Designer of Dreams – V and A Dior exhibitionMarch 31, 2019
Dior: Designer of Dreams is the V and A Dior exhibition that has proved such a smash hit success that it has already been extended (until September) and is sold out far in advance.The exhibition traces the history of the brand and its different design directors and collaborators, beginning with its founder, Christian Dior. It is a magnificent effort with great consideration given to the lighting, room design and set decoration just as much as the sourcing and display of dresses and artefacts. The team is led by fashion and textiles curator Oriole Cullen and set designer Nathalie Crinière.
Perhaps you sense my damning-with-faint-praise in that “magnificent effort”. I know that the V&A wanted to replicate the success of their wonderful Alexander McQueen show, and in some sections they seem to have tried to replicate the actual room sets. Yet though it has self-evidently been a success according to ticket numbers, for me it didn’t match the imagination and beauty of that history making show. But, I hasten to add, it is still not a show to be missed.
The exhibition starts with a quick introduction to Dior’s life. Born in 1905 he had a wealthy, middle class upbringing with parents who had a fortune from a fertiliser business. He enjoyed making costumes as a child, loved his mother and her love for gardens. But despite artistic tendencies, he wasn’t permitted to study any creative subjects, instead obeying his parent’s wishes and going for political science.
Whilst at university in Paris, however, he did hang out with the artistic and wild crowd. Later on, his parents relented in part and funded him in opening an art gallery in 1928. But when the family business went down with the wall street crash of 1929 the gallery wasn’t yet self sustaining and Christian had to make a living for the first time, which he did by selling fashion sketches. It wasn’t until he was 41 that Christian Dior founded his own couture business. Eleven years later, with his work a consistent success and a booming business, Dior was dead.
Entering the V and A Dior exhibition
In the first room, there is a case of artefact, family snapshots, a catalogue from the fertiliser company and a nice portrait of Dior as a young man by Paul Strecker, his rather elfish expression not yet superseded by the pendulous and portly impression he would later give. The room is bright white and designed like a stage set version of the exterior of his boutique. Its very impressive double height scale enables mannequins to be set at all levels, each dressed in a monochrome outfit inspired by the central exhibit, a piece which will make any fashion historian salivate. It’s a cream and white Bar Suit, believed to be the very one photographed on Rene Breton by Willy Maywald in 1947.
The “Corolla” line
This design, from the inaugural “Corolla” collection, was an instant success. The “Corolla” line featured soft shoulders, massive bosom and nipped waist and on many models a flaring full petticoated skirts like the petals of a flower in full bloom. To put it into context, other designers were doing that too that year and the few preceding it but Dior’s version has come down in history as the definitive version, the “New Look” of post-war. The Bar Suit on display, a little yellowed at the labels, is a beautiful object. It is perfectly sewn, with a high attention to detail and its slightly padded hips look charming and not out of proportion. The self covered buttons are hand sewn with tiny stitches. It’s fantastic to see.
Princess Margaret’s Birthday Frock
Also interesting to see, for different reasons, is Princess Margret’s 21st birthday dress. In the famous 1951 portrait by Cecil Beaton, this is an enormous flouf of pink and white, and Margaret is the fairy-tale princess ensconced in the middle. But, though the dress is white tulle as expected, the embroidery is golden yellow and surprisingly, real, rather large seashells rattle among it for an almost rustic look. Beaton clearly didn’t want his princess to look at all rustic, hence the colour change and softening of this detail, and, I strongly suspect, a bit of extra meringue has been photographically added to the flouncy yet wearable ensemble we are viewing.
The next room, in contrast to this bright white room, is glossy black like a Bond St shop window. It displays archive pieces from Dior’s other experiments with shape and line. Though we know him for his hourglass “New Look” pieces, he also made A, H and S lines, and the press eagerly discussed which silhouette would come next. The tightly packed audience muttered with delight over these neat tailored suits and elegant swing coats, and decided they found them desirable and wearable. In fact, I heard more cooing over a modest grey wool suit worn by Olivia de Havilland for her wedding in 1955 than over any of the far more spectacular ball gowns which come later in the show.
In other rooms, these ball gowns go on to take centre stage. There are amazing creations made by Dior but also John Galliano (reliably the biggest and craziest) Raf Simons (refined and intellectual), Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre and Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s current director (Strangely flat, machine made and lacking in thrills).
Attention on the Workers
A room full of cream toiles pleasingly pays tribute to the petite mains and other members of the workshops who tailor and sew these works. And then a rainbow corridor with, on one side, magazine covers featuring Dior, and on the other all the perfume bottles, gloves, hats, illustrations, doll sized maquettes of designs, shoes, jewellery, and other Dior licenced or associated objects. It’s so pretty.
This leads to the grand finale – the ballroom. A seven-minute-long whole room projection casts glitter, swirls and Rococo cherubs on the celling and dresses, which being mostly gold and glittery themselves respond well to this treatment. A soothing yet grand music plays. It’s fun to sit and absorb the effect of these grand gowns from all eras in something like a party atmosphere in which they were designed to be at their best.
The V and A Dior exhibition: Designer of Dreams is on until 1st September.