It’s not surprising that fashion was low on the list of priorities during World War II. Supplies were limited and all efforts were directed toward the war. Even in the fashion capital of the world, many Parisian fashion houses closed their doors.
After the war ended, it took time for Europe to recover. In 1947, styles had stalled as if the trends were stuck in years past.
“There was a need for something new to happen, a new style that could fit with the moment,” says Florence Müller, textile art and fashion curator at the Denver Art Museum. “In Europe, it was a moment of rebuilding the cities, rebuilding from the devastation of the war.”
Enter, Christian Dior.
On Feb. 12, 1947, Christian Dior debuted his first collection, which immediately achieved worldwide success. Replacing the masculine silhouettes of the previous years, he reintroduced femininity, elegance and glamour into the world of fashion. Moreover, his clothes brought a new vision of abundance to the post-war world.
“It was a message of hope and happiness and belief in a beautiful future,” Müller says.
Christian Dior and his lasting legacy are the subject of the new exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, showing through March 3. Dior: From Paris to the World follows the beginnings of the brand to its modern iteration. It takes an in-depth look at Christian Dior and all the fashion house’s designers who followed, including Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, all the way up the current head of house, Maria Grazia Chiuri. The show features close to 200 outfits, not including shoes, accessories, makeup and the multiple iconic fashion photographs of the brand through the years.
As co-curator of the show, this isn’t Müller’s first foray into the world of Dior. She has worked on more than 15 shows about the fashion house and its designers exhibited around the world. For Müller, the draw is the grandiosity of the story — Christian Dior achieved a feat no one ever had before, she says. In 1947, he found instant, global success, and he went on to define the trends and silhouettes of the 1950s. Despite meeting an early death in 1957 at the age of 52, he was succeed by a string of designers who have continued to uphold the brand for decades.
“It’s perhaps one of the only couture houses with a 70-year history without any gaps or weak moments. I see it as a major history,” Müller says. “The house has an influence on fashion not only in Paris but around the world. It’s a story of creation, invention, cutting edge and also being involved in the fashion of everyday life and what women like to wear. It’s a house that really was able to balance creativity and real life and the real needs of people over 70 years.”
Femininity really encapsulates the Dior brand. Challenging the boxy, heavy, military-like style of the ’40s, Christian Dior reintroduced the silhouette of the female body. He accentuated the breasts, waist and hips, drawing inspiration for his shapes from his garden, calling the style “flower-woman.” The 1947 collection was dubbed the “New Look” by Harper’s Bazaar, and it set the precedent for the next era of fashion.
But Christian Dior didn’t only use feminine attributes to highlight women’s bodies. He also incorporated masculine aspects — such as strong lines and traditionally male-worn fabrics like houndstooth — into his designs.
“The shape of the garment was inventive — the vision of an architect. It was one of the jobs he wanted to do when he was young and he was really able to achieve this architectural vision in the garments,” Müller says. “They are very well constructed, very well built structures, with elaborate building processes. He was really an architect of fabric.”
These early roots set the stage for the designers who spearheaded the company after Christian Dior’s death. The six designers who have followed in his footsteps each brought their own vision, some with a desire to push the envelope and others who stayed true to the demands of the time.
The exhibit follows the evolution of Dior throughout the different designers and decades. There is an obvious ebb and flow to the aesthetic, an expansion into extravagance and then a contraction into austerity, all while continuing the story of the brand.
The first to follow Christian Dior was Yves Saint Laurent, who took over Dior at the age of 21 and was dubbed the “Little Prince” of fashion. His reign only lasted two years, but in that time Laurent used Dior to break new ground, introducing new shapes that captured the spirit of the early ’60s. Laurent was the pioneer of fashion as freedom, Müller says
His two-year stint was succeeded by Marc Bohan (who ran the house from 1961-89). Bohan was interested in interpreting the energy of the time. Straying away from the cutting edge, Bohan focused on more wearable designs. Then Italian Gianfranco Ferré took over until 1996, bringing a post-modern view to the brand. As a trained architect, Ferré continued the tradition of strong lines and intricate construction.
From 1997 to 2011, British designer John Galliano headed the fashion house. As one of the most prominent designers of the last 25 years, Galliano’s fit at Dior was questioned at first.
“People had doubts about [Galliano] running this house,” Müller says. “This house is seen as a church of Parisian couture. But it was clear when [Galliano] started that he was able to mix his love for eccentricity with the love of theater, which Christian Dior loved. Before he was a couturier, [Christian Dior] was a costume designer for the theater and cinema.
“Galliano was going back to this in a very extravagant manner, pushing the limits of what you can do with the shape of the body,” Müller continues. “He wanted to create a lot of fantasy, fairy tale. When you look at some of the dresses in the exhibit, you don’t know how someone would have worn them. It belongs to the world of imagination.”
After over-the-top Galliano, Raf Simons took Dior down a more minimalist path. From 2012-2015, he referenced the roots of the fashion house, going back to Christian Dior’s inspirations from nature and the interplay between masculine and feminine.
In 2016, Dior appointed its first female designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who is the current head of the brand. Chiuri also continues Dior’s tradition of femininity, but focuses on what that looks like in today’s world. Her designs include a dress embroidered with metallic-sequined breasts and a T-shirt reading, “We should all be feminists.”
“She [is] inspired by the contemporary woman, young women, mature women, how they’re dealing with femininity today,” Müller says. “She’s offering her vision to every woman, with the notion of wearability, but also some room for dreams and fancy things.
“In the exhibit we have several evening gowns — she’s in tune with the fact that Dior wanted to turn women into princesses, but in a modern way. … You can wear them with sneakers. You can remove your stilettos,” Müller says with a laugh.
Over 70 years, Dior has remained relevant in the fashion world, a feat Müller credits to the brand’s constant reinvention.
“It’s this ability to renew itself based on the foundation and the history through very famous designers who were also challenging the fashion world,” she says. “The difference from Dior and the other houses is its ability to renew its image.”
From the infusing the dreary post-World War II era with hope to pairing sneakers with evening gowns, Dior’s image continues to evolve with the demands of the times.
On the Bill: Dior: From Paris to the World. Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, Denver. Through March 3.