‘Dior: From Paris To The World’ is one of the Dallas Museum of Art’s most elaborate and extensive shows – ever. It features nearly 200 fashions by seven creative directors of the famous haute couture label. So Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks asked Annette Becker, director of UNT’s Texas Fashion Collection, to pick out just three dresses and help us understand a little better about what makes a Dior a Dior.
Annette Becker, welcome
Thank you for having me, Jerome.
The Dior exhibition here at the Dallas Museum of Art can be overwhelming. People can be swamped. And not just with the crowds of people seeing it – I mean, when we talk about nearly 200 outfits, we’re not even mentioning all the drawings, photo displays and videos. I know I spent close to two hours here and still felt I’d been on a whirlwind tour.
So we were hoping you could provide a little guidance. Give us something of a throughline across the more than 70 years of fashions. You’ve picked out three dresses in particular that’ll help people track both continuity and change across these decades of haute couture.
So – what are we standing in front of now?
Well, of course, a great place to start is the beginning. So this is outfit #1, right as you enter the first gallery, the dramatic red-and-black entrance. And we’re looking at an ensemble that has a white, highly-sculpted jacket and with a very capacious black skirt on the bottom.
Now, what makes this so quintessentially Dior already – in 1947?
Importantly, 1947 is the year Dior opened his first couture house. So this is really the beginning of everything in the exhibition. It’s a pleasure to speak about the Dior exhibition because the Texas Fashion Collection got its start with the department store, Neiman Marcus. And along with starting the collection, they started the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion [which was first presented in 1938]. That’s why, in 1947, when Christian Dior opened his house, he came to Dallas to receive that award. It was his first visit to the United States. And this was when not everyone really appreciated what Dior was doing.
So really, having this exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art is incredibly fitting, and it’s an honor for me to speak about it – running a collection at UNT of nearly 20,000 garments, including more than 150 Diors.
So already with this very first ensemble in the exhibition, we see some of Dior’s trademarks. You’ll notice that the shoulders are gently curved on the top, the waist is dramatically nipped in, with the bottom of the jacket standing away from the hips, making them even fuller.
Exactly! It has a lot of flair, too. And then we have the skirt which can have up to 15 yards of fabric. Imagine – 45 feet of fabric, and with people moving away from wartime austerity when there were limits for yardage of fabric, this was considered an entirely ‘new look.’ That’s what it was called, Dior’s ‘New Look.’
But the jacket is really special, too. If we took this jacket off the mannequin and put it on a table, it would almost stand up on its own because there’s so much padding. So Dior was really sculpting the female body in a way that just five years before was really not standard, not as boxy.
So let’s see the next one. We’re deeper into the exhibition now, and we’re standing in a gallery full of nothing but white outfits [called ‘The Office of Dreams’]. And can you tell us about the outfit you’ve chosen now?
This is a really beautiful jacket that – much like the piece we just looked at – is very sculptural. So you’ll notice again the rounded shoulders, a kind of nipped-in waist and a fuller, bottom skirt to this jacket. What separates all these [white cotton] pieces from the others in the exhibition is they weren’t actually intended to be worn. Much in the way that an artist – when they’re creating a painting, they’ll start with a sketch and use [blank] newsprint [to draw on], which is really inexpensive – fashion designers and ateliers, which are the workshops that Dior worked in, they don’t start with the most luxuriant, opulent silk fabrics, they’ll start with very humble, white cotton fabric.
Basically, we’re looking at the first drafts.
Exactly, exactly! And what we’re seeing, these are called toiles or muslins if you’re an American fashion designer. And the piece we’re looking at right now is by the designer Raf Simons, who was the head of the House of Dior just a few years ago [2012-2015].
The first outfit we looked at was 1947. What year was this?
So it’s seventy years later, yet this outfit looks very much like that first one.
Absolutely. You see a lot of formal similarities between the first piece we looked at and this. You can imagine trying to create something that has a lot of shape to it, that treats the body in a way that’s slightly abstracted. And here we can see that abstraction one step away from the wearer.
Which is what is exciting about seeing this piece and these other toiles in this exhibition. This gives us some insight into the creative process, what happens in a couture atelier, this very rarefied space in Paris that most people never see. Because it’s made out of one type of fabric, we can easily see all the seams and imagine how sculptural this jacket has become in shaping this fabric to shape the body of the wearer underneath.
Many people forget that Christian Dior was the creative director of this house for only ten years, yet here we are, more than 70 years into this house’s existence. So as we look through this exhibition, we can imagine all of these incredibly creative, inspired people who’ve had design careers outside of their tenure at Dior, and they’re coming to this house, looking to the archive, thinking about what the DNA of the House of Dior is, looking at those first ten years and the dozens of silhouettes Dior created – and they’re finding inspiration in them.
This is the third and the last dress you’ve chosen. It’s by John Galliano [creative director of Dior, 1996-2011]. Chronologically, it’s towards the end of the exhibition – and it is completely unlike the first two.
Why is this a Dior?
That’s a great question and one a lot of people have been asking: Why is this even in the exhibition? So what we’re looking at is a deconstructed ensemble. So it looks like if someone took all the pieces of a dress, put them on the floor and then tried to put them back together again.
To tell you the truth, it doesn’t look so much deconstructed as it looks like he wrapped the mannequin in a curtain.
That’s exactly what it looks like. It looks like at any moment all this could just fall off the dress. But Galliano is very intentional in what he’s doing here. It’s referring to the process of creating a dress like this.
There generally are two different methods for designers when they’re creating ensembles. One, they approach it as a tailoring project. They think about pattern pieces, they think about creating a structure, starting with something abstract and then trying to figure out how to make it fit on the body – which is what we saw in the Raf Simons piece.
But this is making an allusion to draping, which is when you have materials and you’re kind of placing them on the body but starting with the body as a point of inspiration.
So again, why is this a Dior?
So if you were to trace the outline of this, you would see nearly the exact same shapes that we have in the past two pieces. So you can see we have this kind of triangular torso which nips in at the waist and then has this dramatically full skirt. This more or less echoes what’s hidden with all the other pieces in this exhibition.
So this is a Dior turned inside-out.
Exactly. It’s giving us some information in the construction process of an incredibly complex ensemble.