Harper's Bazaar (UK)
THE SECRET MISS DIOR Justine Picardie uncovers the remarkable story of Christian Dior’s sister Catherine, a French Resistance agent and concentration-camp survivor
Justine Picardie reveals the little-known story of a remarkable woman: Christian Dior’s sister Catherine, the Resistance heroine and freedom fighter immortalised in the iconic perfume
On 12 February 1947, when Christian Dior launched his debut collection to worldwide acclaim, his younger sister Catherine was a quiet figure in the fashionable audience, unknown to all but his closest circle. The truth was that this shy, serious-looking 29-year-old was still recovering from the trauma of World War II. She had been a courageous member of the French Resistance who went on to suffer terribly in a German concentration camp, yet rarely spoke of what she had endured. No one – not even her brother – knew the full extent of her wartime experiences; few people in the clamorous crowd that gathered around Christian were much interested in Catherine. And in turn, the profound connection between Christian and Catherine seemed never to be openly discussed, though a clue to its significance was there from the start. For at the same time as unveiling the romantic couture show that made him famous overnight – christened ‘the New Look’ by Carmel Snow, the then editor of Harper’s Bazaar – Dior was also introducing his first perfume, named in honour of his sister. Miss Dior, a floral scent redolent of the Provençal roses adored by both Catherine and Christian, had been sprayed throughout the corridors of his headquarters at 30 Avenue Montaigne, in preparation for the show. This was, said Christian, ‘a perfume that smells of love’, and it would go on to become one of the most successful fragrances of all time.
In the decade between Christian Dior’s dazzling inauguration and his untimely death of a heart attack at the age of 52 in 1957, his brand became synonymous with the return to pre-eminence of Paris fashion and beauty, defined by his vision of graceful femininity. It appeared all the more extravagantly luxurious when seen in the context of battle-weary Paris, a city that still bore the scars of the German Occupation, as did its own fractured population. The rest of France was similarly disfigured, riven with divisions between those who had collaborated with the enemy and those who actively resisted, alongside the prevailing majority, who had done whatever it took to survive.
In the mirror held up by Christian Dior, however, France could see itself reflected anew, in a golden, caressing light. As he observed in his memoir Dior by Dior: ‘We were just emerging from a poverty-stricken, parsimonious era, obsessed with ration-books and clothes-coupons: it was only natural that my creations should take the form of a reaction against the dearth of the imagination… In December 1946, as a result of the war and uniforms, women still looked and dressed like Amazons. But I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts…’
In fact, the so-called New Look was in part a nostalgic reimagining of a gentler past, before the death and destruction wrought by two World Wars. Dior had sought inspiration in his childhood memories of la belle époque, in particular the flowing gowns and flattering corsets that had been worn by his mother, Madeleine Dior. Indeed, she may well have been the original flower woman of his imagination, given the love of gardening that she passed on to Christian and Catherine, both of whom remembered the beautiful grounds that Madeleine had created around their home in Granville, a resort on the Normandy coast. ‘A passion for flowers inherited from my mother meant that I was at my happiest among plants and flower-beds,’ he recalled. And yet it was within this garden, too, that Dior saw the origins of the tragedies that would later beset his family, and himself. ‘It stood on top of a cliff… and in the midst of a fair-sized park, whose young trees grew up, as I did, against the winds and the tides. This is no figure of speech, since the park hung right over the sea, which could be seen through the railings, and lay exposed to all the turbulence of the weather, as if in prophecy of the troubles of my own life.’
The troubles began – at least by Dior’s own account – in 1930, with a bad omen (he was deeply superstitious, and subsequently grew to rely on a clairvoyant known as Madame Delahaye). ‘In our empty house, a mirror came unhooked by itself and smashed on the floor in a thousand smithereens. Misfortune came into our hitherto happy and sheltered family immediately. My brother was struck down with an incurable nervous disease, and my mother, whom I adored, suddenly faded away and died of grief.’
Christian’s brother, Bernard, was sent to a mental hospital (where he remained until his death in 1960, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia). Soon afterwards, their father, Maurice Dior, a hitherto
prosperous industrialist with a family fortune made from fertiliser factories, lost his wealth in the wake of the Wall Street Crash. Meanwhile, Christian’s own business – as the co-owner of a modernist art gallery – went bankrupt. ‘Ruin was complete,’ declared Dior; though worse was to follow, when he fell ill with tuberculosis.
It was in the midst of these disasters that Christian Dior found himself responsible for the welfare of Catherine and their penniless father. Together, accompanied by the family’s faithful governess Marthe Lefevre, they moved to a small property in Callian, a village in the South of France, where they grew roses and jasmine. Then, as now, the local area was notable for its cultivation of these flowers for the perfume industry in nearby Grasse. At the same time, Christian taught himself to draw, selling illustrations to magazines and then to fashion houses; eventually, he was employed as a designer by a Parisian couturier, Robert Piguet. In 1936, when Catherine was 19, she came to live with her brother at Rue de Bourgogne in Paris, where he found her a job at a nearby boutique selling clothes, hats and gloves. This was a shared episode in their lives that both were to remember with great affection; a carefree era, when Christian was establishing himself as a popular talent within the fashion industry, and Catherine had her first taste of adult independence. There she remained until August 1939, when many couturiers closed shop in anticipation of the outbreak of war between France and Germany.
