Whether you get your clothes off the clearance rack or walk red carpets on the reg, you know the name Dior, the haute couture design house synonymous with glamour and style. While such fine clothing is usually out of reach of mere mortals, everyone can get an up close and personal taste of high fashion at the Denver Art Museum this winter with Dior: From Paris to the World.
The exhibition contains 15 individual galleries, one for each of the seven designers who’ve steered the ship of Dior since its founding, as well as thematic galleries arranged around topics like Dior’s love of flowers, his invention of the “Total Look”–dressing his clients from hat to handbag and even producing matching lipsticks–and the impressive “office of dreams,” which is how Dior described his studio.
Some DAM visitors may wonder if fashion can truly be considered “art” or justify a major exhibition. The exhibition organizers don’t shy away from this question, but embrace it. The show’s curator, Florence Müller, said during the press preview that fashion may not be art, and that it doesn’t mimic art, but “it’s a form of artistic expression.” And like any artistic expression, on occasion fashion can rock the world, spark heated debate, and define an era. That’s exactly what happened when Christian Dior premiered his first collection in February of 1947.
Fashion in the War years was boxy and utilitarian, a style Dior described as, “women soldiers built like boxers.” With the War over, Dior wanted bring the zhoozh back to ladies’ wear by channeling that go-to symbol of femininity, flowers, in a way that was modern and fresh.
His collection, dubbed The New Look, became the defining style of the 1950s. It’s exemplified in what’s called the Bar suit: a white jacket with a rounded collar and corseted waist, paired with a wide, black pleated skirt. The dress is almost architectural in design, dramatically emphasizing the curves of a woman’s figure while giving her a soft, flowing look.
“The New Look… was a success only because it reflected the mood of the time–a mood that sought refuge from the mechanical and impersonal in a return to tradition and enduring values,” Dior was quoted as saying.
But not everyone was on board with this mood. The New Look sparked protests in London, Paris, and New York from people who viewed the style as wasteful in a time when rationing was a not-so-distant memory (or in some places, still happening).
Some feminists also repudiated the style, feeling that Dior’s corseted waists restricted their movement and set women back to the 19th century. “Only a man who never was intimate with a woman could design something that uncomfortable,” Coco Chanel snarked.
Nevertheless, the New Look was an instant success–particularly with American socialites–and hugely influential, even to this day. In the opening gallery of Dior: From Paris to the World, you can view examples of Dior’s New Look, including the Bar suit, and see how his successors have reinterpreted and reinvigorated Dior’s defining look over time.
Dior died suddenly of a heart attack in 1957, and in his place a 21-year-old assistant named Yves Saint Laurent took over as Artistic Director. Perhaps Laurent agreed with Chanel that the New Look’s wasp waists were too restrictive, because his first collection made a major break with the House’s previous aesthetic and introduced a “trapezoidal silhouette”–in other words, the A-line baby doll dresses and shifts that would become part of the uniform for the 1960s mod style and give women more freedom of movement, reflecting the free spirit of the decade.
Laurent was too young and hip for the House of Dior, however, and left in 1960 when he was drafted. He was replaced by Marc Bohan, who created such fashion staples as the pencil skirt and that icon of 1980s business wear, shoulder pads.
Bohan served as Dior’s Artistic Director for nearly 30 years, leaving in 1989, and was succeeded by Gianfranco Ferré, the first non-French couturier to head a major Paris design house. His run at Dior was marked by Baroque-inspired extravagance and theatrical, dramatic collections.
Since Ferré’s departure in 1997, the seat of Artistic Director has seen some fast turnovers. There was the flamboyant and outrageous John Galliano, fired for making anti-Semitic comments in 2011; Raf Simmons, who served for only three years and brought a sporty sensibility to Dior’s traditional romantic aesthetic; and the current Artistic Director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first female head designer for Dior and an outspoken feminist.
Although Dior’s designers may not mimic art, they are all certainly influenced and inspired by it. To underscore this, the DAM juxtaposes dresses with works of art and pieces of pop culture. From Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paired against a green chiffon dress embroidered with grass stalks designed by Gianfranco Ferré, to video of The Wild Ones starring Marlon Brando, which influenced Laurent’s leather-jacketed Chicago look, it’s clear that art plays a huge role in the design of Dior’s haute couture.
But the conversation doesn’t only go one-way. Artists are also influenced by fashion, and designs from the House of Dior have appeared in photographs by Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon, and in movies like Hitchcock’s Stage Fright. Today’s stars are as enthusiastic about couture as the socialites of the 1950s, and you can spot dresses worn by women from Audrey Hepburn to Rihanna in the Ladies in Dior gallery.
Even if you have limited interest in fashion, Dior: From Paris to the World is worth seeing just for the unique exhibition design, which takes cues from organic forms in the spirit of Dior–the curving walls that echo the curves of Dior’s silhouettes and the display pedestals shaped like petals–as well as the DAM’s Hamilton building itself, with aluminum panels reflecting the building’s exterior architecture. The exhibition designer, Shohei Shigematsu of OMA, embraces the conversation of fashion as art, stating that since fashion exhibitions are so new, they’re the perfect opportunity to experiment and provide visitors with a completely different experience from the average museum exhibition.
The final gallery, From Paris to the World, is the culmination of the entire show, with an impressive display of gowns stacked on petal-shaped platforms. Dior didn’t just influence the world; he was an inveterate traveler and collector, and took inspiration from the many countries he visited. Other designers in the House of Dior have followed suit, and you can see their interpretation of Dior’s global vision in the final gallery. Some of the more memorable looks include Mexico, a Day of the Dead-inspired evening gown from 1953; and Voyage de Dior, a cashmere coat and chiffon dress designed by Chiuri.
Whether you’re a fashionista or not, you wear clothes (hopefully). Dior: From Paris to the World provides a unique opportunity to experience the finest expression of something we normally see as a practicality, in a new and exciting way. As Dior once said, “In an era as serious as ours, where national luxury means artillery and jet aircraft, we must defend every inch of our own personal luxury.” That may sound self-indulgent, but Dior saw himself as a champion of humanistic values. The average person will never wear a Dior dress, but shows like From Paris to the World allow visitors to briefly escape into the world of culture and beauty Dior wanted to create, at a time when it could be argued we need it the most.
Dior: From Paris the World will be on view at the Denver Art Museum through March 3, 2019. For more information, visit denverartmuseum.org.