Illustration by: Jamie Lee Reardin
The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto presents Christian Dior, an exhibition showcasing treasured pieces donated by Toronto’s high society from the fashion house’s first ten years.
It’s been 70 years since Monsieur Christian Dior’s first collection, featuring the infamous New Look, revived the fashion world, sweeping out masculine wartime styles and ushering in fresh feminine pieces. The dramatic looks, with their rounded shoulders, cinched waists and long, full skirts, quickly became a barometer of style — they were coveted and emulated by women around the world, securing Paris’s position at centre of the haute couture industry.
Among those enamoured with Dior’s masterful creations during this post-war era were the fashionable ladies in Toronto’s society set, many of who would come to graciously donate their pieces to the Royal Ontario Museum. And thanks to them, Torontonians can now explore the wonderful world of Dior up close at the ROM’s original exhibition, Christian Dior. It looks at such donated pieces designed by the founder during his 10-year tenure at the helm of the fashion house, from 1947 to 1957. Thirty-eight looks are on display, arranged from daytime to evening wear for grand occasion.
The exhibition is curated by Dr. Alexandra Palmer, the museum’s costume curator, and celebrates Christian Dior’s lavish textiles, romantic details and iconic lines, and explores the fashion trends that were followed by Toronto women mid-century. We caught up with Dr. Palmer to learn more about the exhibition and what makes Christian Dior’s designs so special.
RR: What inspired you to propose this exhibition?
AP: The exhibition is one I proposed a long time ago. I wrote a book for the Victoria and Albert Museum on Dior on his business and marketing about the world of Dior in 1947 to 1957, but the exhibit exists because The ROM has a very nice collection of Dior pieces. I’m the curator here at the museum, and I’m in charge of the Western, fashionable textiles and dress. My dissertation was on post-war haute couture in Toronto, so I know a lot about these clothes. Over the years, I’ve interviewed the women who wore them and gave them and sold them in Paris and here. It’s a very sweet collection of this ten year period, the years of Monsieur Dior.
RR: How did the ROM acquire its collection of Christian Dior pieces?
AP: Its pieces people have given to Ontario, to Canada. It shows Canadians what we have, who we were, new ideas, new ways of looking. The exhibition makes sense of what was given to the museum, what people wore, what was appropriate for Toronto, what was brought in here because it was considered appropriate for Canadian women, what people did with it, and how it went out into the social world.
RR: Christian Dior’s designs from 1947 to 1957 are said to have revived the Paris haute couture industry after the Second World War — why were they more powerful, more coveted, than other designers’ in that time period?
AP: There had been a Second World War that was very serious, and Europe was devastated. Haute couture, since the turn of the century, relied upon foreign market, in particular, the North American market, to sustain it in terms of private clients, and there was always this threat that America would not need Paris anymore as an epicentre for design. Christian Dior’s so-called New Look, dubbed that by Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar, put Paris back on the map as a must-go place, a must-see thing to understand what Paris couture is doing before going forward to propose fashions for the new season. Dior was tremendously important. He was a new house, a post-war house that was set up for a post-war economy with a very big vision for the future. The house had very deep pockets in the form of Monsieur Boussac, who underwrote the house, which was something very different from other couture houses that were struggling post-war and had closed, were diminished pre-war or did not have huge sums of money at their disposal. But it wasn’t just that they had a lot of money, but what they did with it.
RR: Why was Christian Dior’s "New Look" revolutionary?
AP: The New Look was in opposition to the old look, the wartime look, which was one of shortages. What Dior proposed was the opposite of that, which was very long skirts that use masses of fabric that were not allowed under rationing, or possible either. They had very soft, rounded shoulders, as opposed to big, boxy padded shoulders (think of the Lauren Bacall suits), long skirts and petticoats and corsets — it was a very archaic style, a very belle époque and romantic, moving back to the past. While other designers, other couturiers, had elements of that, Dior managed to synthesize it into a complete look and was remarkable for the way he presented things. He pulled all his ideas together in a very homogenous way, and it was what people wanted, otherwise it would not have worked. It was a breath of fresh air. It signified the war is over, this is a new time, we can do this, we can go forward. Also, it was very remarkable because it made all your clothes obsolete. It made your wardrobe obsolete. If, in fact, this is the way you’re supposed to look. Your wardrobe is completely insufficient. You don’t have anything that could possibly even adapt to that because you cannot make a short dress long, you can’t make a thin dress wide, and so it really was very dramatic.
RR: What can we expect to see in this exhibition?
AP: The exhibition is about the clothes — what is it about the actual clothes that made Dior so successful. What was it that people needed to see, to wear, to have, to look at, to copy, and what specifically was in those clothes that made them so successful. The exhibition is very much about construction as well as all the workers who helped create the world of Christian Dior which is anyone from the atelier who’s making it, designing it, the embroiderers, the men in textile manufacturers, the beaders, the jewellers — there are thousands of people who support the couture industry, and I’m very interested in those people and those systems aside from just the iconic name. What makes that work is what interests me much more than the man himself.
RR: What is it about the construction and style of these pieces that interest you?
AP: It’s all very typical of Paris couture, and this is what makes Paris couture Paris couture. The thousands of very specialized trades that go back centuries, they go back to medieval gills and that is what it’s about. Understanding how all these small industries, makers, craft people, rely on each other, and it’s a very symbiotic relationship, and Dior was extremely aware of it. You can’t make extraordinary things unless you have other people making everything. All these people are designers and as creative as Monsieur Dior, and he relied on that, and he knew that, and he selected from those people and from their designs what he wanted, what worked for him.
RR: Why should couture be celebrated?
AP: Couture continues the skills that we’re losing and it prioritizes luxury and prioritizes craft. And, of course, that’s not the same when you look at fast fashion. They prioritize cost. Buying it, wearing it, not even washing it and buying a new one. It’s a very different kind of economy and very different cultural values. We don’t appreciate quality and craft and people don’t really understand it. If you really look at embroidery, you know it’s not a two-dimensional design, or a surface design. It’s a three-dimensional design and every single bead is carefully chosen, and it’s about 150 decisions on that one thing. Design is a fantastic thing and it can change your world, but you need designers to do it, and you need to understand the skills and how to use materials and how to get it done really well, and that’s what couture really understands. And that’s why it’s so interesting, particularly in a world where we’ve lost a lot of this understanding.
RR: What do you hope we learn from the exhibition?
AP: I’m hoping people look and they look again and they look again and then they’re really amazed because they actually see things they didn’t see the first time, because people don’t know how to look closely anymore. Take the time to spend with it and think about it and appreciate the skill and the craft that went into it, and understand how it all goes together and what the point is. Costume exhibitions are interesting because people respond to them differently, because we have this intimate relationship with clothes, but people don’t understand a lot about them because they never stopped to make them or look at them or think about them. They’re too common. So, it takes a museum to get people to move beyond that and to think of them intellectually and as design objects and to analyze them more and understand these are historic garments.
The exhibition begins November 25 and runs through March 18. Learn more and purchase tickets.