Catherine returned to her father’s house at Callian, while Christian joined the French army. He had previously been conscripted for traditional military service in 1927; but this time, he was sent to the heart of rural France, where he was assigned to agricultural work on local farms. ‘I quickly forgot couture,’ he subsequently wrote, ‘and developed a feeling for hard labour on the land, the cycle of the seasons, and the perpetually renewed mystery of germination…’
With the signing of the armistice with Germany in June 1940 – which Dior described simply as ‘the debacle’ – he was demobilised, and fortunate to find himself in the Unoccupied Zone, so that he could make his way back to Callian. Once there, he and Catherine decided to grow vegetables on the plot of land surrounding their home, to provide much needed food to supplement the family’s meagre wartime rations. During this period, both of them made weekly trips to the market at Cannes, where Christian caught up with friends who had fled Occupied Paris (including the fashion illustrator René Gruau, who would subsequently design the iconic illustrations for Miss Dior).
Towards the end of 1941, Christian made the decision to return to Paris, where he was offered a job as a designer at the house of Lucien Lelong. It was a move that introduced him to the conflict of striving to keep the patriotic traditions of French fashion alive, despite threats from the Nazis to close down the ateliers or forcibly move their workers to Berlin; while also encountering the wives of collaborators and the mistresses of German officers, who enjoyed the illicit opportunity to indulge in the luxury of couture.
Meanwhile, Catherine, who had remained with their father in Callian, met and fell in love with an active member of the French Resistance, Hervé Papillault des Charbonneries, in November 1941. Hervé was 12 years older than Catherine – the same age as her brother Christian – and already married with three children. Nevertheless, a relationship swiftly developed between the two (apparently with the tacit acceptance of his wife Lucie, who was also in the same Resistance network); and Catherine joined Hervé’s unit as a liaison agent, travelling by bicycle to gather information about troop movements, compiling reports, photographing confidential documents and transmitting their contents to the British Secret Intelligence Service in London.
Catherine and Hervé were part of a resourceful group known as F2 – an alliance between the French and Polish Resistance – that operated across southern France; but as the war continued, their work also took them to Paris, where they stayed with Christian in his apartment at 10 Rue Royale. Her brother’s home was to form a meeting point for Catherine and her colleagues in the Resistance, and a hiding place when need be, after the Germans and their efficient aides in the French police began to close in on the F2 network.
On 6 July 1944, Catherine was arrested on a Paris street, and interrogated and tortured by a notorious security-service unit based at Rue de la Pompe, led by a German captain whose men included French collaborationists. Astonishingly, she remained steadfast in her refusal to give any information or names, despite the violent abuse inflicted upon her, thereby saving Hervé and their colleagues in F2, and protecting her brother. Having survived this brutality, she was transferred to Fresnes prison, just south of Paris, on 27 July. On 15 August – the same day that Allied forces landed on the coast of southern France, and only 10 days before Paris was liberated – Catherine was deported on one of the final prisoner convoys to leave the French capital, packed into an overcrowded train at Pantin station, with 600 other women, destined for Germany. Christian tried every possible approach to save his sister, and came close to preventing her deportation, via the Swedish Consul General in Paris, who attempted to persuade the Germans to release Catherine if her train was still in France. But she had already crossed the border, heading towards Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp, 50 miles to the north of Berlin and first established in 1939 under the direction of the SS leader Heinrich Himmler.
Thus began a period of appalling suffering for Catherine, who was to be subjected to what the Nazis termed ‘extermination through work’. She and her companions – who had been identified as political prisoners and members of the Resistance – were forced to become slave labour for the Third Reich, under a ruthless regime that was designed to ensure a slow death. Having been processed at Ravensbrück – stripped of her clothes and dressed in filthy rags, her head shaved; beaten, deprived of sleep and denied all human dignity – Catherine was transported to a trio of satellite camps, to work in munitions factories.
Along with a number of the other Frenchwomen, she made repeated attempts to secretly sabotage the weapons manufacture, first at a factory in Torgau, and then at Abteroda. Yet, as winter set
She was processed at Ravensbrück – stripped of her clothes, her head shaved, beaten
in, they became increasingly weak: labouring for long hours in dangerous conditions, on starvation rations, suffering from pneumonia, dysentery, tuberculosis and malnutrition. The bitter cold intensified in January 1945, with blizzards and icy winds; the following month, Catherine and a smaller group of the French prisoners were moved once again, this time to Markkleeberg, near Leipzig, on a train journey that took place over several days, in freezing cattle trucks with no food or water. When they finally reached the camp, the punishing factory work was combined with exhausting outdoor tasks in subzero temperatures.
