The newly opened Christian Dior—Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum is an excellent snapshot of the way the fashion industry operates in the most traditional sense.
Rather than seeing clothing as a socially-produced art form, it curates a view of a single designer’s impact, glossing over the sexist and racist implications of his work. It promotes the kind of 360-degree branding which Dior pioneered—a strategy which takes into account every facet of how a company is perceived.
Dior was a master of branding. His empire included high fashion, ready-to-wear clothing and licensing deals for perfume, millinery and gloves.
The exhibition features designs from Dior and the seven designers who have succeeded him at the helm of the house. These include Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
It begins with Dior’s “New Look”, launched in 1947. At the time, Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow pronounced, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!”
No revolution, the New Look was part of a cultural and political movement to re-establish pre-war ideals of femininity.
A coyly-titled “travel” section typifies the racist attitudes with which fashion bosses treat ordinary people
The Bar suit—a central design—featured a highlighted bust, nipped in waist, soft shoulders and shaped hips. It was a clear step away from the androgyny of wartime fashion. The New Look reintroduced corsets, which according to today’s popular memory, were ditched in the 1920s.
On display is Dior’s advice to young women. It reads, “Avoid too much makeup, any hair dyes, and anything which does not look natural”. This sits beside artificially-tightened waists without a shadow of irony.
The New Look was criticised at the time for coming about before rationing ended. Like today, the established fashion industry caters to the rich first and foremost. Dior was inspired by the glamorous bygone eras of the Belle Epoque and Versailles.
He wasn’t a tailor by profession, but a rich kid who had owned an art gallery in the 1920s. When he launched his fashion house it was backed by textile manufacturer Marcel Boussac.
By 1955, Dior accounted for around 50 percent of exports of French high fashion. The end of the Second World War heralded some seismic social changes, but the establishment harked back to better days. A coyly-titled “travel” section displays dresses inspired by clothing from around the world, reimagined in luxurious finery. It typifies the racist attitudes with which fashion bosses treat ordinary people.
His legacy is remembered as “headline-grabbing looks maintained both awe and regular custom required to sustain the success of the house.”
The exhibition is not so much fashion history as an exercise in brand identity from the French label, now owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH.