My first semester in Spain was spent entirely in Madrid with the exception of a weekend in Palma de Mallorca and a few day trips to nearby towns. I felt I needed to change that, so over winter break, I popped on over to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s website to see what might be going on if I decided to visit London in the spring. Well, here we all are together, so suffice it to say I found a pretty compelling reason to book a flight and a hostel the same day I purchased a ticket to the exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. I came. I saw.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is the second iteration (the first one being at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2017) of an exhibit showing a variety of works by all of the creative directors in the House of Dior’s history. It is the largest exhibition of Dior garments ever put on in the United Kingdom and features one-of-a-kind Dior garments like the dress Princess Margaret wore in her twenty-first birthday portrait and J’adore perfume dresses worn by Charlize Theron in various advertisements. The brief description on the V&A’s website offers this lovely little summary: “Spanning 1947 to the present day, this exhibition traces the history and impact of one of the 20th century’s most influential couturiers, exploring the enduring influence of the fashion house, and Dior’s relationship with Britain.”
After a little nibble of quiche and a stiff cup of espresso, I was off to the museum more than an hour in advance from my entrance time to do some journalistic work (i.e. finding an outlet to charge my phone). While my important prep work was in progress I talked to the ticketing people about how the exhibit was doing. Turns out, the demand to see the show was so high that the V&A was about to release more tickets because they’d already sold out the show ‘til its close on September 1. Furthermore, they told me that Dior was just as popular as the museum’s 2015 run of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. That’s a capital letters Big Damn Deal to me because McQueen arguably put fashion exhibits on the map and was the most attended ticketed exhibition in the V&A’s history. That’s all to say, it’s doing just fine.
I arrived promptly at the Sainsbury Gallery entrance at 12:30 and passed into the first room. Opening the show is an original Christian Dior “bar suit” from his very first haute couture collection in 1947 that introduced the world to the revolutionary New Look, a silhouette that to this day provokes comments like “oof, where do your organs go?!” from lovely museum-going Irish women. Situated behind the OG suit were the subsequent interpretations by a few of the house’s creative directors. As I moved through the exhibit, it became clear that this marriage and comparison of past and future designs were a core, if not the central theme of the show as a whole.
It was clear that the curators of the show really wanted to emphasize how each of the creative directors that followed Christian Dior took inspiration from the “house codes” and incorporated them into their own designs. On some occasions, this was quite clear, like when I clocked a dress as Dior only to realize that it was Raf Simmons or vice versa. This little game of mine kept me occupied the entire time. The one creative director who was all but disqualified from playing because his dresses often boldly disregarded the design language of Dior and sucked the air out of every room in which they were placed was none other than John Galliano. He obviously didn’t come to pay homage – he came to do whatever the hell he wanted.
A particularly impressive part of the show was the set design. Clearly, the layout and presentation of items in a museum are always important, but an exhibit based entirely on luxury clothes and accessories gives curators unique opportunities. High fashion is often first revealed to the public through shows, and fashion shows now more than ever are expected to create an experience for their audiences that translates in person just as much as it does on an Instagram feed or a YouTube video. The V&A didn´t miss a beat. I could tell from the first few rooms that some coin was thrown down. They gave us a little Versailles baroque moment in the historicism themed room with checkerboard floors, a mini gazebo with Grecian columns, and floor to ceiling walls with scrolling details. The garden/perfume-themed room was covered in a canopy of artificial white and dove grey flowers with icy pink, blue, and purple projections making them seem like an ethereal wind was blowing ever so slightly through them. And lastly, as any good show does, the mother of all spectacles was saved for last. Dubbed “The Ballroom”, the most marvelous gowns (and a jumpsuit or two) were on display around the circumference and on a circular platform in the middle of the room that created a perfect waltzing path if anyone felt so inclined. But those are minor details. The attraction that slaps you right across the face is the projection system. You guys…. I don´t even know. I don´t EVEN. OH! Incredible, stunning, magical. The entire room, from the base of the sets to the ceiling, went through a ten-minute loop of projections that ranged from original Dior sketches appearing on the walls to a fabulous burst of gold glitter raining down from the ceiling. I felt like I was inside the mind of every creative director of the house when they were having a good idea or finding inspiration It was all very, shall we say, dreamlike (wink wink).
