Reviewed: Christian Dior at the V&A

 

‘Maman, je hais les bottes’, a little girl informed her mother of her dislike for a mannequin’s boots.
‘C’est quand même assez chic’, her sister disagreed.
‘I had a jacket rather like that in the eighties’, reminisced an older woman.
‘I don’t like that at all’, her friend with the pompadour and purple coat and countered.
‘Elaine liked the green dress.’ Who is Elaine?

Such are the sorts of things you might hear as you weave through the day-dreamscape that is the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. For a few minutes, I thought of framing my visit as one made through others’ impressions—those of Lady Purple Pompadour and opinionated French children. Never had I been more tempted to eavesdrop, but with the over 500 exhibits and some truly fabulous displays, soon my own impressions became more than enough to catalogue.

This is a favourite feeling: the heart-eyed, physical and emotional sense of being so visually overwhelmed that you don’t know where to turn your gaze first. At one point, I stood and looked up at the smart-tech surface of a classically ‘painted’ ceiling explode in gold shimmers and fade to constellations before sitting down to watch the light show again. And again. And then once more.

An evolution of the Musée des Arts Décoratif’s Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, Dior begins with a small biographic timeline and a morphology of the Bar Suit—its oh-so-recognisable New Look silhouette and variety of iterations. The visitor is then guided through a shiny white model of the designer’s 30 Avenue Montaigne façade into an organic suite of themes, including the newly arranged ‘Dior in Britain’. Featuring Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday couture gown as its statement piece, this section treats Dior’s Anglophilia, collaborative endeavours with British fashion manufacturers and success amongst British clients. 

A parade of Aladin dresses (Right: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1953, Vivante Line ‘Lively’) and Mazette ensembles (Left: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1954, H line)

In the first of the nine sections beyond the anteroom, ‘The Dior Line’ presents ten quintessential Dior looks from 1947 to 1957: the ten-year span between Dior’s first collection and his death at age 52. Faced with the glowing strips of light delineating each mannequin’s space against the black background and the mirrored frames, my eyes slipped in and out of focus and my depth perception felt spotty. Curators suggest the timelessness of the line’s formative years in the telescopic space between opposing mirrors, and the selected ten ensembles become an endless stream of Aladin and Blandine, Maxim and Mazette.

With subsequent sections centred around ideas rather than chronologically, the exhibition maintains an equilibrium between cohesiveness-continuity and variety-expansion. The ‘Garden’ room reminds us of the inverted flower shape of the New Look—la corolle. The maximalism of John Galliano’s 2004 Look 4 Ensemble, resplendent in velvet, damask silk and erminesque rabbit fur, resonates with Christian Dior’s taste for romantic historicism. And the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director takes the Dior ethos of ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ to a new dimension, where a woman is no longer simply in a position to be considereddressed and celebrated—but to lead the House of Dior. 

‘The Atelier’ at Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A

Exhibition highlights include the crisp, ultra-exposed showcase of ‘The Atelier’, with its variety of workshop toiles: look closely, and you may recognise designs previously exhibited. Accompanying videos of meticulous craftsmanship are a bit hypnotic. Have you ever thought of how the bows on the bottles of Miss Dior are cut and tied by hand? The Diorama arranges seven decades of shoes, sketches, accessories and makeup in a rainbow fade, and I made a game of spotting the most modern of Chiuri’s tarot enamel minaudières amongst seventy years of material history.

The final exhibition piece is the ‘Eventail de vos hasards’ dress, in which Chiuri transposed Dior’s promotional fan from the 1950s to the pale pink tulle skirt of the gown. Holding the original fan, the mannequin stands alone amidst reflections of itself in a now-familiar play of doubling, inversion and self-reference. Dior ends with an image of the future, grounded in the past, of endless openings and chance.

Eventail de vos hasards dress (‘Fan of Your Chances’), Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, Haute couture, Spring/Summer 2018; Fan, Dior by Eventails Gane, 1950-5

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, July 14. 

Learning About 1930s Style

Recently, as part of the Documenting Fashion MA, we visited the Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum. The exhibition features many glamorous evening dresses set out in tableaux and a number of colourful day outfits laid out thematically, from holiday wear to work wear. I previously had little knowledge of 1930s styles as, in my experience, they have often been eclipsed in the popular consciousness by the more famous 1920s Flapper fashions or the ‘New Look’ hourglass designs of the mid-twentieth century. 1930s styles were simple and elegant, yet bold and playful, which is perhaps why many elements of fashion from this period have endured. At the exhibition, I was struck by how much of the day wear contained features which were previously, in my mind, associated with the 1970s; yellow, brown and orange colour combinations, floating fabrics, long skirts and fluted sleeves. Apparently, I was told by my course mates, this is because in the 1970s there was a popular trend towards vintage – particularly 1930s – clothing and styles. One garment which highlights this interrelation between 1930s fashions and later styles is a long summer dress made of fine, white cotton or chiffon, decorated with brightly coloured polka dots. The layered skirt and ruffled sleeves are striking yet elegant, and it is possible to see how such elements were reinterpreted in 1970s fashions. Furthermore, the delicate fabric and stylish pattern would not be out of place among summer garments today.

