Maria Grazia Chiuri elected to present her latest Christian Dior Haute Couture collection in a room smothered in off-white muslin and stacked with toiles of Dior creations – shells of canvas fabric as practices, sketching out the volumes of garments before cutting into the actual final fabric, the ghosts of couture to come. It was eerily familiar: not just because the toiles foreshadowed the lines of some of the clothes to come, but because the décor was a near-facsimile of a room at the heart of the Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve exhibition, which a record-breaking 700,000 people saw between July 2017 and January this year at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Expanded into the backdrop for Chiuri’s latest vision for Dior, it underlined a narrative at the heart of every couture heart in Paris – the dialogue between the new and the old, the repetition, reinterpretation and revitalisation of history.
It’s an idea that has always been at the heart of the identity of Dior. Ironically, Christian Dior’s watershed debut, dubbed the ‘New Look’, was anything but. It swept away the strict shoulders and ration-shortened skirts of wartime fashions with swooning sloped shoulders, cinched waists and vast petticoated skirts – styles which felt new in contrast to that which had just ceased to be fashionable, but which knowingly referenced the modes of the Belle Epoque, evocative of Dior’s childhood and a time of plenty, a golden age. His successors since the 1980s have knowingly paid homage to Dior’s heritage – in 1987, on the 40th anniversary of the New Look, Dior established a house archive, amassing examples of past work into an enviable back-catalogue that artistic directors have been able to lovingly paw through for inspirational nuggets.
“It's normal for me to live with a huge history, because I was born in Rome,” Maria Grazia Chiuri told me last year, after her first ever Dior haute couture show. “If you want to know a brand, you have to know the history.” That was as the Couturier du Rêve show was being prepared in Paris; and just before her latest collection, the house of Dior announced the show would shift to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in February 2019, the largest exhibition of the house’s work ever staged on British soil.
“It's normal for me to live with a huge history, because I was born in Rome” – Maria Grazia Chiuri
Possibly inspired by that idea of exhibition – and by a quote from Christian Dior himself stating that “Haute couture gowns possess the unique individuality of an ‘objet d’art’” – Chiuri examined the idea of couture as a concept. Of course, couture begins in the atelier, which is what the soaring toiles at the heart of the exhibition symbolised, and which Maria Grazia Chiuri expanded both in her set, and in the show itself. The clothes themselves were hymns to the abilities of Dior’s craftspeople – pleats unfolding down the back of a dress, a skirt entirely carpeted with feathers embroidered by the plumassiers Maison Lemarié, and the Dior ‘Bar’ jacket evolved through the addition of batwing sleeves, creating a final piece that seemed poised halfway between the strictness of the Atelier Tailleur, and the molten moulage of the Flou. In a sense, it was an exhibition in and of itself, exalting the savoir-faire that is the very foundation of haute couture. And, of course, those phalanxes of toiles lining the walls of Dior are the very literal foundations of haute couture too.
What this show unpacked – in the same way as the exhibition before it, and that coming to the V&A next year – was the magic of haute couture’s inimitable process, of clothes built by hand entirely for the individual. Something special, unique. To be enjoyed as both a wearer and as an observer – whether at this fashion show, or in the hallowed halls of the V&A.