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Exhibition Review: Dior at ROM

Exhibition Review: Dior at ROM

The Royal Ontario Museum, Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles and Costume (Toronto), November 25, 2017 – March 18, 2018 (extended until April 8, 2018)

Christian Dior, the latest fashion exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, has offered social media fodder for fashion appreciators across Toronto for the past three months. Installed in the Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles and Costume, on the fourth floor of the labyrinthian Michael Lee-Chin crystal, the exhibition celebrates seventy years of the House of Dior’s operations and cultural import. Aside from material access to exquisite haute couture, the exhibition’s appeal is in part derived from the persistent mythologies of Christian Dior himself and the house that bears his name, as explored in reams of publications, and in the 2014 documentary Dior & I. In the context of recent press discussion on the future of Christian Dior under LVMH, including the need to streamline the plethora of licensed products that has “diluted” the brand, and to maintain a more consistent design direction, [1] the exhibition offers a moment to reflect on the landmark contribution that Christian Dior made to fashion and on the craft, ethos, and commerce of haute couture.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer, Nora E. Vaughan Fashion Costume Senior Curator and Chair, is a resident expert in both the late couturier and the ROM’s collection of his house’s oeuvre. Palmer wrote her dissertation on the museum’s haute couture collection pieces dating from 1947 to 1963, [2] and penned the 2009 monograph Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise (1947-57), for which she conducted research at the Christian Dior Heritage and in international museum collections. [3] Like the book, the ROM exhibition focuses on the decade from 1947 to 1957 and features forty looks released between Dior’s introduction of his infamous "New Look," so-called by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, and the time of his sudden death. Palmer has grouped the exhibition pieces into three time-based motifs: Daytime, Late Afternoon to Evening, and Evening, with additional sections around the exterior devoted to Dior’s licensed perfumes and his 1957 shoe collaboration with Roger Vivier, and to the embellishments, materials, and techniques used in the House of Dior’s couture production.

The exhibition does not aim to interrogate the ambivalent politics of the female form that the New Look provoked, nor does it dwell extensively on its provenance. The New Look, “marked by tiny waists, ample hips, and long, voluminous skirts,” offered a feminine silhouette that was at once novel and hearkened back to the comparatively restricted ideals of the turn of the century, an origin “much older, if not precisely historically definable.” [4] Ilya Parkins observes that “though [Dior’s] hemlines moved up and down, and skirts went from full to narrow and back again, there was a certain stylistic continuity between his collections.” [5] The creations on offer here demonstrate Dior’s various, and sometimes controversial, hemlines. [6] However, the predominant element remains the slender waistline. The exhibition’s sole exemplar of earlier aesthetics is a pleated, 19th-century floor-length dress displayed in a separate case beside its boned corset.

The smaller-scale ROM exhibition renders Parisian couture at once international and desirable and accessible.

Palmer’s team positions Dior’s postwar couture pieces as made in the time when the modernist aesthetic was about to transition into 1960’s postmodernism. The designers have incorporated the modernist aesthetic of the couture atelier into the cavernous, postmodern museum space through several touches that enhance the gallery’s tallest walls. A mounted mural near the entrance, with repeated black-and-white photographs of the atelier windows creates an actual glimpse behind the scenes of couture, and a massive, blown-up sepia photograph of the length of the presentation salon, with its chandeliers and drapes, is divided into three sections on the inside wall. [7] In the middle of the space, above the eveningwear dresses and under the apex of the crystal, are installed mirrored orbs that offer a futuristic feel reminiscent of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 2012-13 Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, which installed pearlescent spheres around a platform on which were featured gowns from Britain’s most relevant practitioners.

In keeping with a theme of innovation, the exhibition team has smartly installed tablets, on posts positioned around each of the main sections, eliminating the need to post placards and rendering the viewing experience more interactive. When I attended the exhibition on a weekend afternoon, attendees of all ages were lined up to swipe the tablet screens, which acted as material interfaces between viewer and garment (catering to our desire to touch) and as a historical interface to the garments’ social conditions of production and wear. The meticulous archival information to be found ranged from dress sketches, collection charts and photographs of textile samples, photographs of the prototype on its house model, detail photographs, advertisements featuring the look, and – in special instances – photographs of donors wearing the pieces. A highlight of the Late Afternoon to Evening section is Paimpolaise, a black-and-cream striped cocktail dress made of cotton tulle and cotton Valenciennes lace with a leather belt, worn by Ann Levitt of Montreal (daughter of Holt Renfrew President Alvin Walker) on her December 1950 honeymoon in Jamaica, and shown in a lively black–and-white group photograph. The Evening section features a white satin wedding gown and two custom-made child’s dresses worn for the 1957 bat mitzvah of donor Elaine Roebuck, complete with photographs of mother and daughters at the occasion and quotations from a profile of the women and their Christian Dior couture from the Toronto Telegram. These photographs flesh out these dresses in a social and historical sense even as the dresses stand before the viewer on three-dimensional forms.

Indeed, one of the exhibition’s chief fascinations is its focus on how customers in Toronto and Montreal – “socialites and philanthropists” from families such as the Bronfmans and Eatons whose names still bear cachet in Canada – acquired and wore the ensembles. [8] Of the four Canadian stores that sold Christian Dior’s lines in the postwar era, Holt Renfrew, Creed’s, Eaton’s and Simpson’s, only Holt Renfrew remains in operation. [9] Holt Renfrew’s appropriate decision to sponsor the ROM exhibition reinforces its dual position as a retail pioneer and as a stalwart distributor of international fashion to Canadian consumers. The House of Dior has produced a series of 70th anniversary commemorative exhibitions, including retrospectives in Melbourne and Paris covering output from its entire seven decades and eight creative directors. Nonetheless, like the international licensing of Christian Dior lines – a move that Palmer notes was “unparalleled” in its time[10] – the smaller-scale ROM exhibition renders Parisian couture at once international and desirable and accessible. The more Canadian perspective on Christian Dior’s influence extends Palmer’s examination of the international, postwar couture market farther than the more familiar Parisian-American or Parisian-British distribution models, and locates the ROM’s collection within domestic – national and personal – fashion histories.



[1] “Is Dior Ready for a Revolution?”, The Business of Fashion, 9 March 2018.

[2] Jeanne Beker. “French Dressing”, The Globe and Mail, 23 November 2017.

[3] Alexandra Palmer.  Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise (1947-57), (London: V&A Publishing, 2009) 8.

[4] Ilya Parkins. Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli: Fashion, Femininity and Modernity (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013). eBook edition. Joanne Entwistle describes the New Look as more Victorian-inspired. See Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, 2nd ed., (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015) 160.

[5] Parkins, Pioret, Dior and Schiaparelli.

[6] See Parkins, Pioret, Dior and Schiaparelli.

[7] On couture’s confluences with modernism, see Caroline Evans, The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900-1929, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[8] Caitlin Agnew. “Mid-century designs: A new exhibition revisits classic Dior.” The Globe and Mail, 23 November 2017.

[9] Beker, “French Dressing”.

[10] Palmer, Dior: A New Look, 78.

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