I’m not paid to say this but really, there’s nowhere like the V&A for detailed exhibitions with high production values. I’ve been guided through the history of underwear, and strolled across the top deck of an ocean liner (stopped in my tracks by a wrecked wooden sun lounger, which had floated up from the sunken Titanic). Their current exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams does not disappoint.
It’s an exhibition of pretty dresses, yes. But more importantly, it’s a discussion between the man himself and the Dior legacy, that’s been reinvented for more than fifty years since his death. A brilliant example can be found in ‘Juno‘ – a gorgeous cream/grey dress, strapless with the New Look narrow waist, a skirt of falling petals embellished with crystals, with turquoise and blue beading on the edges. Think of the Little Mermaid, if she were attending a ball in 1950. It features in the grand ballroom towards the end of the exhibition (we’ll get there in a minute). Across the room, another mannequin wears ‘New Juno’, designed by Dior’s current Creative Director, Maria Grazia Chiuri for Spring 2017. The silhouette is recognisable, there’s the petal-like skirt, but it’s more easily wearable – light and less structured, made with tulle in blush shades. It’s the Dior archive, played on her terms. This exhibition is keen to show that there isn’t a reverence within the Dior house towards the golden era of 40s/50s couture. It’s explored and evolved for women today.
But let’s head back to the beginning – where clips of Christian Dior in his atelier are played on one wall and the Bar Suit (the symbol of the New Look, that smashed its way through post-war austerity) stands in the centre, encased in glass. On either side, there are riffs on this Suit by subsequent Dior Creative Directors over the years – including John Galliano, Raf Simons and Chiuri. Even in this first room, you can see people finding their own Dior – spending more time looking at one Creative Director’s vision than another’s. But everyone starts with an overview of the man himself: his childhood and curving career from university student, to art gallery proprietor, to illustrator, to designer, to manager of a new kind of empire that included couture, perfume and licensed designs to department stores; to his death in 1957 and the Director role passing to a 21 year old called Yves Saint Laurent (who would become rather successful in his own right too).
A portion of what we see comes from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs’ exhibition of the same name, which ran last year. However, the V&A have reconfigured this material and included Dior’s interest in Britain, his fashion shows here, and his friendship with Princess Margaret. I was enthralled by a corner of information on Dior’s shows at Gleneagles and Glasgow’s Central hotel circa 1955, which were held to raise money for French sailors. There’s a brilliant magazine photo of a ‘wild’ Scotsman reeling with a Dior model at the ball after the show (she looks thrilled). I’ll have to find out more about this local history!
As you move through the exhibition, you’re guided through the New Look silhouettes – far too many gorgeous outfits to describe here! The garments are also gathered thematically – to explore influences such as travel and flora/gardens. Dior’s own designs are placed amongst that of his successors, allowing you to draw your own comparisons. In a stark glass room, you’re surrounded by toile. These are cotton work-in-progress constructions, used to finalise the designs. This backdrop also featured in Chiuri’s Autumn 2018 couture show, and it encourages you to recognise the process and effort of the whole atelier. As you move on, I’d recommend you look out for various miniature gowns – many are displayed in their full-scale glory in the final ballroom.
If you’ve lingered over as many dresses as I did, the ballroom is probably where you need a sit down. From a padded bench, you can admire the couture gowns on display (you’ll soon be up again to get close to the detail). My picks were a 1950s Christian Dior’s strapless cream dress with bands of pearls and crystals, and its bronze 1954 counterpart. You can’t leave the room without a collection of dresses you’d dream of wearing, or at least examining further.
But all this opulence begs the question: what place does couture have today? Why should the masses buy tickets to stare at dresses we’ll never get to touch? This style of dressing is reserved for the rich, the royals and the A-listers – evidenced by the line up of red carpet outfits in one room, and the wall of magazine covers in another. Perhaps it’s celebrity and influencer culture that has made this particular exhibition so popular – I lost count of how many ‘candid’ Instagram snaps I wandered into whilst trying to read captions. But most people around me were chatting about the dresses’ craft and beauty – not “ooh that one was worn by Jennifer Lawrence”. When the design is tangibly in front of you, your focus shifts. It’s a wonder, really, that some people can actually make this stuff. By hand.
As I went through the exhibition, I heard many ordinary people like me remembering their mothers or grandmothers fashioning versions of the New Look. Nowadays, of course, we have instant access to all the latest looks – you can stream fashion shows live, scroll through red carpet snaps and endless Instagram feeds. But things haven’t really changed – most people don’t get to see couture first-hand, so they adapt what spin offs they see to suit their own style.
Although images are everywhere, they only get you so far. A photo couldn’t show me the intricate detail in the tapestry-like blue gown from Chiuri’s Autumn 2018 collection. In some areas, the top-layer of threads for that dress are individually pulled so the finish resembles velvet. In another room, the petal detail on a gown from Spring 2017 is actually made from carefully placed individual feathers. How would I learn from that play of materials, without access to the actual dress in front of me?
That’s just talking about access to garments that are in circulation and inspiring the high street today – without even bringing history into it. Seeing the Bar Suit in person is a connection to a crucial moment of social change.
So if you’re into gorgeous dresses, you’ll enjoy an hour or two wandering round. But even if that’s not your thing, it’s still a rare opportunity to see finely detailed craftsmanship up close.