What also struck me about the 1930s dresses, particularly the evening gowns, was how figure-hugging they were, with silks – as well as newly invented synthetic silk-like fabrics, such as rayon – closely skimming the shape of the body. We were told by our guide that these garments were so tightly-fitted that no underwear could be worn with them as it would have shown through the thin silk and ruined the elegant sweep of the dress. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this trend for figure-hugging evening wear coincided with a vogue for fitness and health, which encouraged women to work towards the ‘ideal’ sporty body. This close-fitting style appears sensual and noticeably revealing even to the modern eye, displaying an attractive and alluring silhouette.  I love many of the garments in the exhibition, but one of my particular favourites is a beautiful, bright yellow silk gown with a subtle ruffle of fabric around the shoulders and bust. The colour is strikingly modern, reminiscent of the currently fashionable ‘Gen-Z Yellow’, and stands out even among the array of brightly coloured dresses. Another favourite is a peach gown which makes great use of the bias cut, popular in the 1930s, which meant that the fabric would have rippled gently down the body. The cut-out detailing on the back is reminiscent of Art Deco geometric patterns which were in fashion, particularly for home wear, during this period.

The 1930s fashions we saw in this exhibition are elegant, colourful and glamorous. They have a definite air of chic refinement but also utilise bold patterns and innovative styles which give them a sense of vibrant modernity. This fusion may be why elements of these styles have endured for nearly 100 years yet still appear modern today.

Photos by Lily-Evelina England and Jeordy Raines with permission from the Fashion and Textile Museum.

Jackie O. and The Glamour of Privacy

With the new film Jackie, starring Natalie Portman in the title role, about to open in London there seems to be Jackie fever sweeping the media and culture in anticipation. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is admired all over the world for her style which expressed a very American elegance that seemed effortlessly simple, feminine, and glamourous. Her style, however, is almost always represented by the “Camelot” years in the White House and the few years before and after. As much as her style then was impeccable and lovely there was also another Jackie, whose way of dressing was softer, more romantic, creative, and practical, emitting a different kind of glamour – Jackie O. Her new moniker refers to her marriage to Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis from 1968 until his death in 1975 and marks a time when she took a deliberate turn away from the public eye and in so doing glamorized the tension between privacy and fame. It is widely considered that she married not for money but for things much more precious – privacy and, by extension, safety. After the assassination of her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy, Jackie’s fears for her children’s security grew and she determined to leave the country. That same year she married Onassis and embarked on a life in Europe, living in Greece, Capri, Paris and on Onassis’ yacht.

Jackie in Capri, 1970s ©Getty Images

As First Lady in the early 1960s, Jackie had the styles of the time on her side. Given the more challenging fashion silhouettes of the 70s such as wide lapels, flared pant legs, busy prints, and clinging, shiny jersey, it is a decade that isn’t usually cited for classic, enduring looks. Yet, within this moment of fashion, Jackie O. forged a new look for herself through her taste and lifestyle that managed to be both timely and, once again, iconic. Big sunglasses, which she began wearing as early as 1966, were her staple, becoming so much a part of her image that they seem to be part of her face, and indeed she is perhaps even more recognizable with them on than off. It is rare to find a picture of her outdoors during this time with her eyes visible. In an effort to avoid being noticed, she paired her oversize sunglasses with large scarves, often from Hermes, worn kerchief style over her head. Add to this a trench coat with the collar turned up and her incognito uniform is completed.

Jackie O’s signature look of privacy.  Arriving at JFK Airport, NYC April 3, 1976 ©Getty Images

These aspects of her dress are the most obvious ways in which she cultivated an aesthetics of privacy through her clothes, demeanor, and lifestyle. While both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar cited her regularly in articles and editorials on style, inevitably the images they used were photographs of Jackie at public social events or on the streets. It is clear that Jackie O. was not willing to sit for editorial fashion spreads or cooperate with any publicity endeavors. She was photographed more than once going barefoot through the streets of Capri, sandals in hand, in order to outrun the paparazzi. A famous shot of her walking hurriedly down a New York city street as a photographer behind her snaps her picture captured the essence of Jackie O. – remote, dignified, casual, private.

