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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Fantasy Football - By Jus­tine Pi­cardie

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

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

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

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

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