Is there a more iconic silhouette than Christian Dior's New Look? Marking 70 years since the start of the fashion house, a Paris museum is hosting a huge retrospective on the life and work of the world-famous designer.
Much has been said about Christian Dior's first collection in 1947, which took women's fashion in a completely new direction. Long gone were the masculine silhouettes of World War II, and in were long dresses, flowing curves and soft shoulders.
"His work was an ode to feminism and joy, something that had been lost during the war," explained Olivier Gabet, director of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, which is hosting an impressive new exhibition on the fashion house to mark its 70th anniversary.
At the time, Dior's New Look was seen as nothing short of revolutionary. The use of bright colors and the abundance of fabric were a novelty after years of shortages during the war. But where did Dior's influence come from?
Art before fashion
"Art," says the new Parisian exhibition. Few know that Dior, after his childhood in Granville, Normandy, ran an art gallery from 1928 to 1934 in the French capital. For the exhibition, the curators gathered a series of paintings and sculptures collected by the master himself. And while he had a fondness for antiquities and Art Nouveau objects, Dior collected and sold the work of some of his contemporaries such as Salvador Dali or Christian Berard.
Dior often took inspiration from paintings, such as Giovanni Boldini's "Portrait of Madame R.I." and the Madeleine gown, seen here
His love for art had a direct influence on his work when he became a designer in 1957, said Gabet.
"Dior took inspiration from art, instead of doing things the other way," he said. "He never really intended to work in fashion. He made his way progressively to fashion until the creation of the Dior House. This is truly a specialty of Dior that was kept by his successors."
The various rooms of the exhibitions are arranged thematically, with lavish or floral gowns presented next to a painting that might have inspired their creation. The Madeleine gown is particularly striking; it feels almost as if it came straight out of Giovanni Boldini's "Portrait of Madame R.I.".
Even the world-famous Dior silhouette, overly feminine, was inspired by paintings. "There's a clear inspiration from silhouette from the 18th and 19th centuries," explained Gabet. Taking a note from this, the exhibition ends in a ballroom filled with glittering ball gowns, some previously worn by movie stars.
The new Paris exhibition also makes it its objective to show that Dior's successors, after his death in 1957, retained what made his creations so special. Even John Galliano, l'enfant terrible of the fashion world who took the helm of the house in 1996, managed to blend his punk fashion with the simplicity of the Dior touch.
Yves Saint-Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre, Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri all chose to explore Dior's favorite themes: art, of course, but also photography, colors, floral design or a fascination for foreign cultures.
In the flower room, a particularly striking gown, created by Raf Simons for a Miss Dior commercial, looks almost like an impressionist painting with its soft colors and its mousseline fabric.
70 years later, Dior's legacy lives on
But what made Dior, and the legacy he left behind, so important even today is the simplicity of its message, said Gabet.
"Christian Dior's concept was extremely simple," he said. "Sometimes when new collections are presented, the explanation given is extremely convoluted. But Dior just wanted to make women beautiful so they could be happy. It might seem naive, but that was something new in 1947."
This simple goal, as well as the New Look silhouette, left a long-lasting impression on other designers and French couture houses. A room of the exhibition showcases gowns and dresses created by other couturiers, such as Jean-Paul Gaultier or Pierre Cardin, some paying homage to the designer.
Walking through the 3,000 square meters of the exhibition - the largest retrospective ever staged - proves just how successful Dior had been at creating, not just gowns but also a fashion empire. Bottles of perfumes, photographs and magazine covers displayed throughout the exhibition prove that the Normandy native managed to create a cohesive Dior universe immediately recognizable by all.
One thing is clear: in just 70 years, Dior has become the embodiment of the élégance à la française, and if the current revival of the New Look on runaways is any indication, it will remain so for a very long time.
"Dior: Designer of Dreams" runs at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris from July 5 to January 7, 2018.