Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams review: Go crazy for couture at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Exploring eight decades of Dior and the man himself at this stylish exhibition.
Without a doubt, Christian Dior is one of the most important designers in women’s fashion. Launching his label in 1947, he transformed ladieswear with the ‘New Look’, among many more stunning designs. I’ve visited several fashion exhibitions in the past, but my ultimate design house to see was Christian Dior. As you may have read, the tickets were a huge hit and sold out immediately, prompting the V&A to extend opening hours. A friend and I managed to get tickets recently to a late Sunday evening opening and ending up spending about three and a half hours in fashion heaven.
The exhibition not only explores the story of the man himself and his path to establishing the worldwide brand, but also follows his successors, including Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and the current creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri. While there is something very ‘Dior’ throughout the company’s fashions, each designer has their own signature look they bring to their label.
Designer of Dreams starts with the French designer’s early life, growing up in a wealthy family and residing in Paris and Normandy. A display shows artefacts from the young Dior’s youth and creative beginnings, from running an art gallery to becoming an apprentice to fashion designer Robert Piguet. With Europe recovering from World War II, women were tired and weary of wartime fashion so were ripe for Dior’s ‘New Look’. Establishing his eponoymous fashion label in 1946, he stood out for giving women shape and silhouettes – a contrast to the boxy, plain designs which were synonymous at the time. One of the first designs you see in the exhibition is the iconic ‘New Look’: the Bar Suit and Hat, a silk, wool and taffeta ensemble of a structured jacket and full skirt. Being a fan of Netflix’s The Crown and its fashions, it was great to see the silk, couture gown designed for Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday portrait in 1951.
The initial rooms of Designer of Dreams were focused on Dior’s realm at his label, with gorgeous dress upon gorgeous dress. The lighting and layout was very effective at highlighting the detail and complementing the aesthetic of the fashions. Following the designer’s death at just 52 in 1957, his young protégée Yves Saint Laurent was appointed artistic director at the tender age of 21. While trying to keep that signature Dior look, YSL embraced a more softer and wearable style. However, YSL didn’t stay long at Dior and moved on in 1960 after just six collections. As a result, there is an understandably small amount of YSL creations in the exhibition.
Rather than split the collections up chronologically and by designer, the remainder of the exhibition is grouped together in themes. Rooms are defined as The Garden (full of florals and some perfume archives), the Historicism room (designs inspired by the Belle Epoque era), the travel room (e.g. designs grouped by continental influence, such as Chinese and India inspired designs), and The Ballroom – a large, magical space with mirrors and a rotating carousel of striking couture. The ensembles are often showcased alongside moving installations, with sound and light effects creating atmosphere and setting. One room recreates the splendour of Blenheim Palace, where Dior famously hosted a fashion show in 1954. The designs of Bohan (1960-1989), Ferré (1989-1997), Galliano (1997-2011), Simons (2011-2015) and Chiuri (2015-present) are interspersed across numerous rooms. This side-by-side placing of Dior designs under various creative directors challenges the visitor to try and pick out the similarities and differences between them.
As the displays progressed, I found myself trying to guess the designer of an outfit before looking at the information card, by making assumptions about the decade or the aesthetic. I’m far from a fashion expert, but I rightly guessed majority of Galliano designs, which are generally more flamboyant than his predecessors. Overall, it did feel like there was more Galliano creations in the exhibition than other designers. While they were obviously fabulous in every sense of the word, they weren’t always so practical and wearable as the feminine ballgowns of Chiuri or the conservatism style of Bohan.
Overall, the exhibition features over 200 garments, along with hundreds of other objects, including Dior fragrance, beauty, luggage, jewellery and footwear. Sketches, photos and videos bring the journey of the clothes to life – from the original drawings, to the toiles in the Atelier Room to footage of the catwalk shows. My friend and I absolutely loved the exhibition and were left lamenting we couldn’t afford Dior couture. The curation was quite different to what I’ve seen in other fashion exhibitions and really showcased the creations to good effect. If you can get hold of a ticket, you’re in for a treat.
- Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on from now until 1 September 2019. Exhibition opening hours vary (tickets sold in timed entry slots). Tickets: Adults £20-£24. Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, SW7 2RL. Nearest station: South Kensington. For more information, visit the V&A website.
For a guide to what’s on in London in August, click here.