Alexander Fury, the history-obsessed fashionFashion is a popular style or practice, especially in clothing, footwear, accessories, makeup, body piercing, or furniture. Fashion is a distinctive and often habitual trend in the style in which a person dresses. It is the prevailing styles in behaviour and the newest creations of textile designers. journalist, is, by his own admission, a romantic. It’s a trait that stood him in good stead over the past year, as he helped compile Dior: The Collections, 1947-2017, an extraordinary collection of 1,146 images that document the house’s output over the past 70 years and through seven creative directors.
Dior was 42 when, in February 1947, in a freezing post-war Paris, he made a debut that the press dubbed the “New Look,” despite its nostalgic, throwback curves borrowed from the Belle Epoque. The most iconic piece from the collection, the Bar suit, had a lightning rod effect on fashion that lasted for nearly a decade. Not only was the silhouette a confident one, it was symbolic. With its voluptuous yardage, softness, and homage to femininity, the New Look offered an antidote to the horrors and deprivations of war. It also reasserted the sovereignty of Paris as the capital of fashion. “The opening of Christian Dior’s new Paris couture house,” noted Vogue in its April 1947 issue, “not only presented an extraordinarily beautiful collection; it gave the French couture a new assurance in its own abilities; and because the luxury trades are economic necessity in France, Dior’s flashing success was, in Paris, more than fashion. It was on a par with current political and economic news. Here—once again—things were done on a grand scale.”
Dior, Fury notes, dared to push things to extremes, a tradition carried on by his successors. Yves Saint Laurent, for example, was let go after showing a Beat-inspired haute couture collection in 1960. And, more than fifty years after Monsieur Dior introduced what Vogue described, with acclaim, as “the market-woman shape, a direct steal from the heavily padded, canvas-stiffened skirts the women wear in Les Halles near Notre Dame,” John Galliano would incite an uproar with “Les Clochards,” a lineup that referenced Paris’s homeless population. Plus ?a change.
In anticipation of the book’s release, Fury shares tales of its making and insights into the storied house and its founder.
What surprising discoveries did you make when putting together the book?
There were a lot of surprising discoveries. On the one hand, I was surprised there were so many images of early Dior runway shows—press photographers weren’t permitted into these shows as a rule, so many of these were recorded by the house of Dior itself. It was also surprising that, although we think of the cult of celebrity as a modern thing, many of the runway images we have actually survived because of celebrities in the audience in the images, such as Anthony Perkins, who attended a showing of Marc Bohan’s Fall 1962 collection.
The photo sourcing and selection was undertaken by my coauthor, Adélia Sabatini, and the team at Thames & Hudson in London. It’s amazing that there is such a supply of images—although a few shows are missing full documentation. The final Yves Saint Laurent show for Dior (Fall 1960), the shocking “Beat” collection, is actually shown via static shots in the Dior salon; the prior show is illustrated from stills from newsreel footage. It really shows that the modern phenomenon of the “runway show” hadn’t developed by that point; it wouldn’t be in place until the start of the 1970s, really. Before then, fashion houses would either allow images to be shown via drawing, or would select outfits from the collection (usually around five) and allow photographers to shoot them. The models would pose outside, and photographers would have to pay the models a fee for the privilege.
In researching that phenomenon, I came across some very interesting discussion around the image of Renée [Breton] wearing the Bar suit, famously shot by Willy Maywald, who often shot Dior’s clothes for the house. I had always assumed the shot of Renée on the banks of the Seine was from 1947, but it is actually from the mid-to-late-1950s; she wears a copy of the Bar created for a talk given by Christian Dior at the Sorbonne in 1955 (later donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London). But the image itself could be as late as 1957. It’s an interesting example of how, even within Dior’s own lifetime (and when patently out of fashion), the Bar suit was being mythologized as a Dior house icon. How very modern.
Are there other examples of Dior’s self-historicizing?
I think it’s interesting that Dior himself appointed Yves Saint Laurent his successor (in discussions with Saint Laurent’s mother in 1957). He was, perhaps, already thinking about stepping away from his role at the house. He was certainly acknowledging that Dior would continue without Christian. That was an acknowledgment of the size of Dior and its importance fiscally and, maybe, culturally; Dior was also able to separate himself from the house bearing his name. He stated in his autobiography that there were two Christian Diors—the man and the label. He had, I think, realized that Dior had become something far bigger than himself.
In what ways was Christian Dior modern?
Christian Dior always said he wanted his house to be a small couture maison of grand luxe—but the modernity of Dior is in how the label, almost immediately, became enormously successful on a global scale. By 1949, Christian Dior accounted for 75 percent of French fashion exports and 5 percent of France’s exports total. It was also an early example of licensing, and the first Dior fragrance, Miss Dior, was launched the year the couture house opened. That’s all incredibly modern.
Dior was also a genius marketing man, which kind of runs counter to his ideas about a small, exclusive couture house. I think the rhythm of Dior, the constant changes in hemline and the novelty really chime with the demands designers are struggling with and questioning today, with the rhythm of pre-collections. Dior was always proposing new looks, every year. There’s also something very modern in his delegation of duties—in his final collection, in 1957, Yves Saint Laurent (then his assistant) designed 35 outfits. Dior was very much the modern mold of an “artistic director”: leading a design team in his spirit, rather than taking the role of singular creative genius (which, incidentally, was very Saint Laurent).
Then again, that was quite an old idea: Dior had designed for Lucien Lelong and Robert Piguet, even receiving some credit as a backroom genius. So maybe our ideas about “modern” fashion design aren’t so modern after all?
What role has narrative played in the development of the house of Dior?
There are arguably two schools of fashion—modernist and romantic. I think Dior really represents the latter, not just in the silhouettes and decorative approaches, but in the whole narratives woven around collections, the evocative names for lines, and the titles for individual outfits. It’s something that Yves Saint Laurent also excelled at—there was something incredibly poetic about the clothes that Saint Laurent made, both for Dior and under his own name. Heavily thematic, ever-changing. It’s something you also see in the work of John Galliano.
Maybe there’s something about the idea of fantasy and fairy tale that connects narrative to these kinds of designers, something escapist—Dior’s New Look is the ultimate example of escapist fashion, after all. It was historical, unabashedly feminine, and lavish in its use of fabric—at a time when none of the above were in fashion, and when people were yearning for them, evidently. That Dior exhibition in Paris isn’t called “Designer of Dreams” for nothing. It’s interesting because, right now, escapism isn’t something we’re interested in—the last decade or so has really been focused on individual garments, on the “wardrobe” approach. It’s something so many designers have talked about—even at the haute couture level, where people focus on intricate textiles and the savoir faire required to construct a garment, rather than the fantasy it can evoke. Maybe it’s time for a shift now? Maybe we’re ready to escape the world again? I kind of hope so. Personally, I love a crinoline and 40,000 paper butterflies!