Christian Dior had one great ambition: to make women “not just more beautiful, but also happier.”
The Paris-based fashion designer debuted his haute couture line in 1947, and his elegant nipped-waist jackets and extravagantly voluminous skirts sparked a sensation after the grim austerity of World War II.
“The world is wonderfully full of beautiful women whose shapes and tastes offer an inexhaustible diversity,” the couturier explained in his 1956 autobiography, “Dior by Dior.” “My collection must cater individually for each one of them.”
On its face, the idea that a couture designer can cater to everyone in the world is ludicrous. (Taste aside, a custom frock costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Yet, a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum shows that Dior sincerely believed it.
“Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” at the Brooklyn Museum through Feb. 20, explores more than 70 years at the fashion label. (Dior died in 1957, and the brand has had six designers since, including Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Maria Grazia Chiuri, who is currently in charge.) The show includes more than 200 garments — including gowns worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Princess Diana — as well as photos, drawings, accessories and other artifacts that show the seductive power of this rarefied couture house.
“At the founding of the Christian Dior [brand, he] talked about the fact that he was making clothes for a diversity of women,” Brooklyn Museum’s Matthew Yokobosky — who curated the show with historian Florence Müller — told The Post. He made women feel special, loved — and not just through his clothes. At each of his salons, he had models of different skin tones and body types, so when a client visited, she could see the clothes on a woman who resembled her. He allowed “you to visualize yourself in his clothes,” Yokobosky added.
Dior made its debut in February 1947, and American fashion editors swooned. Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar heralded his wasp-waisted, full-skirted silhouette as “the new look” after years of short hemlines due to fabric shortages and war-inspired military-style jackets. Young American photographers, such as Richard Avedon and Gordon Parks, shot his sumptuous clothes out on the street, giving them an appealing casual glamour.
By the time he made his first trip to the US, later that fall, Dior was a star.
“When he would get into a taxi cab, the driver would recognize him and say, ‘Are skirt hemlines going up or down?’ ” Yokobosky said. “Even men were having these conversations with him.”
Not everyone embraced the Frenchman: a group of women, calling themselves the “Little Below the Knee Club,” picketed his arrival in Chicago with signs declaring “Mr. Dior, we abhor hemlines to the floor.”
Dior, however, won the country over, thanks in part to a gaggle of Hollywood fans, such as Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich. The feeling was mutual. Astounded by the speed and efficiency of Seventh Avenue manufacturers, he opened Christian Dior-New York, to provide less expensive, less fussy versions of his couture confections, seen in the exhibit.
The show demonstrates how his successors have updated Dior’s legacy after his death. Saint Laurent introduced leather jackets in the late ’50s; Gianfranco Ferré brought postmodern glitz in the ’80s. Galliano tapped into the founder’s love of fantasy and romance in the late ’90s and early 2000s, while Chiuri has given the brand a more feminist spin. What has remained of Dior’s initial vision, and what shines most in this dazzling exhibition, is that ability to make a woman dream of a more exquisite, more fabulous, more beautiful life — just through fashion.
“It’s putting femininity on a pedestal,” said Müller, about the brand’s enduring appeal. “To be proud of being a woman, and being proud of every aspect of it. That is Dior.”