Defining Dior

This November, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto presents Christian Dior, a fashion exhibition that chronicles the fashion house’s influential silhouettes between 1947 and 1957. Editor-in-chief Lisa Felepchuk speaks exclusively with senior curator and author of Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise, Dr. Alexandra Palmer about the upcoming immersive display.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more passionate about ribbons and lace and buttons and bows than Dr. Alexandra Palmer. And while those bits and bobbles may sound like fluff and frill, Palmer assures that these decorations are in fact some of the most important parts of fashion anatomy, especially for the esteemed house of Christian Dior.

To fête the 70th anniversary of Dior, the ROM is showing Christian Dior, presented by Holt Renfrew, in its Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume. Palmer is at the helm of the 40-piece show, which is broken into categories based on when a woman would have worn her Dior—like Late Afternoon to Early Evening (think cocktail and dinner dresses), and Grand Occasion (ball gowns). The garments are supported by contemporary film and sketches as well as photographs and advertisements.

And while the exhibit is simply titled “Christian Dior,” it doesn’t focus on the man behind the brand. “The exhibition is very much about the range of Dior products, and trying to get people to move beyond an ‘It’s-really-fabulous-and-I’d-wear-it-in-blue’ kind of museum visit to something that makes them look harder and appreciate how things were made and the thought that went into it,” says Palmer.

In post-war Europe, the consideration that went into each bead, stitch, or cut at Dior was significant. Thread makers, for example, could work for two years on a delicate fibre before it was ready to be used for embroidery or to attach sequins to the underside of a dress. The exhibition allows visitors to get up close and personal with the detail and craftsmanship that went into each garment.

“It’s just kind of breathtaking how creative everyone involved was,” says Palmer. “There’s the top of the pyramid, which is Dior himself, and at the bottom there are thousands of people who are highly skilled, highly creative, producing highly innovative textiles, classic wools, unbelievable beading—inventing new kinds of beads like Swarovski with Aurora Borealis—or trying new plastics or synthetic textiles.” And then you have Monsieur Dior attempting to fit everything together like some sleek sartorial puzzle—the ribbon-maker, the button-maker, right down to the person responsible for handcrafting each miniscule sequin.

The ROM’s exhibition hones in on 10 critical years from 1947 to 1957, the period when the New Look, a term used to describe the fresh, form-fitting clothes created by Dior, was born. It was a pivotal point in fashion history, a departure from the masculine cuts and baggy wartime looks women had previously worn. Dior’s super-cinched-in New Look wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking (“Dior says very clearly that he went back to historic models for inspiration,” notes Palmer), but women were hungry to wear figure-flattering shapes again. The New Look exploded in Europe and the vibrations were felt just as strongly on North American soil.

“People wanted the New Look, they didn’t want the old look, they wanted post-war, they wanted a promise of the future, they wanted something that was feminine,” says Palmer.

Every designer and brand at the time wanted to emulate Dior’s New Look and grab ahold of a corner of his success. “His collections were always news—what did he do? And where are the buttons? And how high is the hem? He’d raise the hem and then he’d drop it, and it was a scandal,” says Palmer.

Much of the exhibition is drawn from the ROM’s impressive Christian Dior haute couture collection, and many of the garments on display were worn by Toronto socialites at the time.

“We have two pieces that are wonderful, and I interviewed the woman who wore them,” says Palmer. “It’s the end of that era, so it’s very nice when you can still really touch those years with people who lived them.”

While the average visitor will experience the New Look in the flesh for the first time, a handful of guests will remember how Dior’s iconic silhouettes of this era quite literally shaped their wardrobe.