‘In the world today, haute couture is one of the last repositories of the marvellous,’ said Christian Dior in 1957. The dresses of the House of Dior combine fantasy and futurism – the exoticism of far-flung countries, the allure of delicate flowers, and the old-world grandeur of eras long past. It is not merely a dress that is sold, but a dream; not just an everyday garment to be worn, but a rare piece of ‘ephemeral architecture’.
This February, the V&A plays host to the largest retrospective of the House of Dior ever seen in the UK. Spanning from Christian Dior’s first collection in 1947 to the work of current creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, it features over 200 hand-stitched garments drawn from both the Dior archives and the collections of the V&A.
The exhibition opens with none other than Dior’s Bar Suit, an emblem of his revolutionary ‘New Look’. Presented in his debut collection, the ultra-feminine silhouette with its cinched waist and full skirt was a radical departure from the austere, utilitarian look of the postwar period. Its unapologetic decadence – a single dress requiring yards of fabric to create – sparked protests and took 1950s Paris by storm.
This explosive start is but the opener to eleven carefully-curated rooms of Dior design, all exquisitely presented in immersive sets designed by Nathalie Crinière. The second, stunning room showcases dresses that Dior designed over the course of his career. The entire room is dark, and the focus is squarely on the dresses, each enclosed within a mirrored box and lit by the soft glow of fluorescent light.
While many of the pieces were showcased at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris last year, the London exhibition is much altered from its Paris rendition. V&A curator Oriole Cullen shows off Dior’s ties to Britain with a room dedicated to exploring his self-confessed Anglophilia. Central to this room is the extravagant off-shoulder dress famously worn by Princess Margaret on her 21st birthday, as well as dresses worn by fashionable English clients such as Nancy Mitford and Margot Fonteyn.
Of course, this exhibition is not just about Christian Dior alone. Beyond the first few rooms, the designs of the man himself are seamlessly blended with those of the six creative designers who succeeded him. We view the dresses by themes that have inspired each successive generation of designers: flowers, 18th century court fashion, cultures from around the world. Yves Saint Laurent, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano… all brilliant designers in their own right. A entire room gives us the opportunity to see their individual interpretations of the Dior style, displaying dresses by each of the designers alongside quotes and a brief biography. Crinière’s sets continue to amaze, with ‘The Garden’ room featuring delicate paper sprays of wisteria cascading from the ceiling, and ‘Diorama’ showing off an impressive colour-coded cabinet of shoes, bags and tiny scale models of iconic dresses. The oft-forgotten ateliers get a look-in too, with a floor-to-ceiling display of white linen toiles (dress prototypes) which were used in the making of actual Dior pieces.
But the best is saved for last. We enter a dazzling ballroom. Elegantly dressed mannequins stand in groups around us, decked out in the unashamedly opulent imagination of Dior designers from past to present. Mirrors multiply their images infinitely, so that we feel like we’re at a ball surrounded by beautiful people in their beautiful gowns. From Dior’s multi-petalled Junon (1949) to Galliano’s Silvery Water Harlequin (1998) and more recent ballgowns worn by celebrities on the red carpet, they stand proudly under an ever-changing ceiling – one moment the deep blue of a starry sky, the next a Renaissance fresco bathed in golden light. It speaks to the timelessness of Dior’s designs.
This is a theme underscored by the final dress, a delicate confection of pleated silk tulle entitled Éventail de vos hasards (Fan of Your Chances). Created by Chiuri for the Shanghai presentation of her Summer 2018 collection, it was in fact inspired by a handpainted fan designed by Dior himself in 1950. Like the fan, the dress too bears his signature: a connection from past to present. From the iconic Bar Suit all the way to the halls of Shanghai, the Dior style has remained a classic in the ever-evolving world of fashion.
Dior: Designer of Dreams provides a beautifully curated, comprehensive look into the world of the renowned designer. As a testament to his enduring legacy, the crowds flocking to the Sainsbury Wing make this one of the most-coveted exhibitions of the year. With the V&A just minutes from Imperial, why not take a break from the dreary world of lectures? Step into Dior’s dream world of elegance and glamour, if only for a little while.