laurent, took on the role as head designer; and in November 1958 the 22year-old boy wonder presented Dior’s autumn/ winter collection at Blenheim Palace, again in aid of the Red Cross, at the invitation of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Princess Margaret returned as the guest of honour, as before sitting in the centre of the front row in the long library, serene in a green silk dress, feathered hat and sables. There she watched the parade of 16 models wearing 136 garments – including Saint Laurent’s own tribute to the surroundings, a reimagining of the Blenheim evening gown. (Also present in the audience were a great many foreign diplomats, from Belgium to Burma, Laos to Luxembourg, Peru to Panama)
What, then, might we expect from the third Dior show at Blenheim Palace? A royal guest of honour? A phalanx of ambassadors? A 21st-century version of a Blenheim dress? The French fag fluttering with the Union Jack, over the great palace, in a show of solidarity and friendship? I know not, but when the magnifcent parade begins, I will ofer up a silent prayer of thanks to that quiet genius of French fashion, the unforgettable, inimitable Christian Dior.
In 1958 Yves Saint Laurent, the 22-year-old boy wonder, presented Dior’s autumn/winter collection at Blenheim
Clockwise from top A 21-year-old Princess Margaret in Christian Dior, 1951; the Duchess of Marlborough and Dior with the Princess (just visible behind her is Lady Irene Astor), 1954; Red Cross nurses formed a guard of honour for the Princess
Left A model walks in front of Red Cross nurses in the frst Christian Dior show to be held at Blenheim Palace, in 1954. Above More looks from the autumn/winter 1954 collection
Top Yves Saint Laurent is presented to Princess Margaret, on the occasion of showing his frst collection for Dior, at Blenheim in 1958; the catwalk show, 1954. Right Arrival at Blenheim, 1954; Saint Laurent surrounded at a press conference, 1958