The epitome of the mid-century feminine ideal, clad in cream shantung silk, pleated wool crêpe, taffeta and straw. With hourglass curves achieved with girdles and padding, the historic ‘Bar’ suit forms the centrepiece to the majestic opening room at the V&A’s latest major fashion exhibition, ‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams’. Dramatically staged in the subterranean Sainsbury Gallery, the show dissects the impact of one of the great Paris couture houses across the course of more than 70 years. The exhibition charts its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of World War Two through subsequent incarnations that have seen designers from Yves Saint Laurent to Maria Grazia Chiuri at the helm. The ‘Bar’ suit, part of the Corolle line launched in Dior’s inaugural eponymous collection in February 1947, has been acclaimed as a pivotal moment in fashion history ever since Carmel Snow, editor of American Harper’s Bazaar, quipped, ‘It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!’
The moniker stuck, yet the ‘New Look’ style actually began as something old. It’s broadly agreed by historians that the Corolle line had its roots in the late 1930s, as fashions began favouring a curvier silhouette, which was curtailed by restrictions that accompanied the outbreak of war. The style itself became emblematic of post-war fashion, shaking off the military-tinged austerity that the war and aftermath necessitated, and encapsulating the romantic historicism that was a hallmark of the House of Dior. Historical influences had been rife in Dior’s earlier work. While working for couturier Lucien Lelong he costumed the film Le lit à colonnes (1942) set during the French Second Empire and the 1870s, introducing him to 19th-century silhouettes and couture methods that proved inspirational for his later work.
The return to an almost Victorian silhouette both delighted and repulsed the public. It set the sartorial agenda for the following decade, and its conventional vision of femininity chimed with governments who encouraged women ‘back in the home’ as men returned from the frontlines. But the New Look sent shockwaves around the world at a time when many places (the UK included) were still in the midst of fabric rationing. One of the most striking artefacts in the exhibition is a simple black and white photograph that shows Dior in Chicago walking past protesting women who hold placards that read, ‘Mr Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor’. Some women revelled in the return to freedom that Dior designs symbolised, to the notions of luxury, fantasy and exaggerated femininity that had been forbidden during the asceticism of war. But others saw the flagrant disregard of restrictions as tantamount to an assault on patriotism. In Britain, the Board of Trade spoke out against the New Look, and fashion journalists were encouraged to ignore it.
Couture in postwar Paris was hotly contested as many couturiers had remained open under the Nazi Occupation. Lucien Lelong – head of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture parisienne (the regulating body of couture) – succeeded in maintaining jobs and keeping the industry in Paris, despite the desire of the Nazi regime to move it to Berlin or Vienna. But after the Liberation of Paris there were suggestions of collaboration when it was revealed so many couture houses had stayed open. In establishing his own house, Dior was largely untainted by these accusations. Along with a travelling doll exhibition called ‘Théâtre de la Mode’, Dior’s inaugural show marked the triumphal rebirth of couture in Paris, and the contentious years of the Occupation could be left behind.
Much of this background is lost or given a light touch throughout the retrospective, which focuses on design, albeit breathtaking, at the expense of socio-political and cultural context. Based on Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, an earlier exhibition organised by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, various controversies are euphemistically brushed over, including the departure of Yves Saint Laurent and Raf Simons, and the sacking of John Galliano after an abusive anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bar. But if a heavy hand from Dior the brand can at times be felt (the show is a collaboration between the design and perfume houses and the V&A), the exhibition is most illuminating in its section on Anglophilia.
The current manifestation curated by Oriole Cullen includes a new section exploring Dior’s interest in Britain. Remarkably for a figure that embodied the cultural dominance of French haute couture, Dior noted, ‘I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture. I even love English cooking.’ From his love of dressing debutantes and figures such as Nancy Mitford, Margot Fonteyn and Princess Margaret, to his predilection for showing his collections in grand country homes such as Blenheim Palace, the relationship between Dior and Britain is illuminating. Dior used British-milled fabrics and had licensing deals and collaborations with companies from Rayne shoes to Symington’s corsets, Dents gloves and Lyle & Scott knitwear. His first British show was staged at the Savoy in 1950 and raised funds to create a Museum of Costume, which exists today as the Fashion Museum Bath – an impressively tangible legacy to leave in the UK. At a time when the cohesion of Europe is once again at stake, a reminder of the benefits of mutual cooperation is a more than welcome addition to the cultural landscape.
Main image: ‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams’, 2019, exhibition view, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Amber Butchart is a fashion historian, author and broadcaster who specializes in the historical intersections between dress, politics and culture. She is a former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, and a regular public lecturer at institutions ranging from the Tate to the V&A. She researches and presents documentaries, including BBC4’s six-part series ‘A Stitch in Time’ that fused biography and art to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.