Denver Art Museum exhibit traces seven decades of French fashion house
Christian Dior was only at the helm of his fashion business for 10 years, but his influence - and the company's - is so outsized that more than seven decades later, the brand remains both iconic and influential.
"Dior: From Paris to the World," opening Nov. 19 at the Denver Art Museum, traces the French fashion house from its founding in 1947 to the present, focusing on the haute couture creations of Dior as well as the six designers who followed him.
With today's fashion consumers jaded by having seen it all, it's hard to imagine a time when a fashion designer's creations would be so revolutionary that they would draw worldwide attention. But that is what Dior accomplished with his "New Look," so dubbed by American magazine editor Carmel Snow. Following the deprivation and rationing of World War II, Dior sensed that women wanted to feel and look feminine again, so he created a silhouette with a fitted bodice, nipped waist and voluminous skirt. The shape was used in opulent embroidered gowns as well as his famous "Bar" jacket with padded shoulders and hips, named for the cocktail hot spot of the time, the Hotel Plaza Athéenée.
Not everyone approved of such extravagance when many in Europe were still impoverished after the war, but the accolades poured in and Dior was off to the races.
The Denver Art Museum exhibition - curated by Florence Müller, an art and fashion historian who has worked on more than 15 exhibits on Dior alone - will feature clothing as well as accessories, costume jewelry, paintings, photos, videos, letters and sketches. Müller, the museum's Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Fashion, said a total of 202 garments will be on display, and "ninety-nine percent of them couture," made by hand in Dior's Paris ateliers. Some were worn by the company's well-heeled patrons, others by Hollywood celebrities like Grace Kelly in the 1950s and Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Lawrence today.
Leading up to the exhibition opening, a team of about a dozen people, some flown in from Paris, spent days dressing mannequins purchased specially for the show. Since the mid-19 th century, Stockman dressmaker forms have been used by French couturiers. Müller said she was a little worried how the clothing would look on them, given the forms lack the stylized heads, arms and legs of modern-day mannequins.
"But it has been a good surprise because the dressers have been able to shape the clothes and bring them to life. It's very intense work and beautiful to look at, almost like a couture workshop," the curator said of the process.
The show also boasts an architectural set design from Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at OMA and director of its New York office. "The whole exhibit is based on curves," Müller says, from the path attendees will follow to one of the OMA-designed galleries where works are displayed on a metal structure with petal-like layers.Roots of creation
The house of Dior was founded on two of the designer's favorite things: flowers and female beauty. Dior was born in the seaside town of Granville, France, surrounded by gardens that would influence him for life, first when he worked in art galleries and later in fashion. "After women, flowers are the most lovely thing God has given the world," Dior wrote in "The Little Dictionary of Fashion," published in 1954.
"Dior had this idea to link femininity, flowers and nature," Müller said, adding that the couturier saw those things as fundamental to the history of art as explored by writers, poets, painters and, yes, fashion designers.
Dior's first collection was based on the corolla, the arrangement of petals at the center of a flower. The theme has been a recurring motif with the designers who came on board after Dior suffered a fatal heart attack in 1957. First up was Yves Saint Laurent, who Dior had hired as an assistant in 1955. Following Saint Laurent and having the most longevity at the company was Marc Bohan, who was at the helm from 1961 to 1989. Next came Italian couturier Gianfranco Ferre, designing from 1989 to 1997. John Galliano brought his creativity to Dior from 1997 to 2011, when Belgian Raf Simons was hired. Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman to head design efforts at Dior, joined the company in 2016.
Despite the changing creative directors at the company, the brand has had a continuity that is rare in the fashion world. "If you look at all the great examples of famous couture French houses, Dior is perhaps the only one that has no gap in its history," Müller says. "Chanel stopped for years during the war."
While each designer has brought his or her own creativity to the brand, they've also managed to remain true to the Dior aesthetic. "There is the notion in the art world of the great masters to learn from, and in fashion it is the same thing," Müller said. "The designers spend time going into the archives, bringing some things from the past to the present day." And just as Dior was influenced by artists of the day, so have his successors. Simons, for example, had fabrics made for his 2012 couture collection based on the colors and patterns of Sterling Ruby paintings. Chiuri's collection earlier this year had graphic black and white dresses inspired by a painting done in 1955 by Mexican artist Remedios Varo.
For those who argue that fashion is more about commerce than fine art, the complexity of making haute couture garments and the rarity of some of the materials used puts this clothing into a special category. Being able to look at garments up close will allow museum visitors to better understand the complexity of creating them, she said. "I think people will discover couture is a form of art because it's based on such complicated and elaborate techniques." So, too, the creative process is to be admired. "To come up with new ideas season after season and challenge the atelier and its suppliers takes research and experimentation," Müller said.Creativity and commerce
Dior was a savvy businessman. "He set up licensing and all kinds of contracts so that companies could provide a high level of product whether it was scarves, ties or costume jewelry in Canada, Japan and South America," Müller said. Dior also knew the importance of putting on events that would attract the rich and powerful, such as in opera houses where patrons could wear their elegant Dior creations.
The designer traveled widely to promote the company. One of the first major awards he received was from Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, which continues to have a relationship with the house and was the sponsor for the museum's opening gala in Denver. Early on, Dior opened locations in Mexico, Venezuela and Chile.
Many celebrities of the day were regulars at his shows in Paris. Ava Gardner and Lauren Bacall were customers, as were such royals as Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Margaret of the British royal family. Dior did costumes for a number of movies but was kept so busy with his couture business and international ventures that he had to turn down film offers.
Dior continues to have Hollywood A-listers promote its products, with Lawrence featured in the current advertising campaign for its new fragrance, Joy, and dressed by the house for red carpet appearances. Other memorable moments include Kidman wearing a chartreuse chinoiserie silk gown designed by Galliano for Dior at the Academy Awards in 1997, a dress that exhibit-goers will see in Denver.
Fitting for a show dubbed "Dior: From Paris to the World," materials were borrowed from collections near and far. Collectors like American Vogue's European editor-at-large, Hamish Bowles, loaned gowns. The largest number of pieces came from Dior in France, but Müller said the house didn't even start taking stock of its history until it had been in business for 40 years. She worked on the company's 1987 retrospective and said she scrambled to get materials. "We had a hard time because they had almost nothing, just some documents, photos and books." They had to borrow from other museums to get the clothing needed for the show. Since then, the company has built up its archives and now is "one of the biggest in the world."
Müller said valuable information for the exhibit came from interviews done with present and former employees of the house, including Pierre Cardin, who did tailoring at the house before starting his own business. "We have done a lot of research and will use all these archival materials to tell this fascinating story."
Joy Dinsdale, a museum board member who, with her husband, Chris, is a presenting sponsor for the show, says she expects visitors to be entertained as well as informed. "The strength of the textiles and Mr. Dior's brilliance as an artist are inspiring," Dinsdale said. "There is so much history to the house that makes it exhibition-worthy.""Dior: From Paris to the World" will be on view at the Denver Art Museum Nov. 19-March 3. A dated and timed ticket, which includes an audio tour of the exhibition as well as general museum admission, is required. 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway. Tickets at 720-913-0130 or denverartmuseum.org