All of this effort put into staging was absolutely lovely but lemme put on my SS 2015 Dior by Raf Simons critic boots (vinyl, translucent rectangular heel, unh!) and ask the questions. I have to admit that at times it did feel like the exhibit´s effort to put on a show overshadowed its museum-y duties in a classic case of style over substance. There were even moments when I wondered if I was walking through a retrospective on the creative work of this legendary house or a glorified advertisement meant to bolster the brand’s image in my consumer mind.
As far as style over substance goes, I’d like to bring to the stand for the ladies and gentleman of the internet Exhibit A: the gallery text. The notes were very accessible, printed in a font size that did not strain your eyes and written using language that didn’t make you feel like you were reading a dissertation. That seems nice, but I wanted more details out of the descriptions than I was getting and certainly some analysis. For example, any controversies that have surrounded the house were practically completely absent. There were certain nods to issues, but the discussion surrounding them was always positive and in favor of the house. For instance, the room dedicated to garments inspired by travel (featuring designs inspired by interpretations of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian, and Mexican aesthetics), the gallery text addressed the issue of cultural appropriation. This was definitely necessary as one of the specially made dresses worn by the Mexican ezcaramuzas in the slightly controversial Cruise 2019 show was on display. “Alright good, let´s talk about it,” I thought. The text cited Chiuri’s thoughts that a creative director is like a curator responsible for pulling influences from multiple sources and being careful when doing so. “Oh, that´s it? Ok.” This sort of thing happened with other issues that could have been discussed. The exhibit praised Chiuri’s efforts to imbue her work with feminism, but there was not talk of the criticism she received for monetizing feminists messaging like with her “We should all be feminists” t-shirt from her debut collection. Poetic labels describing the awe-inspiring and extravagant work of John Galliano were abundant, but the word was zip zilch nada about his very public firing for anti-Semitic comments in 2011.
And like I said, at times it felt like an ad. Exhibit B: the videos. There was one room inspired by the set of the FW 2018 haute couture show that displayed various toiles of all the creative directors of Dior. In this gallery, four screens played cinematic videos demonstrating the manufacturing process of watches, handbags, shoes, and various garments that were seemed designed more to encourage thoughts like “wow, look at how intricate” or “oooh, maybe the steep prices make sense” than inform. Is it interesting and even impressive to see how those types of goods are made? Of course, it is. I think any fashion enthusiast loves some behind the scenes action. However, it seemed especially strategic to me that most of the videos were of accessories being made, the very things that pad luxury companies’ bottom lines and allow them to sustain endeavors like haute couture.
I’ll hit you with some more rhetorical questions. Could I say that the gallery text could have been more detailed about the history of the house? Yes. Would it have been interesting to have more information on the construction of the garments? Yes. Would I say that it was a critical exhibition? Absolutely not – but I don’t think it’s supposed to be. The original exhibition in Paris was created to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the House of Dior. Being hypercritical of the show is sort of like airing your grievances with the birthday girl at her birthday party – another place, another time. As a member of the proletariat, I was just so excited to have an opportunity to see that level of craftsmanship up close and personal. I felt lucky to actually get to scrutinize pieces I’ve admired for so long like Raf Simons’ effortlessly cool red bar coat and John Galliano’s J’adore dress that Charlize Theron wore in the TV commercials. I was thrilled to discover new and exciting parts of Dior’s history like Christian Dior’s own marvelous Junon dress that would surely make Cinderella jealous and a deliciously embroidered Marc Bohan dress that made me want to slap a wig on and strut my stuff. I could say that the Ballroom was all for show, but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t spend thirty minutes in that room alone just soaking it all up and smiling.
By: Nick Sheppard
Photograhy By: Nick Sheppard