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The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture

Mem Capp

This extensive exhibition is not only a tribute to the importance that the House of Dior has had on international fashion but a reflection of its value as art.
The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture

Christian Dior adjusts the accessories of the Zaire dress, on his star mannequin Victoire, during rehearsal for the autumn−winter 1954, haute couture show. Dior Heritage collection, Paris Photo © Mark Shaw/mptvimages.com.

The design fit-out for this exhibition is all important as it recreates not only a sense of the fashion house interior in which haute couture (exclusive, custom fitted fashion) is created but showcases says Peter King, the NGV exhibition designer, the biggest Christian Dior retrospective ever held in Australia. The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture is exclusive to Melbourne through a collaboration between the NGV and the House of Dior, building on the legacy of the David Jones Sydney,1948 fashion parade of 50 Dior creations. Included in this latest exhibition are the designs of Dior and the six successive Dior designers; Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre, John Galliano, Raf Simons and the current creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri. It features 140 garments from the house, designed between 1947-2017 and includes key works from the NGV collection, the Christian Dior Archives, Paris, and other important international fashion collections.

One enters the exhibition via a long hallway, echoing the catwalk perhaps, that ends with the facade of the Christian Dior fashion house in Paris. Each gallery space reinvents a fashion house interior of grand elegance, carpeted with chandeliers and mirrors. In the first space a functional staircase leads to a mezzanine floor and provides a good view of gallery spaces below. It is apparent careful design consideration has also been given to visitor flow and comfort making the experience of viewing the show a rewarding one, despite possible crowds.  The spaces allow room to appreciate the sumptuous piles of tulle, luscious silks, fine wools, as well as beading and embroidery that form the fashion pieces on display. Long walkways running from the mezzanine floor to the second gallery space allows easy access for people in wheel chairs or with prams, easing congestion within the exhibition area.

Christian Dior, Paris (fashion house); John Galliano (designer) Models wearing spring−summer 1997, featured in US Vogue, April 1997 Dior Heritage collection, Paris Photo © Peter Lindbergh. Models: Christina Kruse, Shalom Harlow, Carolyn Murphy, Ling Tan and Debra Shaw.

On the surrounding walls, screens with sound tracks featuring fashion shows, the making of garments in the Dior atelier (design studios), photographs, sketches, haute couture toilet and other archival material provide a greater context to this iconic fashion house over the last 70 years.

Through a series of themes, the exhibition explores the story of the fashion house and its enduring legacy: Signature collections such as Christian Dior’s iconic 1947 New Look established his ‘hourglass silhouette,’ which celebrated femininity and elegance. These new post-war designs were round shouldered with boned bodices, padded hips and full skirts in which Dior revelled in using copious amounts of fabric. His glamorous ball gowns and dramatic evening dresses sparking a renaissance in French fashion in which the rich and famous clambered to be seen. Each of the garments created during Dior’s 10 years as director was named; some collections numbering over 150 pieces, were inspired by flowers, places, people and even his pet dog.

A lover of 18th century art, design and history Dior referenced the era through the interior of his fashion houses from America to Venezuela, as well as in the design and embellishments of his garments with successive designers also taking inspiration from these Rococo excesses. The designer, Raf Simons (Dior 2012 - 2015) in his Look 6 dress (2014) made of silk, cotton with embroidery, directly references the wide panniered skirts of the early 1700s.

Christian Dior sketch of Australia, spring−summer 1955 Dior Heritage collection, Paris. All rights reserved.

‘House codes’ such as ‘the flower’, ‘the line’ and 18th century design elements have been important in the continued success of the Dior brand, enduring as part of its design language and  expressed and reinvented by subsequent designers. The young Yves Saint Laurent, the first of the fashion house’s Creative Directors after Dior’s untimely death in 1957, took inspiration from contemporary youth culture of the 1960s. Cascade, short evening dress, (1959 - 1960) made from silk (tulle), embroidery, sequins and pearls reflect this continued fascination with the lavish and surface application. In his first couture collection for Dior, John Galliano presented Diosera, echoing the Dior Bar Suit, (1947). His fringed wool jacket however unlike the original New Look template is matched with a short black leather skirt and oversized fedora hat, adding his own contemporary slant on femininity, the muse that has inspired all Dior fashion.

For Dior, it was important his fashion house reflect all aspects of what it meant to be a fashionably well-dressed woman, including hats, shoes, hosiery, bags, make-up and fragrances. The exhibition explores Dior’s collaboration with various designers such as perfumer Paul Vacher, shoe designer Roger Vivier and milliner Stephen Jones with whom Dior and successive creative directors have interpreted the fashion codes in new and flamboyant ways.

Christian Dior, Paris (fashion house); Stephen Jones (milliner) Headdress 2003, spring−summer 2003 Dior Heritage collection, Paris Photo © Guy Marineau.

This extensive exhibition is not only a tribute to the importance that the House of Dior has had on international fashion over the last 70 years but a reflection of its value as art. Previous exhibitions such as the blockbuster The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier, 200 Years of Australian Fashion and Viktor and Rolf: Fashion Artists are examples of this.  

Two years in the planning, this fabulous exhibition in conception and scope captures the Dior legacy and shows how great art can transcend not only generations but the limitations and boundaries we place around the ‘high arts’ and the ‘domestic realms’. Perhaps it is best left to Dior to some it up.

'Haute couture dresses have the unique and extraordinary character of art objects. They are among the last remaining things to be made by hand, by human hands whose value remains irreplaceable for they endow everything they create with qualities that a machine could never give them: poetry and life.' (Christian Dior, 1957) 

4 1/2 stars out of 5

The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture


NGV International
180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
27 August - 7 November
10am - 5pm Monday - Sunday

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Mem Capp is a Melbourne artist and writer.

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