The Victoria and Albert Museum announced this week that their latest exhibit, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, is on its way to becoming the most popular in the V&A’s nearly 200-year history.
The museum’s biggest fashion exhibit in years, the V&A based their interpretation on an exhibit called Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, first organised by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. But a brand-new section explores Dior’s fascination with British culture.
“There is no other country in the world, besides my own, whose way of life I like so much,” Dior once said. “I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture. I even love English cooking.”
The exhibits spans from the first 1947 collection by Christian Dior himself to the present day creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman to head the iconic house.
The popularity of Christian Dior’s hyper feminine silhouette was as much of a social reaction as a sartorial choice; his first collection premiered in Paris in 1947, in the shadow of the second World War. After six years of rationing and utilitarian outfits, women flocked to Dior’s “New Look,” featuring a shape with more rounded shoulders, shapely bust definition, nipped-in waistlines and full, billowing skirts that hit the calves.
The New Look shape is best seen in that first collection’s iconic Bar Suit, the first Dior outfit on a mannequin visitors approach when they enter the exhibit. Made up of a white, cropped jacket and a full black skirt nipped tightly at the waist in a peplum shape, the look embraces femininity while still holding on to masculine details (like padding on the shoulders of the jacket) that remained popular after the war.
Not everyone was welcoming of the New Look; feminists in particular voiced their opposition, expressing that corseted designs were restrictive and regressive after the independence women had experienced during the war, when many of the men were off fighting. Upon seeing Dior’s collection, fellow French designer Coco Chanel is said to have remarked, “Only a man who never was intimate with a woman could design something that uncomfortable.”
Still, Dior’s designs resonated with women in France, and spread quickly to other countries. By 1950, Dior fashions made up 75 per cent of Paris’s fashion exports and 5 per cent of France’s total export revenue.
In 1951, Dior was commissioned to design a custom gown for Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday party.
This dress is one of the standout pieces in the V&A exhibit. It is held in a circular glass case in the center of a small area, so visitors can walk around and see every angle. It’s flanked by the official birthday portrait of Margaret wearing it, shot by Cecil Beaton. The princess later described the gown as “my favourite dress of all.”
Margaret remained a loyal customer to the house for the rest of her life.
Dior’s celebrity clientele over the decades is featured throughout exhibit. One large section showcases the glitz and glamour of red carpet Dior through haute couture gowns once worn by celebrities; Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence both donned frocks featured.
But the V&A also has a section dedicated to the atelier, with high ceilings filled with dress shapes from Dior’s workshop to show the process and labour of creating a designer garment.
One part of the exhibit pays tribute to some of the most influential designers that have headed the design house, including Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Raf Simmons.
In 2016, Chiuri was named creative director, the first woman in the label’s 69-year history. During Chiuri’s first show at Dior, she sent out models wearing a t-shirt emblazoned “We Should All Be Feminists.”
The piece is included at the V&A as part of an ensemble meant to foil Christian Dior’s iconic Bar Suit from his first collection. Featuring a full black skirt, white blazer (and a slightly less restrictive waistline), the feminist slogan peeks through.
With the popularity of the exhibit, the V&A has extended its run from July to September. Additional tickets have been posted for April dates, but all other months are sold out. A limited number of tickets are held at V&A reception each morning.