Dreaming with Dior

· Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A ·

One can imagine that an exhibition on Christian Dior will serve up serious style and ladylike elegance. But one might not expect just exactly the immersive nature of an exhibition on Dior put on by the Musée de Arts Decoratifs and the Victoria and Albert Museum. That’s just what awaits at the V&A’s spring exhibition, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, though: a theatrical, encompassing full on experience charting the House of Dior’s 72 year history.

Originally conceptualized by the Musée de Arts Decoratifs in Paris for the 70th anniversary of the design house, Designer of Dreams is the largest fashion exhibition staged by the V&A since their blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty in 2015. Staged in the new Sainsbury Gallery, the exhibition sprawls underneath the renowned museum, with expertly executed lighting and design to lead visitors through the storied world of the House of Dior.

There’s no surprise that the exhibition opens with the infamous Bar Suit from Dior’s 1947 “New Look” collection. Standing alone in the center of the room, a recreated facade of Dior’s Paris store towers behind it with modern incarnations of the Bar Suit demonstrating how it continues to inspire Dior’s designers even to this day. The sleek construction and sumptuous pleats are undeniably beautiful in their simplicity.

A display tells of Dior’s story: from his childhood in the garden, to a failed art gallery and a period as a fashion illustrator, and finally to the launch of his design house in 1946. The New Look was launched the next year and Dior found instant success. Despite his imposing legacy, Dior only designed for ten short years before unexpectedly dying at 52 in 1957. It’s hard to believe that after only ten years, Dior could leave such a legacy, but as the exhibition demonstrates, that decade provided countless examples of his design genius and continues to inspire the House of Dior’s creative directors today.

Continuing through to the next room, black flooring and walls help to create one of the masterfully designed displays that are the hallmark of this show. A collection of quintessential Dior looks stand stark against the black background divided by a grid of light and bookended by mirrors. A simple black cocktail dress with bows at the hip, a sumptuous red cocoon coat with an exaggerated collar, sleek suits accessorized with prim gloves and oversized hats, a cream, full-skirted dress with a brown sash nipping in the waist; the dresses in this room typify Dior and postwar feminine glamour. When you look at the dresses in the mirror, it is as though they go on forever, an apt introduction to the idea that Dior’s creative genius lives on through the subsequent house designers and seemingly will continue to live on forever.

Moving through, Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday dress greets visitors as a segue into Dior’s relationship with Britain. The exhibition claims that Dior was charmed by Britain upon his first visit in 1926. He certainly continued to enjoy time in Britain throughout his career staging charity fashion shows at London’s Savoy Hotel and stately homes such as Blenheim Palace. He considered creating Princess Margaret’s birthday dress a great honor and continued to work with her for several years. Various ephemera relating to Dior’s business connections in Britain, along with photographs from his various fashion shows are shown next to a line of designs in front of an image of the Blenheim Palace library where the charity fashion shows took place.

While it was certainly a treat to see the very dress from the famous Cecil Beaton portrait of Princess Margaret, this section fell a little flat. Designer of Dreams was first showed in Paris and in order to prepare it for a predominantly British audience, Dior’s connection to Britain and inspiration from the country was advertised as one of the primary themes of the V&A’s iteration. Of course, Princess Margaret’s dress was a big draw, but besides this, the only section solely dedicated to Dior’s relationship with Britain boasts only 13 ensembles, six of which are elevated far above where visitors can get a good look at them. There are pictures of the charity fashion shows, along with the ephemera related to the relationships he forged with British-based companies, but despite the hype around the connection, it is, unfortunately, a fleeting section.

That being said, the theatricality of the exhibition continues in the next room as a full size gazebo houses a series of gowns inspired by eighteenth century court dress. Titled “Historicism,” this room speaks to Dior’s commitment to historical references. While Dior was inspired by many different periods, this room focuses on ensembles by both Dior and his successors that reflect eighteenth century styles as an inspiration. The text reads, “Numerous references to the 18th century can be found in the dresses created by Dior and his successors. They draw on the lavish style of the court dress worn at Versailles and the décor and decorative arts of the period.” The gazebo itself references the stand, on display in the room, that was created for Dior perfumes by Victor Grandpierre. This, in turn, was based on the Temple of Love at Versailles.

Here, the exhibition deviates from the previous rooms in that it now showcases designs by the designers who followed Dior at the helm of the house and the highly effective use of color comes into play. The scene has pale pink ensembles on the right moving towards the gazebo in the middle. The gazebo gowns are cream or white (one of the most stunning dresses in the exhibition is here, the Palomita dress from 1953, a cream silk satin and gilded thread piece with what looks like an English rose motif, carrying through the theme from the previous room) and to their left are pale blue looks. The groupings are just one of the ways the exhibition uses a spectrum of color to highlight how the House of Dior maintains its identity throughout years and different designers.

Continuing on the theme of what has inspired Dior and his successors, the next room looks at how Dior’s travels as a young man inspired his designs. Here, the exhibition actually touches on the current political and cultural climate, exploring how the current creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, has tried to avoid appropriation in her designs. The room focuses on Mexico, Japan, Egypt, China and India, five countries that inspired both Dior himself and his successors. Many of these designs deviate from what we have seen from Dior in the exhibition up until that point. It is refreshing to see the different silhouettes and designs, though the identity of Dior is still omnipresent.

Perhaps one of the most anticipated rooms comes next: The Garden. Christian Dior loved gardens and many of his designs show it, as do those of his successors. This room showcases  this love of the garden in a big way: the ceiling is a sea of paper flowers that looks like a wisteria tunnel while the flowers crawl along the walls to highlight the use of floral patterns and embellishment in Dior designs. While the paper itself is mostly white, lights are projected to give it a glowing lilac and seafoam green color.

