Review: Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams
Victoria and Albert Museum, London (February 2 - September 1, 2019)
After the success of Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris), which ran from July 5, 2017 – January 7, 2018, the Victoria and Albert Museum is hosting a reimagined version of the Paris exhibition. The V&A’s take on the show includes a new section examining Dior’s relationship with Britain and an array of new pieces selected from the museum’s vast archives, offering a new interpretation of Dior to visitors. Situated in the impressive Sainsbury Gallery, upon descending into the bowels of the museum is taken on a journey through the history of Dior, both the man and the house.
The exhibition space is divided into eleven rooms, each thematically focused on one aspect of the history of Dior. One is initially greeted by the Bar Suit from 1947 (black pleated skirt, cream fitted jacket, overhanging hat), an iconic example of Dior’s ‘New Look’ that celebrated and exaggerated feminine curves and elegance in a dramatic step away from wartime rationing and austerity. Surrounding the Bar Suit are four reimagined versions from subsequent designers of the house, which serves to introduce the idea that this exhibition is not just about Christian Dior, but also the six others who have led the house in the years after his death.
Walking into room two, one sees the backlit black boxes used in the Arts Décoratifs version of the show employed as a striking backdrop against which several examples of Christian Dior’s different silhouettes are displayed. Whilst the outfits made in lighter fabrics or bold colors stand out nicely against the black background, those made in black and grey materials are sadly difficult to see and do not benefit much from the set.
Moving on to the new addition specially created for the V&A, ‘Dior in Britain’, the focus shifts to Christian Dior’s love for British culture and his relationship with his British clients, specifically HRH Princess Margaret. At the center stands the dress made for her official 21st birthday portrait, taken by Cecil Beaton. The portrait fills a wall next to the dress and provides an interesting point of comparison between the two. The real gown on display glows pale gold, covered in fine embroidery and sequins; its delicate organza silks have aged over time. The fantasy, as captured by Beaton, shines brightly, almost silvery white in comparison, allowing us a glimpse at its original glory.
Also in this room is a display case of photographs, books, and accessories relevant to the theme and illustrating Dior’s connection with Britain. Behind a sheet of glass stands thirteen mannequins in front of a photograph of the library at Blenheim Palace. Each outfit comes from a museum collection in the UK, some with touching stories of the original wearer, connecting Dior to his British clients. The choice of mannequins and hair styling in this room is particularly successful and special mention must be given to Stephen Jones for creating the beautiful and subtle calico hairstyles used to compliment the ensembles - an innovative way of suggesting a hairstyle from another time without using a dated wig.
From here there is a departure in focus, moving to explore the house through the themes that have influenced the collections, from Dior himself through to current creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri. Beginning in the past, the visitor is pulled into a recreation of the Temple de l'Amour in Versailles, with glimpses of a blossoming garden through the ‘windows.’ Set designer Nathalie Crinière creates an atmosphere that beautifully compliments the designs displayed without being overpowering. Nestled amongst the pillars are several ensembles that reference historicism. From Dior’s love of classical French fashion to Galliano’s subversion of it, each design is mounted on a simple headless white mannequin reminiscent of the marble statues that would have filled the halls of Versailles.
The fifth room, which focuses on travel as inspiration, is a shock of color after the muted tones and peaceful stillness of the previous room. Here, different countries are referenced as inspiration, from Mexico and Egypt to Japan and India. There is little discussion around some of the issues the House of Dior has faced surrounding cultural appropriation, and this would have been a good opportunity to engage with those, especially with Galliano’s designs heavily featured.
The crisp whiteness of the garden room allows the ensembles to sing against plain walls as a forest of paper flowers hang above them. Here, a display case is again used to bring together photographs, books, and accessories to offer a deeper look into Dior’s connection with nature. This room successfully sits each designer’s contribution next to the others and is a wonderful visual story of the designers’ connection to one another and the house’s ethos. This room sets up the next nicely, where each designer following Dior is given individual space and some of their iconic pieces are brought together to showcase the variety in style and focus; however, again, any contentious issues are skated over, and the visitor is only given a superficial glance at anything not explicitly fashion related. A slightly more investigative tone to the exhibition would have been welcome.
After travelling through the previous rooms, the all-white toiles situated in all-white cases offers the visitor the chance to see the development and the work that goes into finished garments. The silhouettes featured reference some of the ensembles seen previously which is an excellent way to engage people with the relatively plain garments, bringing us into the behind-the-scenes drama of the atelier. Again, the curators have situated a white room next to another full of color, the ‘Diorama.’ The curved glass case examines the broad focus of the house, featuring accessories from costume jewelry, hats, shoes, and bags, to miniature dresses, illustrations, make-up and perfume. Organized by color the collection of fashion-related ephemera sits opposite a wall of fashion magazine covers from 1947 to the present day. Walking through the corridor could be distracting but instead submerges the visitor in Dior’s history.
The grand finale of the exhibition is ‘The Ballroom,’ in which many evening dresses and outfits are displayed under the ornate architecture of the moving image set. Here the music and lighting encourage the visitor to slowly walk around the space; the changes from starry sky and midnight blue illuminate the dresses and build an atmosphere of mystery, romance, and elegance. The final note of the exhibition is a single dress from Maria Grazia Chiuri’s 2018 Spring/Summer collection. Sitting against a black backlit background, the dress evokes the future direction of the house. This simplicity following ‘The Ballroom’ is a nice touch and leaves a lasting impression as the visitor ascends the stairs to re-join the London streets.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is a spectacular visual history of the man and his namesake house; it brings together fashion and related ephemera to tell visitors the story of the legendary brand and the man behind the brand. However, Christian Dior headed the house for just ten years, and although the exhibition’s title suggests a singular focus on him as designer, there is plenty more in the house’s 70-year history. Despite that, the exhibition is already a sell out success and has been extended until the autumn. It has successfully focused on and unified the work of the head designers, pulling together the threads that run through all of their work, and offering visitors a look into the astonishing world of haute couture.