By Frann Harris
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2017
For centuries the"City of Light” has inspired thinkers, leaders, and artists. Paris—the arbiter elegantiarum, or authority on social behaviour and taste— was where the world’s diplomats and envoys convened on February 10,1947, to sign the documents officially ending WWII.
Two days later, Christian Dior presented his first collection. Dior had fought in the war and was a French patriot. He dearly wanted to see Paris returned to the pinnacle of haute couture, the position it had enjoyed for at least 200 years before the war. The fashions he designed for his 1947 début were so revolutionary that the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar promptly coined the term “New Look.”
Dior’s new look was the “right thing for the time,” according to Dr. Alexandra Palmer. His post-war designs were “very romantic,” ushering in designs that provided a compelling counter to the military look, and the general deprivation and devastation that the war had left in its wake. To celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Dior’s début collection, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is mounting the Christian Dior exhibit. The exhibit features 40 fashions and is curated by Dr. Palmer, who is the Nora E. Vaughan Senior Fashion Costume Curator, Textiles and Costume. In that role, she is responsible for more than 44,000 artifacts in the ROM collection of fashionable western dress and textiles. As a subject matter expert on Dior, she is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Art at the University of Toronto. Dr. Palmer has written two award-winning books, and her latest one about Dior accompanies the ROM exhibit.
In interview, Dr. Palmer explained that Dior’s soft-shouldered fashions were ankle-length and required more fabric than the shorter, rationedfabric clothes that women had worn during the war. Not only did his designs require more fabric because they were longer, but they were also more voluminous. Hearkening back to the bustles and petticoats of previous centuries, his fashions were puffed out with crinolines, nipped at the waist, and lined and shaped to flatter the individual bodies that wore them.
At the House of Dior in post-war Paris, as many as 10 specialists might be required to work as a team to create just one outfit for an individual client. When luxury goods were still hard to find, Dior himself would visit the very best European makers of fabric, buttons, sequins and other adornments to achieve his “distinct vision” of dressing wealthy and elite women of the world. The fabric makers would give him fabric and colour swatches, so that his clients could choose from the various materials and colours they wanted for their one-of-akind outfits.
The Dior revolution in fashion was not without its detractors. Despite post-war fabric restrictions, one Dior creation might require up to 20 yards (18.288 metres) of luxury fabrics, which some considered wasteful. Feminists, including Coco Chanel, were outraged with the retrogressive corsets. Nevertheless, the New Look had a tremendous impact on the world of fashion.
The high-priced Dior designs were made for wealthy Hollywood stars, European notables, and numerous aristocrats, including the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and Princess Grace. Some were designed for wealthy Canadian socialites, who could buy them at one of the several Holt Renfrew stores in Canada, including the one in Toronto.
Dr. Palmer explained that, in 1951, Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd., signed an exclusive contract with the head office of Christian Dior in Paris, which covered all of Canada. Under the contract, Holt Renfrew stores had the right to reproduce designs in their own Montreal workrooms from original patterns, which were based on the models of the Christian Dior Paris and New York collections. The authorized designs in the Holt Renfrew couture salons were sold to well-heeled clients. Some of those clients donated their Dior collections, when no longer needed, to the ROM. There, they have been carefully laid flat in drawers or hung on padded hangers, in temperature-controlled storage. For the past seven months, ROM specialists have been preparing these fashions for the exhibit, which spans the years between 1947 and 1957, and runs from November 25 to March 18, 2018. In addition to the 40 fashions on display, Dior-designed accessories from elsewhere will be exhibited—such as shoes from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto; jewellery and embroidery samples from the Dior Heritage collection in Paris; and perfumes from Parfums Christian Dior, Paris.
Dr. Palmer explained that the first step in preparing the fashions for the exhibit was the Senior Conservator’s assessment to determine the restoration necessary to make any repairs to stabilize the garments for display. After the necessary work, the garments were mounted on three-dimensional figures. These dress-forms were modified and customized for each garment. Easier said than done.
Curator Palmer explained that the dress-forms had to be whipped into shape, quite literally, to “make the dresses work.” As she explained, the ROM mannequins were sculpted and padded so that the forms eventually fit into the fashions on view, in a process of reverse tailoring. This method of altering the form to fit the clothes is the exact opposite of altering the clothes to fit the form, which is what Holt Renfrew couturiers did for their Canadian clients so that the Dior imports fit their figures properly. Although each of Dior’s clients bought clothes that were tailor-made for her, and her alone, the same client faced a daunting challenge when stepping into her new dress: Inevitably, she would have to call for help to get dressed because of the intricacy of the haute couture garment—whether it was the tiny hooks, or the hard-to-close buttons, or the form-fitting foundation.
Such intricacy is the essence of haute couture, and it is this intricacy that Dr. Palmer wants visitors to the Christian Dior exhibit to observe and appreciate. She wants fashion enthusiasts to understand why, like the criteria for true champagne, the criteria for haute couture must meet rigid standards, in order to be protected by law.
Much has changed in the 70 years since Christian Dior exhibited his first collection in 1947. Technology being one of the significant changes, the ROM exhibit will include iPads with historical documents and photographs of details, enabling enthusiasts to see the centuries-old couture traditions that Christian Dior upheld— and does to this day— in the design and making of haute couture. Dr. Palmer wants ROM visitors to understand the craft and design and depth of knowledge that are the hallmarks of Dior fashion, such as the sewing techniques (couture), embroidery, and weights hidden in the lining of a jacket or skirt to make it hang properly. Visitors to the Christian Dior exhibit will be able to actually see inside some of the fashions. With the help of technology, everyone will get a glimpse of what the curator calls Dior’s “serious foundation garments,” such as the wasp-waisted corsets, bustier-style bodices, hip padding and petticoats—all of which are designed to give the wearer a very curvaceous look.
Dr. Palmer calls the exhibition “visual” and says, “I want [visitors] to look and see.” Visitors to the ROM exhibit will be able to do just that. Visit: www.rom.on.ca/dior.
Frann Harris is a freelance writer, author and Associate & Managing Editor of this magazine
Name: Caracas; Line: Libre Spring-Summer 1957
Occasion: Late afternoon dress; Atelier flou: Christiane; Mannequin: Lucky
Textile: Aléoutienne silk (silk warp, dupion silk weft) by Staron; ROM 2013.73.13
Gift of David Lepofsky from the Joan Lepofsky Collection
Photograph by Laziz Hamani