With “Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve” at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris continuing its blockbuster run, the heaving queue outside the museum as daily confirmation, one might wonder what a noticeably smaller exhibition an ocean away could contribute to Dior as a cultural experience. Turns out, quite a bit. When “Christian Dior” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto opens this weekend, the presentation of 38 early designs from its own collection plus dozens of accessories and heritage items on loan will shed light not just on the master’s approach to constructing a coat or dress, but also on the women who purchased and wore them.
Curated by Dr. Alexandra Palmer, the ROM’s Nora E. Vaughan senior curator, the show reveals a treasure trove of donations, which in turn puts a local spin on an otherwise Parisian narrative. One diminutive dress was created for a girl’s bat mitzvah; another was bought for a honeymoon in Jamaica. Toronto’s mid-century socialites had Dior, Norman Hartnell, and Balenciaga in their closets, even if they weren’t traveling abroad.
The pieces Palmer has selected, on view together for the first time, all date back between 1947 and 1957, the brief but pivotal period between the founding of the maison and Monsieur Dior’s death. Devotees will recognize some of the silhouettes, if not their names: There’s Palmyre (1952) with its narrow bodice and medley of golden thread and Swarovski embellishment; Delphine (1956) a crimson dress boasting a signature Dior construction; and Auteuil (1994) a suit that feels quintessentially chic with its wasp waist and padded hips.
But if the hidden corsets, innovative seams, and darts signal the fine details that preoccupied him in the studio, the exhibition reveals that his approach to disseminating the collections in a transatlantic postwar economy was just as telling. Palmer, who has already written about this in Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise (1947–57) managed to interview several of the donors while they were still alive, which means she is prone to serving up charming anecdotes alongside the specificities of Rébé embroidery of Robert Perrier satin.
“We don’t really need another great Dior exhibition with all the fabulousness. There’s one in Paris. I cannot do that; I do not have the resources. But I can drill down; I’m an academic and this what I love—to unpack all this stuff and explain things from a different point of view,” she said last week while the looks were huddled together in a workroom, still under their protective covers.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Toronto clientele could purchase Dior right from its debut, thanks to the defunct department store Eaton’s followed by an exclusive arrangement with Holt Renfrew, which is the show’s title sponsor. Back then, with ready-to-wear not yet in place, retailers staged fashion shows for special clients with couture designs sent over from Paris. Other looks were also manufactured as made-to-order by license, precisely according to the atelier’s specifications. Additionally, there were the “bonded models,” which arrived in Canada via American stores a few months after the couture shows. In 1956, Mrs. John David Eaton (familiarly known as Signy) donated her Nocturne two-piece dinner dress to the ROM, before the museum, which is best known for its massive dinosaur fossils and indigenous artifacts, had begun collecting couture. She also donated a lustrous jacket lined with guipure lace from Spring ’49 that she would have worn over a black evening dress; Monsieur Dior had named it the Tour Eiffel.
As for the striking plaid dress, called Batignolles after the Parisian neighborhood, it belonged to Lillian Weiss, who is now 97. The silk taffeta came from Soieries F. Ducharne, and Dior aligned the pattern impeccably while adapting a redingote style to his new volumes. Indeed, Weiss donned her dress more often as a coat, as a photo taken outside a nightclub in the town of Cambridge, Ontario, suggests. Incidentally, the same design was worn by Mexican screen siren María Félix.
The violets embroidered on Abraham on Avril, a two-piece number from 1955, suggest ideal garden party attire, not to mention Dior’s ongoing love of flowers. That design belonged to Mrs. Philippe Hecht (known as Frederica), a couturier who came to Toronto from Milan upon being hired by yet another defunct department store, Simpson’s, before opening her own boutique. “It’s perfectly made with a strapless corset with a re-appliquéd cummerbund that’s part of the skirt,” Palmer explained.
Of the dramatic Isabelle gown from 1948, Palmer said this gift from Mrs. David Meltzer (if not already obvious, the donors’ names remain a reflection of their time) looks particularly fantastic when laid out flat, thus highlighting Dior’s double circle design. “What the heck he was thinking of when he made these clothes?” she exclaimed, noting how it underscored his use of historical dressmaking.
And while the three dresses grouped together might appear as though intended for a wedding, Elaine Roebuck can confirm she wore the medium-size one for her bat mitzvah in 1957, with the other two worn by her mother and sister. In a video prepared for the show, she says, “I didn’t know Dior from a hole in the ground; having a date was important.” In fact, her mother’s dress was adapted from a 1956 wedding dress, whereas hers was made to order by Holt Renfrew’s Montreal atelier, based on a design from Paris.
Two other mentions: the cocktail dress striped with bands of Valenciennes lace. Palmer pointed out how Dior achieved remarkable fluidity in the skirt by conceiving it as quadrants, while also noting the modernity of the leather belt. This was what Ann Levitt, the daughter of Holt Renfrew’s president at the time, Alvin Walker, wore on her honeymoon at Tower Isle, Jamaica, and might be the only one of its kind in an institution, according to Palmer.
She believes the black tiered dress from 1947, known as Chandernagar after a town in West Bengal, was the couturier’s way of channeling the romantic ideal of a region still under French rule, noting how the bodice and short sleeves suggest a choli blouse worn under a sari. “It absolutely encapsulates Dior’s New Look,” she says, adding that this could have been the dress he presented when Neiman Marcus awarded him a fashion “Oscar” in Dallas. Apparently, Marlene Dietrich wore a modified version (less décolleté) for a shoot in either Vogue or Harper’saround the same time.
When asked whether these dresses with their stories speak to her, Palmer said no, at least not in the fantastical sense of them seeming alive. “I always tell my students and reviewers that the clothes don’t actually speak; they’re mute. But we interpret them. And we bring our baggage to them. And what is that? What are the questions they pose? It’s an interesting thing, because people do get emotions from beautiful things and fashion exhibitions are interesting, because you have an audience that can immediately engage with things and can project on them.”
In that spirit, speaking personally, I returned to Paris before having the chance to see the exhibition installed. Upon receiving a photo of the accessories case, I marveled at the secret jewelry compartment emerging from a Dior purse. But I felt a special connection to the black Dior gloves, which belonged to Rose Torno, the wife of my father’s uncle (go figure, the lawyer with a love of fashion happened to favor Balenciaga). Most visitors to this show will not know the women who owned these beautiful specimens, yet they will find evidence that Dior cast his spell far, if not wide.
“Christian Dior” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto runs from November 25 until March 18, 2018. For more information, visit www.rom.on.ca.