Is it worth traveling 300 miles to another country at the height of summer to see a exhibition of old clothes? Yes, if it’s in Paris—and Christian Dior, the designer.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, takes 3,000 square meters of floor space, stretches up to the ceiling of the Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, and floods it with over 300 gowns, satin shoes and handbags, in a stunning celebration of the 70th anniversary of the creation of the House of Dior.
A good outfit lifts you up tall, holding in place your most presentable shape, smoothing off bumps and lumps, and puts a cool smile on your face. As it slips over your shoulders, you are suffused by a desire to straighten your back, point your toes, and step out into the world. It helps you bridge the divide between your best self, the stuff of your imagination and fantasies, and your scruffy ordinary self.
The Bar Suit, pictured below, is considered the iconic ensemble from Dior’s first collection.
Christian Dior excelled at this kind of dress, in particular: the elegant formality of the accentuated bust and narrow wasp waist silhouette—what became known as the ‘New Look’—which he launched, in 1947, in his first collection, after his friend Marcel Boussac asked him to stimulate new life into his struggling clothing company. It was part of a post-war attempt to revive France’s acclaimed fashion industry.
Starting with the early life and works of Christian Dior himself, who was born in the seaside town of Granville on the coast of Normandy in 1905, the exhibition follows his work from his first haute couture gowns that burst on to the fashion scene in the late 1940s all the way through to include the designers of the House of Dior that followed him: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
Two rooms, one pictured below, early on in the exhibition, are full of paintings and sculptures that show Dior hung out with, influenced and was influenced by, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Picasso, Calder, and Giacometti.
A little further along, you enter an enchanted garden of a room, where dreams are made, with thousands of white paper flowers suspended from the ceiling.
This is where I had to fight the urge to take one frock—the one pictured below—and try it on, to pirouette about and feel the long skirt brush against my ankles.
The ateliers, the seamstresses who make these wonderful garments, have always been the cornerstone of the House of Dior and the room that pays homage to their efforts—they sometimes put in over a thousand hours to fineness the more complicated design—is breathtaking. Ethereal white toiles, which are test versions of the final outfits, float high up into the air, an invitation to glimpse under the swirling ruffles before you bow down in awe of the atelier’s fingertips.
The final gallery is a cascade of evening dresses that rise up like a wedding cake, with projections of the stars that include Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Portman, and Rihanna, who have worn them: beautiful women, of course, but the dress is the star of the show.
Hours after entering Les Arts Décoratifs, I emerged blinking at the sky as tired as a pilgrim only hopefully better dressed.