Finally, on Friday 13 April 1945, all the camp prisoners were assembled and ordered to leave Markkleeberg, on what became known as ‘the Death March’. Yet again, they were embarking on a journey without food or water, this time on foot, and guarded by SS officers who would shoot anyone that attempted to escape. Catherine, however, somehow managed to slip away from the forced march as the women crossed the bombed ruins of Dresden, hiding in the dust and chaos of the destroyed city.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Christian had received no word about Catherine, despite his desperate attempts to discover her whereabouts (which had extended to consulting Madame Delahaye on several occasions, in the hope that the clairvoyant might provide a clue to his sister’s fate). Finally, on 19 April, he heard news that her name had been found on a list of prisoners in a German concentration camp; but in all the confusion of the Allied advance, and the turmoil of hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees, it was unclear whether Catherine was dead or alive. It was not until the night of 27 May that Christian received a telephone call to tell him that his sister would be among a trainload of deportees arriving in Paris the next day. He rushed to the station to meet Catherine, only to discover that she was so emaciated and sick that she was barely recognisable.
Like many of her former companions, Catherine remained traumatised long after her return to France at the end of the war, suffering from panic attacks and sudden bouts of anxiety. Some of the women who survived Ravensbrück said they had lost their memory, due to prolonged starvation and shock; others, like Catherine, found it unbearable to describe the horrors they withstood. A few of them began to talk about their ordeals several years later; but most of the women felt that the vast majority of the population who had remained in France did not want to hear the nightmarish details of the concentration camps. Yet despite Catherine’s reticence concerning her time in Germany, she did testify in a later trial (a military tribunal held in Paris in 1952) against the French collaborators in the security-service unit that had tortured her in Rue de la Pompe.
The Franco-Polish Resistance network that Catherine belonged to acknowledged her courage by giving her a bracelet, which she wore always, with two gold circles etched with Roman numerals marking the dates of her arrest and her release. She also received some of the most prestigious national decorations: from France, a rare Croix de Guerre and the Croix du Combatant Volontaire de la Résistance; the Polish Cross of Valour; and the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, awarded by the British authorities.
Christian Dior paid tribute to his sister in a different, uniquely personal way; not only by naming his first perfume after her, but also with the Miss Dior gown in his spring/summer 1949 couture collection, which was covered with 1,000 exquisitely embroidered silk flowers. He was never explicit about the connection in public (it is only thanks to the written account of a close friend and colleague, kept in the Dior archives, that we know that Catherine was indeed the direct inspiration for the perfume). But Christian’s subsequent description of Miss Dior is suggestive of a desire to protect and cherish his sister, as well as symbolising a fairy-tale dream in which the savagery of war could never intrude. ‘I created this perfume to wrap each woman in exquisite femininity,’ he declared, ‘as if each of my designs were emerging from the bottle, one by one.’
As for Catherine, she seemed, to those who knew her, to be cloaked in dignity and discretion. In a rare subsequent interview, she gave away nothing of her own life, but remembered the occasion of Christian’s first show. ‘It really was euphoric,’ she said, ‘and everyone was slightly taken aback by the triumph, because it was a triumph for French fashion, and for an artist.’ She spoke of her admiration for her brother’s exceptional creativity, and his talents as a businessman, but expressed sadness that the demands of running his couture house had contributed to his demise in 1957.
Catherine herself lived into her nineties, surviving her brother by five decades. Together with her beloved partner Hervé des Charbonneries (who she never married, although they shared their life and work until his death in 1985), she set up a flowerexporting business soon after the war. At first, she and Hervé lived in Paris, returning to Christian’s flat at Rue Royale, but they travelled to Callian each summer, accompanied by her brother, to harvest the roses and jasmine there, and the grapes from their vines. After Christian died, Catherine and Hervé moved back to Callian permanently, where she grew the flowers that were the very essence of Miss Dior, gathering her rose petals every May, thereby continuing to provide a precious ingredient for Dior perfumes.
Catherine refused to return to Germany after the war (unlike her brother, who visited the country in 1955 to develop his business there), but she continued to attend annual memorial services for the French Resistance. Her loyalty to Christian appears to have been as profound as it was to the cause of freedom. She was involved in the establishment of the Christian Dior Museum in Granville, in their former family home; and her quiet pride in his achievements was evident in her contribution to the Dior archives in Paris.
Her own way of life remained simple – governed by the seasons; nurturing the flowers that she loved so well. She was not averse to wearing the elegant dresses that her brother had designed for her, though she was more often to be found in her gardening clothes. And she never gave up her independence, nor compromised her convictions; for having survived and defied the Nazi regime, Catherine Dior remained her own woman, to the very end. ‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams’, supported by Swarovski, with further support from American Express, is at the V&A (www.vam.ac.uk) until 14 July. See an exclusive preview of the Dior exhibition at www. harpersbazaar.com/dior-exhibition.
Miss Dior symbolised a dream in which the savagery of war could never intrude