‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams’ at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, is nothing shy of monumental. Spanning nearly 3,000 sq m of prime space, it first unfolds as a rich, thematic journey throughout the two floors of permanent fashion galleries. Then, as though the second of two acts, visitors proceed towards the museum’s vast nave where the story begins anew, starting with the iconic bar suit from spring 1947, continuing as a chronological focus on the maison’s six designers, and ending with a magically staged ball attended by seven decades of show-stopping gowns.
Not since 1987 has there been a Christian Dior retrospective in Paris. Thirty years later, to mark the maison’s 70th anniversary, this one ranks as the largest yet. Curated by the museum’s director Olivier Gabet, and Florence Müller, who is based at the Denver Art Museum as the Avenir Foundation curator of textile art and fashion, it features upwards of 300 haute couture gowns, many from the museum’s own collection. But arguably even more staggering are all the peripheral objects: the loaned artworks from major institutions, a vast trove of archive materials from the brand’s Dior Heritage department, 700 accessories sorted as a meandering rainbow wall (dubbed ‘Colorama’), plus scores of magazine covers and editorial spreads that testify to how widely and consistently the Dior image has been diffused (Maison Christian Dior was involved in the show beyond financial support).
Rather than forcing one point of view above others, what becomes clear is that the designer’s original vision has been so incredibly respected, preserved and mythologised since his death just ten years after founding his label. Visitors need only glance at the three-storey wall filled silhouettes conceived by all the subsequent creative directors in addition to Dries Van Noten, Alber Elbaz, Comme des Garçons, Alexander McQueen, Pierre Cardin, Yohji Yamamoto and others to sense that his influence and artistic spirit has been kept alive.
Within the exhibition’s biographical gallery, just down from a striking portrait of the designer by artist Bernard Buffet, he appears on a Time magazine cover dated March 4,1957 holding a giant pair of scissors. In his book, Christian Dior and I, he referred to ‘a small bloodless revolution – made by the scissors rather than the sword – whose reverberations extend to all corners of the world.’ Now consider last year’s must-have ‘Dio(r)evolution’ t-shirt, which Müller happened to be wearing four days before the opening when she and Gabet met for our interview.
’His intention was not to be a revolutionary; he was seeing himself more as a reactionary. It was a reaction against the fashion of the war,’ she explained. ‘It was a reaction that became a revolution. But it was not his intention; I think he was more subtle than this.’
The chronological Dior retrospective culminates in a magically staged ball attended by seven decades of show-stopping gowns. Photography: Adrien Dirand
Is the show subtle? Not to the extent that the exceptional scenography, overseen by Nathalie Crinière, presents a steady stream of visually stimulating backdrops, from the illuminated outlines of the 30 Avenue Montaigne façade projected onto the museum walls (don’t miss the upper oval medallion with its highlight reel of runway shows), to the thousands of white flowers suspended from the ceiling in the room exploring the maison’s myriad floral-inspired dresses.
The ambiance in the nave becomes something of a dreamscape thanks to projections of the baroque paintings from the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, a simulated starry sky, and sparkling gold dust (Jean Cocteau famously noted how Mr Dior’s name was a near homophone with d’or, or gold). Here, in the presence of his glistening Junon and Venus gowns – along with at least two dozen others from Yves Saint Laurent through to Maria Grazia Chiuri – such overwhelming beauty successfully perpetuates the fashion fairytale.
But then to hear Gabet describe the selection process for the roughly 100 works of art placed throughout the exhibition is to also detect connections, surprises, and yes, subtleties that give the show added subtance. For while the paintings by Sterling Ruby and Agnes Martin adjacent to dresses by Raf Simons are obvious complements given his affinity for both artists; a torso of Nefertiti from the Louvre’s Egyptian department was only later discovered to exist as a photo in Galliano’s notebook. ‘It’s always when you are respectful to the artwork in the context of fashion that these beautiful and poetic things happen,’ Gabet suggested. ‘The point was not to be automatic but to always find the right and legitimate way.’
Mr Dior, after all, was a gallerist and art dealer before he became a designer; he revolved in creative circles with the likes of Salvador Dalí and Christian Bérard and mounted a surrealist show with his partner, Pierre Colle, in 1923. Chances are, he would have derived pleasure from seeing the modern maiden painted by Romaine Brooks in 1912, and a Fantin-Latour still life as juxtapositions to the floral dresses. Like other intimate vignettes in the show, it felt immune from any imposition of Dior, the mega-brand.
And it would be easy to declare the Colorama fixture the most apparent aspect of this with all the shoes, bags, hats, jewellery and perfume bottles. But Gabet sees it another way, rightfully pointing out how many of the objects represent collaborations with Stephen Jones, Roger Vivier, Swarovski (which developed the Aurora Borealis crystal for Mr Dior in 1956). ‘We are showing all the possibilities of the métiers d’art and craftsmanship technical virtuosity of the house of Dior.’
Incidentally, the exhibition includes an alcove where actual artisans will be stationed on a weekly basis to show off the savoir-faire before visitors’ eyes. That the show has debuted two days after Chiuri’s autumn/winter collection on Monday, is proof that the Dior story, for the first time filtered through a feminine voice, continues to play out beyond the museum walls in real time.
Gabet and Müller both pointed out that with this level of couture, the dresses didn’t simply slip onto the mannequins; they go through a meticulous process called mannequinage. ‘It’s a little industry by itself for the scale this show,’ said Gabet. Müller summed it up best: ‘You have to remember, he’s like a monument,’ she said. ‘You’ve entered into a legend.’