Looking back at 70 years of fashion with Dior, Amy Campbell explores the nuances that make the atelier so synonymous with Parisian haute couture.
Whisper the word ‘Dior’ and you’ll conjure images of eloquently cinched waists, full-bodied skirts, blazers tailored with millimetre precision and, of course, the iconic Bar Suit. Founded by Christian Dior in late 1946, the French fashion house has pioneered a long list of symbolic silhouettes, many of which inspire and influence the way women dress today.
It comes as no surprise, then, that two major retrospectives came out in 2017: The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture at the National Gallery of Victoria, and Christian Dior, Couturier Du Rêve at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. With 70 years under its designer belt, Christian Dior is now led by its first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri. But who exactly is Christian Dior? With a name so recognisable, it’s remarkable to note that Monsieur Dior was at the helm of his namesake for only 10 years.
Born in the seaside town of Granville, France, in 1905, Dior was the second of five children. He expressed an interest in the arts from an early age, and was often seen peddling his illustrations on the roadside of his childhood town. His father – a successful fertiliser manufacturer – hoped Dior would pursue a career in politics. But his son’s creative vein couldn’t be suppressed, and Dior chose to follow his artistic passions.
His journey to fashion wasn’t short and narrow, however. From opening a gallery in Paris to serving in the French army, Dior overcame adversity – including the tragic death of his parents – before landing his first job as a designer with couturier Robert Piguet in 1938.
Honing his skills under the leadership of Piguet and later Lucien Lelong, it wasn’t until December 1946 that Dior opened the doors to his very own atelier. Amid post-war ambiguity, his progressive approach to haute couture garnered praise from the fashion industry. He adorned his models – known then as ‘mannequins’ – in unprecedented shapes and fabrics, like padded shoulders, severely defined waists and necklines that plunged to dramatic effect. His designs were revered for their liberating creativity, and became known as the New Look.
It would be impossible to discuss Christian Dior without addressing his passion for fragrance. He was known for filling his Avenue Montaigne atelier with bouquets of fresh flowers. The bucolic has remained a recurring motif within the Dior DNA and every designer has engaged with the reference in their own unique way.
A new era
Passing away in 1957 at the premature age of 52, Dior’s position was promptly succeeded by his protégé, 21-year-old Yves Saint Laurent. He injected the house with an air of youth and visceral extravagance. In particular, his 1960 Beat collection – which comprised a particularly shocking leather jacket
lined with mink fur – marked a more risqué era for the house.
It was fellow French designer Marc Bohan who reunited Dior with its deceptively classic direction in 1960. He remained at the helm until 1989, the longest tenure of any Dior artistic director to date. After Bohan came the Italian Gianfranco Ferré, who evolved Dior’s quintessential New Look, employing theatrical ornamentation and sumptuous fabrics to merge the traditional with the present.
Under the leadership of John Galliano, Dior became somewhat experimental. From 1997 to 2012, his collections – which were characterised by their vivacious colour and oriental references – marked what some refer to as an exotic deviation from Dior’s founding tenets. As a result, Raf Simons’ sleek yet sculptural take on the Dior evening gown earned the Belgian designer widespread praise when he joined the atelier in 2012.
A feminist frontier
It felt fitting, then, when Maria Grazia Chiuri – previously of Valentino – became the first woman to lead Dior in 2016. Her feminist agenda comes as a modern manifestation of Christian Dior’s original spirit, which – driven by a quest to balance function with flattery – always placed the female at the forefront of design. In particular, her Cruise 2018 collection is a testament to Dior’s legacy. The collection features prairie dresses in bold prints alongside tailoring in tonal hues, and includes a notable refresh of Dior’s original Bar Suit: the perfect offering for a modern globetrotting muse.
This article appeared in volume 28 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.