In 1954, three years before his death, Christian Dior judged the International Woolmark Prize. It was known as the International Wool Secretariat then, but like the house of Dior itself, its impact on fashion was far ahead of its time. When the couturier debuted his so-called New Look for the brand he had just founded in 1947, his revolutionary Bar jackets and plissé dance skirts were brought to life in wool. The coat category in 1954 was won by one Karl Lagerfeld – the dress category by his peer Yves Saint Laurent, who would become Dior’s assistant and take over the house when he died from a heart attack in 1957, just ten years after establishing the brand. They wouldn’t have used that word – brand – in the post-war period when Mr Dior’s creations, heavy on luxurious materials, shocked a world still getting by on rations. It was, nonetheless, what he built, cleverly introducing fragrances and beauty to carry his house in a new world where haute couture for the upper classes was no longer enough to keep a fashion business afloat.
The revolutionary decade Christian Dior spent constructing his house marked an intense era in fashion – and a future, which would forever make his name synonymous with style transformation. During the three years Saint Laurent fronted Dior, the young designer brought fashion into the 1960s, fearlessly applying new extravagance and modernity to the founder’s nipped-in waists and polite skirt-suits. He’d later go on to become the most influential designer of his time, thanks in no small part to his beginnings at Dior. As the house of Dior turns seventy this year, the person proposing its newest contemporary wardrobe for women is herself a woman. In 2016, the Roman designer Maria Grazia Chiuri left Valentino to become the first female artistic director at the brand. And she went straight to the roots of Mr Dior’s first vision, drawing on his trademark silhouettes in flattering and functional garments for the modern (and now post-modern) woman, bringing them into the 21st century.
“Taking up the creative reins at a major couture house like Christian Dior is to accept the weight of expectation and past precedent, and balance that with a desire to carve out an aesthetic, which reflects the individual style of the designer,” says Katie Somerville, the Senior Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Commemorating the anniversary, she is curating the show The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture, which will feature over 140 Dior couture ensembles as well as accessories, toiles, photographs and sketches. The exhibition brings together examples from Dior’s very first collection for spring/summer 1947 through to key works from Chiuri’s debut couture collection for spring/summer 2017. ‘We should all be feminists’ read a t-shirt on her debut runway, which sold out around the world, and the sentiment easily resonated with the spirit of Christian Dior himself.
A shy and highly superstitious man, he was known as controlling – but no historian ever doubted his love for women. In her first haute couture collection for the house, Chiuri echoed Dior’s fondness for wool, taking it to new artisanal heights in evening dresses and capes. In her elevation of ease and wearability in the women’s wardrobe, Chiuri’s point of departure isn’t far off that of Marc Bohan, who replaced Saint Laurent at Dior in 1960. The longest-serving designer at the house, Bohan’s fluid, flattering and anti-confining take on elegance epitomised Dior for 39 years, until the company’s new owner, Bernard Arnault, replaced the Frenchman with an Italian: the extravagant Gianfranco Ferré, whose exuberant sense of youth and dramatic statements brought the house into the 1990s.
Under avant-garde designers such as Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and Jean Paul Gaultier, fashion had gone through rapid change in the 1980s and clothes were no longer simply garments – they were one’s own personal theatre. Enter John Galliano, a Gibraltarian enfant terrible, who’d grown up in South London and studied at Central Saint Martins in a time when the British capital was the epicentre of subcultural rebellion. From 1996 to 2011, Galliano turned Dior into a majestic spectacle of drama and artisanal might, staging his own provocative performances of history-driven narratives with a level of grandeur never seen on a runway before. If some thought his Dior didn’t reflect the what-women-want approach of his predecessors, it was clear that no designer there – except for its founder – made a greater impact on his time than Galliano. And his exit marked an even starker transformation to the image of Dior than his arrival fifteen years prior.
Raf Simons, the Belgian designer, who had earned his stripes in modernist menswear through the 1990s and 2000s, was appointed in Galliano’s place in 2012. In a sweeping minimalist overhaul, he whipped Dior into sleek, purist shape, stripping down the founder’s dainty elegance to a streamlined sense of cool in keeping with the understated conceptual waves which had taken over the surrounding fashion industry toward the end of Galliano’s reign. Case in point: for Simons’ first haute couture collection, he showed plissé tulle skirts worn with no-fuss black tricot bodies. When he left the house in 2015, citing overburdening from the many responsibilities that come with the artistic directorship of a super brand, Dior was once again faced with the challenge of matching its new designer to the spirit of the times. And so, it would be a woman, who would lead Dior into its seventh decade, for the first time in the house’s history approaching the founder’s love and vision for women from a female perspective.
“What remains at the heart of all the eras of Dior is the powerful allure of haute couture with its exquisite materials, technical prowess and larger-than-life transformative potential,” Somerville says. Her exhibition at the NGV is a rare scope of the multi-faceted fashion created under the Dior name, and the metamorphosis that ties the house’s designers together. “Of particular note are the accomplished early works of Christian Dior, for example the expertly tailored wool ensembles of the late 1940s, the youthful silhouettes of Yves Saint Laurent’s Trapeze line collection for spring-summer 1958, the compelling theatre of John Galliano’s magnificent ball gowns, one measuring 4.5 metres across, the crisp, reductive reinterpretations of the New Look by Raf Simons and the fairy-tale edge of Maria Grazia Chiuri’s contemporary take on the transformative power of couture.”
Unlike her predecessors, Chiuri’s first year in the hallowed halls on Avenue Montaigne, where Christian Dior set up shop, hasn’t been defined by a fierce willingness to make waves. Rather, she tackles the legacy of the founder slowly and surely, balancing out the many characters embodied by women in the 21st century. Chiuri is yet to shock the world with a New Look the way Mr Dior did it in 1947, but seventy years on – in a time when everything has been done before – she understands that longevity, much like the history of Dior, lies in continuity.
Photography: Nicholas Alan Cope; Willy Maywald/ADAGP, Paris; Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection; Laziz Hamani; Patrick Demarchelier/TArt+Commerce; Sante Forlano