Seventy years ago a bland little bloke on the other side of the planet sparked a fashion revolution that peaked right here in Australia and still resonates around the world today.
It was 1947 and, after years of drab, mannish, war-rationed fashion, a shy, middle-aged Parisian named Christian Dior twigged that women were uniquely parched; they wanted their femininity back. They wanted to look like women again.
“They were desperate,” says Katie Somerville, the National Gallery of Victoria’s senior curator of fashion and textiles, and head curator of the lavish, seven-gallery The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture that opens this week. “They wanted something that was radically new. And that’s what he gave them.”
Dior’s Corolle collection of February 1947 (the first from his eponymous couture house) became known as the New Look. It blasted the boxy, broad-shouldered fashion rations of World War II into oblivion, and proposed instead silhouettes that zoomed elegantly down from soft shoulders, kinked into 46-cm waistlines and blossomed – whooosh – into petticoat-fattened skirts that swayed gracefully to the lower calves.
“I have moulded my dresses to the curves of the female body,” Dior said at the time. “I have designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts and handspan waists above enormous spreading skirts.”
So dramatic was the New Look’s impact, legendary photographer Cecil Beaton observed: “Any woman in an ‘old look’ dress was marked for pity and ridicule.”
Katie Somerville has installed the star of that prophetic collection, the iconic Bar Suit, front and centre in the first of The House of Dior’s rooms at the NGV. Its shapely ivory silk shantung jacket, deep, curved peplum and thickly pleated skirt – padded secretly for extra hip girth – are instantly recognisable, still the most famous fragment of Dior’s decade-long career. (It’s astonishing, given his legacy, that Dior ran his fashion house for just over 10 years before he died of a heart attack in 1957.)
“The exhibition isn’t chronologically set out,” explains Katie, “but we do start at the start. We thought it important to establish that story of the early years because, though many people do know his name, they don’t know much else, or even what type of designer he was.”
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Dior was an unwitting rebel; reportedly so shocked by frenetic reactions to the New Look he murmured, “What have I done?” at the end of the Corolle show. And the response was not all positive; the silhouette’s regressive corsetry and extravagance (up to 40 metres of fabric for one frock) scandalised many, including Coco Chanel, but delighted more.
Australian women were among the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters. They were already avid fans of French couture, having been treated to a rash of catwalk parades of fresh-picked collections flown in juddering converted Lancasters from Paris by the Australian Women’s Weekly and David Jones.
By late 1947 they’d even seen the Bar Suit up close in a mixed show of Parisian couture, and had run up their own versions of a particularly chic black Dior cocktail gown from a pattern published in the Weekly. Aussies, in other words, were more than ready for front-line duty in Monsieur Dior’s widening New Look revolution.
“Australians have a cleaner, brighter outlook and are more receptive to new ideas than the tired people of European countries,” Dior stated in 1948, just before shipping the New Look collections he’d dubbed Envol and Zig-Zag to Sydney for an historic show series at David Jones. It was the first time his entire seasonal offering was shown outside Paris.
In the NGV’s The House of Dior, one long room is devoted to those momentous days, but that’s where the chronology ends. “We followed themes instead, so you get a real sense of the key things, the dynamism,” says Katie.
One themed gallery for example, is devoted to Dior’s ‘codes’; the lines, forms and core design influences like the flower, the 18th-century references and other themes that were originally established in his era then revisited again and again by later creative directors.
More than 140 breathtakingly lovely couture gowns and impossibly chic ensembles (200 garments, accessories and toiles in total) are arranged by those themes into the seven galleries across the exhibition’s huge footprint. It’s technically bigger than the NGV’s recent Van Gogh blockbuster, and incorporates a Dior-esque staircase and suspended mezzanine.
More than 90 couture pieces were borrowed from Dior’s Paris archive, 15 from British fashion writer and collector Hamish Bowles and 20 from the NGV’s own Dior archive, including an example of Yves St. Laurent’s first collection as Dior designer in 1958 and a ravishing little black silk faille cocktail dress ordered for Nat King Cole’s wife in 1954.
The prize treasure in the NGV’s Dior archive, however, is an haute couture gown in the deconstructionist style from the spring-summer 2000 collection of John Galliano, the most ingenious and infamous of the house’s seven creative directors since Monsieur Christian.
Last month it was joined by another rarity; the NGV’s special commission of a Dior red coat from minimalist Raf Simons’ short-lived creative directorship.
The exhibition’s final sweep is an avenue of haute-couture masterpieces by each Dior creative director: Simons, Saint Laurent, Galliano, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre and current head Maria Grazia Chiuri. The NGV’s Katie is intrigued by their varying allegiances to Dior’s original codes.
“It was obviously a balancing act for them,” she says. “The house heritage, against what they could truly bring of themselves.”
One quality on which none of them compromise, however, is femininity. Seventy years after the New Look stunned the fashion world, Dior women still look unmistakably like women.
What does Dior mean to you?
“Dior to me is timeless elegance. An ideal. An aspiration.” – Lindy Klim, businesswoman, creative director.
“Dior is my “go-to” for red carpet inspiration. It defines sophistication with iconic fashion moments like Jennifer Lawrence – memorable but graceful – in dusty pink haute couture, falling down the stairs to accept her Oscar in 2013.” – Lana Wilkinson, celebrity stylist
“Dior embodies a profound zest for the art of adornment; a means through which the past and present are reconciled in a tender dialogue between silhouette and fabrication.” – Alexia Petsinis, fashion influencer, writer, artist
“Dior means the last three years have been the best of my professional life. I savoured the remarkable opportunity to delve deeper into the fascinating world of Dior couture with its tantalising blend of tradition and modernity.” – Katie Somerville, senior curator, Fashion and Textiles, NGV
The House of Dior
- Seventy years of haute couture
- Aug 27 – Nov 17