A Tour of Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams

Look 24 Dress, Christian Dior by John Galliano, Autumn/Winter 2004.


If there is anything I learned last Saturday morning in the beautiful Christian Dior exhibition at the V&A, is that Dior really is the Designer of my Dreams. Firstly, it was a dream to get a ticket to the extended run of the sold out exhibition, and secondly, it was a dreamy exhibition, full of beautiful details, textures, fabrics and inspirations, set in a stunning infrastructure in the the museum. I took hundreds of photos of everything, and wanted to share them here – apologies for this being such a long post!

The exhibition highlighted the various inspirations and facets to the Dior fashion house, beginning with the eponymous designer himself. Christian Dior was born on January 21st, 1905, and from early on designed imaginative and beautiful costumes for his friends. After the crash of 1929, in which his wealthy family lost their fortune, Dior turned to fashion drawing to make ends meet. This led to the founding of his own couture house in 1946. A year later, on February 12th, 1947, Dior launched its very first collection. This came to be known as the ‘New Look’.

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The Bar suit ensemble that is the first thing you see in this magical exhibition was actually given to the V&A in November 1960: it was symbolic of the ‘New Look’, with nipped in waists and a skirt reaching just below the knee with voluminous amounts of fabric. This was one half of the ‘New Look’, which was called the Coralle. The other half was En 8, which consisted of the same kind of waist and soft silhouette, yet with a hip-hugging pencil skirt. These were in huge contrast to the outfits worn according to the requirements of wartime rationing, which did cause controversy in the UK, with the head of the Board of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps, specifically criticising the ‘New Look’ because of all the fabric it necessitated. Isn’t it just beautiful? Remarkably, the waist measures nineteen inches… not sure who could get into that!

Interestingly, though the exhibition at the V&A was based on the 2017 Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, there is a special section on Dior in Britain. Christian Dior himself was an Anglophile and was particularly interested in the aristocracy. He said of English women that he adored them

“dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well, but also in those flowing dresses in subtle colours which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough”

I loved this – you could definitely see the soft and romantic inspiration of this in the dresses on display in this section.

Something I found really interesting was Dior’s first British fashion show. This was held at the Savoy Hotel in April 1950 and was actually a charity event, spearheaded by Doris Langley Moore, who was a fashion historian and aimed to raise funds for a Museum of Costume. This is now the Fashion Museum in Bath. Across the day – over which three shows took place – 1,600 people saw Dior’s show. One such visitor was Norman Hartnell, famous for designing Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress and coronation dress.

And what better way to show the connection to Britain than the dress at the centre of this room – the dress Princess Margaret wore for her 21st birthday portrait. I spent ages looking at this dress – the detail is so delicate and pretty.

Next was probably my favourite room (no prizes for guessing why) – it echoed eighteenth-century Versailles. His premises in Paris had grey and white panelling like Versailles’ Petit Trianon, and Dior was said to have revived the use of the colour. So the dresses in this room I think deserve particular attention to detail…

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Look at the stunning cobalt feather flowers on this coat dress! (Made even better by the Versailles background on the wall!) It was designed by John Galliano during his tenure as Creative Director for Dior, from the Spring-Summer 2005 collection.

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Can you tell this dress is from the 1950s? I’m in love with the gilt thread embroidery. Designed by Dior himself, it was from Autumn-Winter 1953.

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So this delicate blush pink dress… I stared at this forever and became a little obsessed with it. The silk and embroidery are just something else. This is from Autumn-Winter 2018, and was designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, who is the first female Creative Director of the House of Dior.

The next room was full of high impact, colourful and beautiful dresses, set against a reflective dark background, that focussed on the creative influences Dior found in travel. Five countries are focussed upon: Mexico, India, Egypt, Japan and China. The prints, embellishments and designs in this room were so stunning. I particularly loved the first two dresses when I walked in, which looked to Mexico.

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The one on the left was designed by Dior himself for the Spring-Summer 1953 collection, whilst the dress on the right was by Chiuri in her Cruise 2019 collection. The collection featured a performance of escaramuzas, daredevil female horse riders, undertaking choreographed daring moves to music whilst wearing Dior outfits.

