The Fantastic Christian Dior Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum

christian dior - from paris to the world - denver art museum exhibitionThis month’s been one for visiting museums and seeing exhibits, which has been great fun. A couple of weeks ago it was the new Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and this time it was ensuring that we caught the Christian Dior exhibit at the Denver Art Museum before it ended. By the time you read this, you’ll have missed the boat on Dior as Sunday, Mar. 17 was the last day of this popular exhibit. It was so popular that you not only needed a special ticket, but you needed to pick a time and day for your ticket too. Our original choice for checking out the exhibit was Wednesday, Mar. 13 but that was when a so-called bomb-cyclone arrived. Bomb-cyclone? It’s a heavy winter storm front that included a precipitous drop in barometric pressure. End result: The museum ended up closing for the day. So we ended up heading to Dior on Friday afternoon, a mere 48 hours before the exhibition closed. And it was busy!

In the modern era, we mostly think of the big fashion houses as producing outlandish dresses for the Oscar runway or similar, impractical outfits that treat the wearer as not much more than a living mannequin for the fabric sculpture and art of the designer that’s promenaded in front of the paparazzi. But when Christian Dior opened up his fashion house back in 1947, his goal was different. He wanted to “make every woman feel like a princess”. As the exhibition program states: Dior’s unique style “celebrated the triumphant return of femininity”. The exhibit was organized chronologically and started with that classic Dior silhouette:

christian dior exhibition - denver art museum

These are the original “New Look” from Dior’s first collection back in 1947, and they were met with enthusiasm and some controversy. Some decried the luxury in an era of post-war austerity, and opinions on the skirts were divided too, with some condemning it for “its sensual silhouette” while others complained that it covered up the female leg with long skirts. The cliché that you can’t please everyone all the time is true in fashion too. Even with the detractors, however, the collection harkening back to a pre-war era of bygone glamour proved quite appealing, establishing Dior as a fashion leader.

From black to white: Dior used simple fabrics for first test cuttings and assembly of dresses before moving to more expensive fabrics, and there was an abstract, ghostly quality to the wall of examples:

white fabric 'test' dresses, dior, denver art museum

I found this particularly interesting because I’d never really thought about the process of high fashion dress design, but it makes sense. In the tech world you make prototypes to ensure elements and parts will work together and you’ll end up with the desired result. In fashion, these fabric prototypes are known as “toile” versions of an outfit. Dior started his career as a fashion illustrator (and the many sketches on exhibit were some of the highlights of the entire exhibition, but I’ll get back to that momentarily) and every design started with dozens of sketches and illustrations to figure out the look from multiple angles, seams, materials, assembly and much more. Finally, mockups were done in plain cotton or muslin: Toile versions. Then the seamstresses and other workers would go back to Dior with this fabric prototype worn by an in-house model and ask “did we express your idea correctly?”

As an example, the dress that’s front and center, above, is #48, Toile for a Dress, Look 30. Designed by Raf Simons for Christian Dior, Haute Couture for Spring-Summer 2014. Oh, and the phrase “haute couture” basically means “high fashion”, as differentiated from, say, a pair of jeans or a simple blouse for everyday wear. It doesn’t mean ‘haughty’ even if it sounds similar! 🙂

Which brings us back to the illustrations. Dior was a brilliant artist with a deft style that perfectly captured his vision of femininity and fashion. Here’s but one of the many examples they had on exhibit:

dior dress sketch illustration

When a celebrity like Jackie Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe contacted Dior asking for a new dress or gown, they’d mail back and forth as the concepts were refined. Notice above the small fabric swatch included with this letter from House Dior to the recipient. In many ways, the sketches really seemed to focus on Dior’s concept of “make every woman feel like a princess”, as so clearly captured in the above.

Fortunately, there were lots and lots of finished dresses too, with glorious colors that captured their era. Like this grouping from the 1960’s:

mid-century dresses, christian dior, denver art museum

My favorite of the above is also the most colorful, the leftmost outfit. It’s from artistic director Marc Bohan for Christian Dior: “Chiffon evening dress embroidered with beads and strass, originally worn by María Félix. Haute Couture Spring-Summer 1967.”

Keep in mind that Christian Dior himself passed away in 1957 and since then a number of different artistic directors have kept the brand alive as they also brought their own fashion sense and ideas to the company. Perhaps the most famous of these artistic directors was Yves Saint Laurent, who was with the fashion house from 1957-1960 before opening up his own tremendously successful couture house. Interestingly, he left because his “Beatnik” collection from 1960 was too radical for the Dior clientele even as it perfectly mirrored the times. Even more surprising is that Christian Dior originally hired Yves Saint Laurent as an assistant when Yves was only nineteen.

But let’s get back to color, because there was one dress that was breathtaking in its bright colors, a beautiful homage to the colors of a flower garden:

christian dior at the denver art museum

This sweeping dress was from the aptly named “Fields of Flowers” collection from Raf Simons. It reflects Christian Dior’s famous comment that “After woman, flowers are the most divine creation”. This is the Hellébore dress by Gianfranco Ferré, Haute Couture Spring-Summer 1995. “Long printed organza satin dress, bustier embroidered with beads, sequins and feathers.” The adjacent painting is not a Christian Dior, of course, but is set decoration that continues the flower theme, titled Colorado Spring by artist Marc Quinn.

Remember the “make every woman feel like a princess” theme? This was certainly one of the dresses that I felt best captured that sentiment in the exhibit:

haute couture, christian dior, denver art museum

Not really sure when it would be appropriate, but what a gorgeous dress! This one was from designer John Galliano from the Fall-Winter 2010 collection, it’s am embroidered organza dress and I would defy any woman to wear it and not feel like she’s ready to sweep down the palace staircase and join the royal ball!

I quite enjoyed the Christian Dior: From Paris to the World exhibition at the Denver Art Museum and am only sorry I wasn’t able to bring my children along to see it too. I think we have a sense of haute couture as silly, impractical clothing that tends to say more about the designer than the woman wearing it – and there was definitely some of that on exhibit as the Dior collection evolved through the decades – but seeing the creative process was quite fascinating. And oh, those amazing photographs and wonderful sketches from 70 years of helping define high fashion!

Disclosure: The Denver Art Museum supplied me with two tickets to the Dior exhibit in return for this writeup. Thanks, DAM!

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