The highlight of Paris’ Haute Couture Fashion Week was not on the catwalk this year but in the wing of the Louvre that houses the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where a retrospective paid tribute to 70 years of Dior in its exhibit “Designer of Dreams.” Christian Dior, who began his career as an esteemed art dealer, only turned to fashion after his family’s business went bankrupt and his gallery failed in the economic tumult of the 1930s. A talented sketcher, he drew designs for Lucien Lelong to pay his bills before the textile tycoon Marcel Boussac backed Dior in his own fashion house, which opened in 1947.
The retrospective reveals this background with family photos, memorabilia and artwork, including an early Salvador Dalí sculpture that appeared in Paris’ first show devoted to Surrealism at Dior’s gallery. Iconic black-and-white fashion photos such as Avedon’s “Dovima with Elephants” and Princess Margaret posing for her 21st birthday portrait in Dior melt away in the next room to reveal the actual dresses behind glass. The images make a major impact but so did what they captured: A British princess in an official portrait wearing French couture. Photos by Beaton, Horst and Penn also reveal how Dior inspired fashion photography to rise to a new art form and how Paris became an integral backdrop for the fantasy with models engaging with monuments and bridges in a kind of interplay that made the city itself part of the language of fashion.
An explosion of color follows in the Colorama display where cases arranged by palette combine miniature model forms with couture pieces as well as shoes, bags, jewelry, headpieces, even nail polish and scents to emphasize Dior’s obsession with outfitting the entire woman from head to toe and even having her wear his signature scent. In this, he was also a pioneer who launched the universe of what luxury brands could encompass.
Covering 32,000 square feet in dozens of galleries, each of which is a world unto itself, this retrospective is the largest exhibit ever staged in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The man and his legacy not only support the attention but they deliver drama and glamour that builds as you move through the spaces with surprises like a ceiling dripping with paper flowers to complement his floral-themed creations and his love of flowers. Gowns are placed in dioramas that highlight their inspiration such as 18th century furniture and portraits of Marie Antoinette’s peers or Orientalist vases or African sculptures. A towering gallery of paper dress forms houses a mini atelier where two tailors from the couture house demonstrate their craft.
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Though Dior himself died only 10 years after he opened his house in 1957, his legacy, and the “New Look” he launched, which brought femininity back into fashion, was continued by many of the 20th century’s greatest fashion talents. An adjacent wing is devoted to them. Yves Saint Laurent was only 21 when he took the helm of Dior, and among his daring and lasting inspirations was transforming the leather jacket from a bad boy badge into a fashion object. The swing dress of the ‘60s by Marc Bohan gives way to the baroque beauty of Gian Franco Ferré, the controversy of John Galliano, the calm of Raf Simons and the first woman to run the house, its current director Maria Grazia Chiuri.
The grand finale of the exhibit is a recreation of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors with glittering gowns from all eras and a light show that casts glows and sparkles across the room to create the effect of a ballroom in a fairytale. Famous actresses from Elizabeth Taylor to Charlize Theron appear in Dior on big screens. It is no wonder that the fantastical finale leaves visitors standing speechless for this is a fitting tribute to a man who continues to influence, in the most elegant way, fashion, style and a city.
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