Christian Dior is synonymous with femininity, elegance and timeless splendour. It is also, as the title of its V&A exhibition suggests, the “stuff of dreams”.
The furore surrounding the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams exhibition at the V&A has been building to crescendo point since its announcement last year, when its publicists billed it as the biggest fashion show at the museum since that of Alexander McQueen in 2015.
With such a testimony, it is no surprise then that the tickets sold out before ladies with a passion for fashion had even finished reading of its arrival. Unless of course you are a member!
The V&A exhibition is a very British interpretation of the show at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 2017, which I was treated to by a girlfriend for my 50th in the same year. So how do they compare?
Well in terms of the setting, whilst staged in the museum’s spacious Sainsbury gallery the V&A exhibition does not have any of the drama and grandeur which was automatically offered by the majestic environs of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. The Paris show maximised the sweeping stone staircases, high ceilings and long corridors and took you on a real voyage of discovery as you followed the exhibition on its journey.
I visited both with the same girlfriend and we approached the V&A members’ preview day with the AbFab attitude that it couldn’t possibly be better than Paris darling!
Better of course was the wrong word. The success of the curator Oriole Cullen’s show at the V&A lies in its very difference from that held in Paris. Yes there are many similarities in content as she inevitably drew upon some of the same archive material and used the same set designer for the displays, but as you would expect Cullen’s is a very individual interpretation.
There have been many critiques of the V&A show and many concur that what is lacking is the historical context so prevalent in Paris. Should we all know what that is? Well if you are a child of a parent of the era you will know that when Dior launched in 1947 with his New Look, epitomised at both shows by the Bar Suit with its ivory shantung jacket and black twill skirt, it was a move away from the staid clothing styles dictated by the war. In essence it was a symbolic gesture that welcomed in a celebration of feminity. There is no reference to this at the V&A but some may argue that this missing piece of the story does not need to be retold.
With the exception of the historical setting the exhibitions follow pretty much the same pattern and are divided into different sections, all memorable in their own way. The atelier section is an area featuring toiles stacked floor to ceiling. In Paris these were displayed at twice the height but what the V&A's Sainsbury gallery lacks in structural strength, it makes up for with ingenious set design, incorporating a mirror in the ceiling to give the illusion of extended height as it reflects the toiles below.
The Diorama section comprises a colour coded glass cabinet that displays illustrations, mini models, hats, shoes, bags and items of jewellery. In Paris this was an impressive display and carried you round to a sweeping staircase along which there was a display of hundreds of archived magazine covers some featuring Dior designs.
There have been a multitude of designers who have run the Dior fashion house since his death in 1957 and there is a section in both exhibitions that pay tribute to them with a gallery showcasing their designs. This serves as an intriguing role call of styles, from the modern simplicity of Raf Simons to the madcap designs of disgraced designer John Galliano, which I confess were my least favourite partly due to their eccentricity but also because they seemed to reflect the Dior spirit the least of all.
The piece de resistance is the ballroom and unrestrained showcase of some of the most recognisable Dior dresses worn by celebrities, including that worn by Princess Diana at the Met Gala in 1996, the iconic gold J'adore Dior dress worn by Charlize Theron as well as an array of famous premiere dresses worn by celebrities - it is a complete visual delight.
It is rare that any of us can even get mildly close to the extravagances of haute couture fashion but that is where the V&A exhibition really delivers. What it lacks in displays of grandeur it makes up for in intimacy. With the exception of pieces like Princess Margaret's 21st birthday dress, the majority are within touching distance, enabling you to get right up close and see every glorious hand-stitched detail, sucking you in for a fleeting moment to appreciate the value of real quality over the fast fashion culture of the high street that we all inhabit.
Aside from its intimacy, the real spirit of the V&A spectacle, however, is the wealth of new pieces, particularly those from current creative director Maria Garcia Chiuri which were not available at the time of the Paris show and enable the V&A extravaganza to stand apart from its predecessor in Paris, with its own homage to Dior’s renowned love of England -“There is no other country in the world, besides my own, whose way of life I like so much."
Chiuri is of course Dior’s first female creative director and her interpretation of the Dior look feels to me the most reflective of the original essence of Dior’s designs. Her pieces have the feminine wow factor and serve to fuel those aspirations of not only being lucky enough to own such a piece but also having the occasion to wear it. For now, however, I suspect for many of us dreams will have to do.