The House of Dior

October 13, 2017
Dior installation. John Galliano's Look 22 suit is second from the left
Dior installation. John Galliano's Look 22 suit is second from the left

Christian Dior was never one to boast about his achievements but he had very clear ideas about the importance of fashion. “I have always seen my profession as a kind of struggle against all that is depressing and mediocre in our age,” he once said. It’s a statement any couturier would be happy to own. It belongs in a manifesto.

It’s presumed that fashion exhibitions appeal to women rather than men, but I defy anyone of any gender (and there are now a bewildering variety to choose from) to find a depressing moment in The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture. The National Gallery of Victoria has had considerable success with fashion over the past few years but the Dior show is the absolute pinnacle.

There have been more adventurous, more imaginative designers than Dior (1905-57) but no-one has matched his instinct for success or his impeccable timing. In the words of Suzanne Luling, who handled Dior’s public relations, her boss “was the type who could hear an apple ripen on the tree”. A keen observer of his times, a man who listened to what ordinary people were saying, in 1947 Dior understood that Paris – and indeed, the world – was sick and tired of the forced privations of the war years.

Having been invited to take up the job as designer for the ailing firm, Philippe et Gaston, owned by industrialist, Marcel Boussac, Dior decided he wanted nothing less than his own fashion label. He told the tycoon Paris was crying out for something “entirely new”, but it would be a case of harking back to the future. His proposed label would be small and exclusive, drawing on the French traditions of great luxury.

Within two days Boussac had agreed, allowing the designer to set up the business exactly as he had envisaged it. The first collection, presented on 12 February 1947, was a sensation such as the fashion world had never known. Dior called the collection Corolle, meaning a ring of flower petals, but the name that stuck was conferred by Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, who proclaimed it “such a new look!”

Henceforth, Dior was synonymous with “the New Look”. It was exactly what he had emphasised in his discussions with Boussac. That sense of newness was the very essence of fashion, which has to be reborn with each season, even if the next phase is merely a variation on a wellworn style of the past.

Dior’s thinking was countercyclical. In a time of austerity he opted for luxury. As the garment industry embraced mass production he had his clothes made by hand, in line with the traditions of haute couture. By appealing to a wealthy élite, he became a popular icon.

Even the clothes reversed the trend towards more comfortable and wearable outfits. Dior’s clothes emphasised the ideal ‘hourglass’ figure, featuring tiny waistlines and full skirts with padding around the hips. His models wore tight-fitting jackets, girdles and corsets. He knew that his clients would value his fashions more highly if they had to suffer a little.

Christian Dior's Bar Suit at the NGV

Christian Dior’s Bar Suit at the NGV

The trademark outfit from that first collection was the Bar suit. Wasp-waisted, severe and elegant, it echoed the uncomfortable fashions of the 19th century, but conferred a dazzling modernity on its wearers.

For the Dior exhibition the NGV has recognised the importance of the Bar suit by isolating it in a vitrine at the beginning of the show. Standing like a sentinel in front of a wall-sized blow-up of Dior’s headquarters on avenue Montaigne, it looks more like a suit of armour than the epitome of chic. It’s not simply an outfit, it’s a statement.

One could say something similar about the NGV’s exhibition design, which is suitably spectacular, even including a facsimile of the grand staircase from the Dior building. Dresses are grouped together to reflect the sensibilities of the six designers who followed Dior as the label’s Creative Director: Yves Saint Laurent (1957-60), Marc Bohan (1960-89) Gianfranco Ferré (1989-96), John Galliano (1996-2011), Raf Simons (2012-15), and Maria Grazia Chiuri (2016 -).

Dior died at the age of 52, only ten years after that first, revolutionary collection. Saint Laurent was a prodigy who was thrust into the top job at the age of 21, after having spent two years as Dior’s assistant. His first collection was a huge success, with the signature work being the Trapeze dress, a triangular design that has been copied innummerable times. Saint Laurent’s 1958 show was credited with saving not only the Dior brand but the entire French fashion industry! Yet by 1960 his “Beatnik” look received largely hostile reviews.

Yves Saint-Laurent's Trapeze dress

Yves Saint-Laurent’s Trapeze dress

After a traumatic interlude when he was obliged to do his national service, Saint Laurent was let go. He successfully sued Dior for breach of contract and used the money to start his own label, which would propel him to the forefront of 20th century designers. His successor, Marc Bohan, would take a more conservative approach, and remain in the top job for 29 years – a record that will surely never be beaten, given the extreme pressure under which top designers are obliged to work.

John Galliano's Kamata Ballgown (1997)

John Galliano’s Kamata Ballgown (1997)

Moving from Saint Laurent’s collections to those of Bohan, one is conscious of a change of direction, but also of an underlying continuity. This brand-consciousness is reflected in the work of the designers that follow, from the more vibrant creations of Gianfranco Ferré to the extravagance of John Galliano, whose brand of post-modern theatricality made the Paris catwalk into a performance art event. Pieces such as the Kamata ballgown (1997), or the Look, 22 suit (2008), are outlandish riffs on classic Dior designs, flirting dangerously with parody.

Raf Simons, who took over after Galliano had self-destructed, was the subect of a fascinating documentary by Frédéric Tcheng, called Dior and I (2014). The film revealed the inner workings of a great fashion house, and the unbelievable stresses of a job in which Simons was obliged to come up with a complete collection in only eight weeks.

Simons’s success was no less miraculous than the fact that he managed to avoid a nervous breakdown. However, his tenure proved to be brief. After only three years he had moved on, leaving a legacy of simple, clean-cut outfits with echoes of old-time Dior, and fabrics based on paintings by contemporary artists such a Gerhard Richter and Sterling Ruby, such as the sumptuous Look 32 (2012).

Look 32, Raf Simons' collaboration with Sterling Ruby

Look 32, Raf Simons’ collaboration with Sterling Ruby

The current Creative Director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, has made a positive start, injecting a little whimsy into the label in a style that has been described as “romantic”, although it’s a fatuous term. Fashion by its very nature is romantic, an injection of pure fantasy into lives too often devoted to the relentless accumulation of wealth. As Christian Dior knew so well, for those with the means, high fashion is one of those dreams that money can buy. For the rest of us it’s simply a vicarious pleasure.

The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture
National Gallery of Victoria, until 27 August – 7 November, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 October, 2017