This room also uses a spectrum of color, moving from pinks through to purples and onto blues and even black. These dresses feel fit for a garden party with signature nipped waists and feminine silhouettes. The myriad ways that flowers have been interpreted in Dior designs show a reverence for the theme and an expertise in continuing their relevance in spite of Miranda Priestly. A completely immersive experience, this room is not easily forgotten.

While the gowns in The Garden are certainly dreamy, when I’ve looked at pictures from the original showing of the exhibition, I find that I feel a little envious. I loved the dresses on display in this room, but it misses a whole collection of green dresses that were featured in the Paris exhibition. In fact, there are many designs left out of the London exhibition that were present in Paris and I begin to feel let down. Of course, if the two were exactly the same, the V&A would risk losing visitors who had seen the previous iteration, but I can’t help but wish some of the gowns I see from the Paris exhibition had been on display in London. Alas, this is a first-world problem, but I do wish I had had the opportunity to view both exhibitions so I could compare and ponder why they deviated when they did.

At this point, the exhibition has teased designs from Dior’s creative directors with little tidbits about how they have reinterpreted Dior’s vision over the years while keeping to the House’s core. The next room focuses on each of the designers, telling their stories. Huge, larger than life sepia tone images tower over samples of designs by Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and Maria Grazia Chiuri. As these designs are broken up, you can see how the prevailing mode of the period they were creative designer informed their designs, but also elements that stay absolutely true to Dior’s identity. Nipped in waists, ladylike silhouettes, ornate embellishment are all related through their high quality of construction and commitment to making women look and feel beautiful.

The process behind that construction is demonstrated in the next room, yet another striking one. Completely white, again with mirrors to create a never ending illusion, this room has various Dior toiles on display. Toiles are the first iteration of a design made in cotton fabric so that the designs construction and shape can be adjusted and checked before being made from the chosen fabric. The toiles are mostly from recent years and eagle-eyed Dior fans can pick out various well-known designs. All in white and without embellishment, this room brings home the beauty of the construction as even without color or decoration, these designs are striking.

The hallway leading to the grand finale helps place Dior in the zeitgeist of the past 72 years. On one wall, hundreds of magazines with Dior designs on the cover show how ubiquitous Dior is in the realm of fashion magazines. On the other wall, another color spectrum shows various ephemera produced by Dior: shoes, perfume, jewelry, sketches, miniature dresses, gloves, hats, fans… The breadth is unexpected and it showcases some of Dior’s famous collaborations with the likes of Roger Vivier, Stephen Jones, and Swarovski.

Leaving this behind, visitors reach the last room of the exhibition. Transformed into a ballroom, dozens of gowns from the entirety of the House’s history are on full show as they line the walls and stand on a platform in the center. The ceiling and walls cycle from a projected stately home to a meteor shower of glittering stars. The lighting changes throughout this scene and you’re able to see the gowns in the various settings they might be worn. Continuing the color spectrum theme, the gowns are grouped by color with Christian Dior designs next to more recent gowns by Raf Simons or Maria Grazia Chiuri. In some of the most effective curation of the exhibition, the vintage gowns are grouped next to contemporary gowns that have clearly been inspired by the former.

Some of the most famous Dior dresses are in this room. The Junon dress from 1949, that ballgown that looks like overlapping, sequined flower petals; the three dresses worn for the J’adore perfume campaigns by Charlize Theron; a collection of designs recently worn on the red carpet including the white gown and jacket worn by Rihanna at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, are all here, celebrating all that typifies Dior.

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams has all the elements of a knockout fashion exhibition: a currently popular label with a long history, objectively beautiful clothing, and set designs sure to be an Instagrammer’s dream. The V&A’s iteration certainly pulled out all the punches and the show was truly a delight to tour. However, theatricality – admittedly part of what made it so special – sometimes drew away from the designs, making it feel more like a spectacle than a place to teach about Dior’s legacy and design merits.

Meanwhile, a subtle focus on current creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, felt like an advertisement. There is such a fine line with monographic exhibitions between substance and commercialization. Since the exhibition at least was not sponsored by the House of Dior, perhaps the exhibition was just trying to demonstrate that the label is still relevant. It certainly wasn’t anything near the Saatchi Gallery’s Chanel-sponsored Mademoiselle Privébut it also didn’t feel one-hundred percent impartial, which was a shame. Perhaps a little more about the designers in between would have helped with this, charting the full history of the house rather than putting emphasis on Dior himself and Grazia Chiuri only.

That being said, it was an incredibly beautifully executed exhibition. The original Dior gowns especially take you to a place of unadulterated glamour and opulence, reminding of a time when ladies weren’t seen without gloves or a hat. Seeing the construction of pieces like the original Bar suit help emphasize how Dior rose so quickly to the heights that he did. Seeing these pieces in person, you can’t help but leave with a smile on your face. The scale and breadth of it helps take the sting out of the ticket price – a full price ticket ran from £20-24 (though the exhibition runs until mid-July, it is already completely sold out*).

Just as the exhibition opened with the Bar suit, it closes with a recent gown by Maria Grazia Chiuri. The dress was inspired by a 1950s promotional fan and the light pink color, pleats, nipped in waist and full skirt all indicate a typical Dior design. Again, mirrors create several projections of the gown, and at the right angle, it repeats forever. Perhaps this is what the exhibition is trying to impart on its visitors: that the House of Dior is never ending. It continues on, reflecting all that Dior envisioned, changing over the years but sticking to its core.

And that, indeed, is a dream.

*Edit (12 March 2019): The V&A just announced they will keep the exhibition open until 1 September. Get your tickets now before they sell out again!

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