An NGV exhibition spanning seven decades of one of couture’s greatest houses highlights the creative and business genius of its founder, Christian Dior. By Alison Boleyn.
When Christian DIOR opened his fashion house in Paris in 1946, the world was rubbing its eyes in the sunlight after the ravages of war. “All around us, life was beginning anew,” the couturier explained. His first collection, particularly the Bar suit, with its wasp-waisted jacket and voluminous skirt, lit up the imagination of anyone hoping to forget deprivation.
“It’s still astonishing that someone’s first collection had this kind of impact globally,” says Katie Somerville, senior curator of fashion and textiles at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Some of the rare early pieces in the NGV’s upcoming exhibition, The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture, show the designer’s remarkable tailoring and a fondness for combining velvet and satin with workaday wools and tweeds. They also provoked; there were protests at the time over Dior’s extravagant use of fabric.
His New Look silhouette revolutionised fashion but the couturier innovated business practices, too. He licensed operators around the world to make Christian Dior clothing under his direction. “Plagiarism was as much a problem then,” says Somerville. “It was clever to manage and own the copies.”
Dior understood early what Somerville calls the “high-street trickle-down”; while some could afford only a knock-off, they could aspire to a Dior scent. He started Parfums Christian Dior in 1947, the year of his first collection. Hosiery came later and he commissioned Roger Vivier to design the footwear for a decade. “Then Dior set up a little boutique in the house so clients could buy umbrellas and gloves. It’s something we take for granted now but it was extraordinary then,” she says.
Through licensing and charm, he built markets in New York City, wealthy Caracas and Australia, which embraced the label without reserve – the first complete collection to be shown outside of Paris was in Sydney. In the 10 years Dior designed for the house, before his death in 1957, six collections featured garments named Australie; others were called Canberra and Wattle. It was savvy but “it was sentimental, too”, says Somerville. “He had a dog named Bobby and I don’t think he designed a single collection that doesn’t have a dress called Bobby in it.”
He appointed women in key business roles and rebutted money managers’ criticisms that he overpaid the models, not all of whom were young. “Even in the context of the time, it was a little unusual,” says Somerville. “For him, it was less about an obvious beauty and more about intrinsic elegance – and capacity for elegance.”
The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture is on display at the NGV in Melbourne from 27 August to 7 November.