Jackie sighted on Madison Avenue, October 7, 1971 ©Getty Images

She had two looks, one a sporty look of white jeans and a black top, either a crew neck t-shirt, button-down shirt, or black turtleneck sweater, often ribbed. The repetitive look was another uniform that created a public façade for protection.

Jackie outside Claridge’s in London, September 1970. Jackie O’s signature look of privacy ©Getty Images

West Palm Beach, 1973 ©Getty Images

Her look the rest of the time veered towards gypsy skirts, flip-flops or sandals, belts, peasant-style dresses, and increasingly, prints. She always carried a Gucci hobo bag later named for her. Instead of Givenchy and Dior dresses, Chanel suits, and Oleg Cassini gowns she was wearing lots of Valentino. Instead of dressing prim and proper for public consumption by representing the nation, Jackie was dressing for herself and she did so with a jet-set resort sensibility with a dash of au courant bohemianism. This new style was not only softer, more sensual, and more fluid, it screamed out exclusivity and rarefied living. It was neither the wardrobe of a First Lady nor one of a working woman of the day. These were off-duty, romantic, resort clothes that spoke of a leisured lifestyle based in a cosseted existence.

Jackie in Capri August 24, 1970 in a gypsy skirt and sunglasses ©Getty Images

Ironically, just as the oversize sunglasses obscuring her face ultimately came to identify her, Jackie’s extreme avoidance of photographers and publicity of any kind during these years had the effect of making her even more alluring to the public. Photographs of her became the paparazzi’s holy grail. Remoteness makes the desired object all the more alluring and the image of Jackie O. in the 1970s epitomized this paradoxical aspect of glamour.

After the death of Onassis, Jackie took up a career as a book editor and turned to a typical Upper East side of New York look of lady-like suits and slacks with trim sweaters. She returned to a social life in the city though she remained low-key about publicity. Her days of being a recluse were over but their impact on the image of glamour endures.

Wearing a printed dress to attend the Metropolitan Opera House Royal Ballet in NYC, May 7, 1974 ©Getty Images

MA Study Trip to New York City: Voices from the past, visions for the future: a visit to Condé Nast’s New York archive.

One has only to scan the bibliographies of most major academic fashion articles to see that Vogue maintains a position of the highest authority in sartorial research, particularly concerning the interwar years. This is not to say that other contemporary fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar lack academic importance: more so that the material bound to each issue was not deemed worthy of preservation back then, in fact much of Bazaar’s archive – including prints by Richard Avedon, Man Ray and Louise Dahl-Wolfe – was destroyed in the 1980s. This was not the case with Condé Nast’s archive, which dates back to the 1920s, instigated by Mr Nast’s awareness of the monetary value of this vast collection of images. In our recent visit to the New York archive, Shawn Waldron, Senior Director of Archives and Records, showed us just how vast this collection really is. State of the art, temperature-controlled rooms house the thousands of high-quality original prints in colourful, expertly alphabetized folders. The effect is mesmerising, like a sweetshop lined with Steichens and Horsts, instead of Flying Saucers and Humbugs.

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Another room boasts a staggering quantity of loose and bound copies of publications, such as Architectural Digest, Glamour and Vanity Fair and, of course, Vogue. A researcher from a well-known fashion label pores over bound copies of the latter, highlighting the scholastic potential of the archive. Loose copies of many publications are also available for perusal, offering a more haptic experience for the viewer. The archive today is a dynamic editorial asset, both from an information and commercial point of view, and a far cry from ‘The Morgue’ that it once was. Mr Nast’s business model was ahead of its time, incorporating what is known today as ‘Blue Economy’: the process of turning waste into revenue. ‘The Morgue’ transformed into the active editorial asset that it is today, generating revenue through digital licensing and distribution of images.

As an informative resource, apart from the proliferation of beautiful fashion images, the intricate daily contracts visible on each spread, detailing the names, locations and costs of each shoot, are invaluable to the historian. What emerges is the closely linked relationship between business and preservation, and business’ potential in shaping the fashion canon. Were it not for Mr. Nast’s willingness to invest in the protection of his publication’s material, alongside his fastidious account-keeping, this barometer of social and cultural change would not exist.

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The archive promotes cultural research from many other trajectories; with publications, including Charm exposing what editors told young homemakers was necessary to set up home in the interwar period. Similar interdisciplinary research pathways exist within House & Garden, Architectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveler. These publications bring the past alive, and are a testament to the complexity of day-to-day concerns.

These research opportunities would not be possible without the painstakingly selective process of acquisition, organisation, and digitisation, undertaken by Waldron’s team. The resulting collection, with millions of objects, is unique in fashion publishing. Despite the challenges faced by a small team of archivists and photo editors, working with an ever-growing collection, the archive has become a valued editorial asset that can generate income, promote fashion research, and influence new interdisciplinary study.

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