Also I have to mention this stunning red-pink dress: looking to the inspiration of traditional Chinese export shawls, this Galliano-designed Spring-Summer 1997 silk dress is something else. I loved the way it was presented as well, it really did the embroidery and fringing justice.

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And next to the Garden display, with that stunning ceiling made of paper flowers. The setting for this exhibition was as stylish as the items in it. Dior’s mother was a keen gardener, and her shared her passion. Flowers were always key in his work and he loved to sketch outside in his garden. This room featured many beautiful floral textures on the dresses, as well as wonderful sketches and items including this perfume bottle. It is a special edition bottle of Diorissimo from 1956, with the stopper by Maison Charles.

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Here are some of the textures and designs in this room: too many wonderful fabrics to focus on just one. (And yes, that is the dress worn by Natalie Portman as the face of Miss Dior perfume – designer Raf Simons was inspired by pointillist painting when creating it!)

I really enjoyed the next section of the exhibition, which looked to key designers for Dior. This began with Yves Saint Laurent (1957-1960), who worked as Dior’s assistant before his sudden death on October 24th 1957. Laurent was just twenty-one years old when he became Creative Director. His tenure ended when he was called up for National Service.

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Laurent was followed by Marc Bohan (1961-1989), House of Dior’s longest serving Creative Director. His first collection was so loved that the actress Elizabeth Taylor ordered twelve dresses from it. I really liked the pink bow and button-back mini dress from his Spring-Summer 1966 collection.

Next was Gianfranco Ferré (1989-1996). Interestingly, Ferré trained as an architect before turning to fashion, and architecture was also one of Christian Dior’s passions. He consistently referred back to the ‘New Look’, with dramatic silhouettes.

Not so dramatic perhaps as John Galliano (1996-2011). Look at this dress from Autumn-Winter 2004 – it’s so regal and crazy and beautiful! His designs were excessive and pulled together many different influences.

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Raf Simons (2012-2015) followed Galliano, and he returned to a focus on style and cut. I think this really shows in the red coat with the gold belt here from Autumn-Winter 2012.

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And currently is Chiuri (since 2016). In her Spring-Summer 2017 collection, Chiuri included a slogan t-shirt referencing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay “We Should All Be Feminists”, which I absolutely love. How great is this soft and romantic floral gown? It is all silk and embroidery, from Autumn-Winter 2018.

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After this retrospective of designers is the Ateliers room, which focusses on the making and the craftmanship at the House of Dior. It is full of toiles, or test garments, which are used to prototype the fit, construction and shape of the designs before they are made for real. My favourite was this one which had sketches of embroidery pinned to it.

Next, walk through a corridor – or the Diorama – featuring magazine covers with Dior on the front, and various items set in a rainbow spectrum from collections over the years. I loved the little mini versions of the dresses. (Not the best photo, I’m sorry – let’s pretend the reflections were meant to be arty!)

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Okay, here it is – THE BALLROOM. I thought I’d seen all the beautiful dresses but here you walk into a glittering circular room, with a rotating centre platform, and changing light levels, which is full of sparkle and glitter and it’s hard to focus your eye on one item in particular. Christian Dior’s love of sketching costumes comes to the fore in here.

And what better than in the Junon dress, designed by Dior himself from the Autumn-Winter 1949 collection. After the blush pink gown by Chiuri in the eighteenth-century influences room, this is my absolute favourite. Overlapping sparkling petals make up the skirt, and I took so many photos trying to focus in on the details.

Here are some other magical dresses and textures from this room:

And to finish, just before you leave the exhibition, is this dress by Chiuri: the paper fan is a promotional item from the 1950s, and Dior’s signature is embroidered on the skirt of the dress. It is a spectacular way to finish, and I did walk out feeling a little dazed from all the beautiful things I’d seen. Designer of Dreams was a spectacular exhibition, almost too beautiful, and one I wish was continuing for longer.

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WANT SOME MORE DIOR?

See behind the scenes of the exhibition and how it was made in this video here.

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