So I live in Paris now.

Oh, how unreal that statement still feels. I am not quite sure that I will ever be able to say those words without feeling a certain thrill. I will be spending the next two years studying towards a masters degree in fashion studies from Parsons The New School. This has already opened up so many opportunities to be immersed in the world of art, fashion, history and culture in a city layered with centuries of it. I plan on documenting all my (even mildly) interesting adventures here, so stay tuned.

First up, I was able to experience the transcendent Dior retrospective at the Museé Des Arts Decoratifs, which is housed in the same building as the master of all museums, the Louvre. The 3 000 square meter dreamscape of couture was installed in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the House of Dior.

The proliferation of blockbuster fashion exhibitions at historic and reputable museums has increasingly led to the worthwhile question: whether the museum as a commercial rather than cultural space is problematic. There is certainly valid discourses surrounding both arguments. A museum is meant to be a space of conservation and education, yet there could also be much value in the spectacular nature of such exhibitions, with their entertainment value aiding in the attraction of audiences, and easing the process of connecting with the displayed goods, which can often be construed as dry and uninteresting, despite their cultural value. Today’s public is increasingly conscious of the wastefulness of its consumerist nature, yet still in thrall of it. Perhaps, in addition to being entertaining and educational, the fashion exhibition becomes a more high-culture embodiment of window shopping; of enjoying magnificent garments without buying and possessing them. When looking at the layout of such exhibitions, there are certainly characteristics of visual merchandising carried over from retail practices. The recent blockbuster Dior retrospective is situated smack in the middle of these dialogues, with its highly commercial nature bringing issues of author, sponsorship and curatorial integrity to the foreground.

Dior: Couturier Du Rêve (Dressmaker of Dreams) took place in 2017 and featured over 300 haute couture dresses conceived between 1947 and today, additionally complemented by accessories, perfumes, atelier toiles, fashion photographs, illustrations, sketches, press releases, letters, manuscripts and advertising documents. The massive exhibition dedicated to Christian Dior and the legacy of his maison is perhaps one of the most spectacular fashion retrospectives ever staged. It is not simply another fashion exhibition displaying beautiful garments; it charts a detailed overview of the history and origins of the man and his brand, culminating in the powerhouse it is today.

Organised by Les Arts Decoratifs and the House of Christian Dior, and curated by Florence Müller and Olivier Gabet, the exhibition was overtly placed within a narrative celebrating the brand. In this exhibition the curators cleverly portrayed Dior in alignment to the arts, in an attempt to solidify the “designer as artist” and “couture as art” argument, in so doing portraying Christian Dior, the man, as a larger than life persona – a creative genius. The problem with fetishising the designer as a lone genius, is that it subtly negates the broader societal context and creative networks in which fashion is made, which is in reality much more collaborative.

The exhibition is divided into two parts, the first showcasing Christian Dior himself; his story, his passions, his inspirations, his collections and most importantly, his creations. Here fans can explore anecdotes about his early life, such as his time as a gallery owner, his love for gardening inspired by his mother’s garden at Villa des Rhumbs in Granville (now the Christian Dior museum), his ventures into the world of fragrance and his global travels and exotic objects d’art. Visitors are also introduced to the close relationship between Dior and Paris as the fashion capital. Despite his love for travelling in search of inspiration, he usually re-interpreted (and at times re-appropriated) such discoveries within a Parisian context and style. The section features glorious fashion photographs, advertising films, art pieces from Picasso and Dalí and a rainbow passage brimming with perfume bottles, clothing, jewellery and accessories arranged according to colour. 

Finally, the section also walks fans through Dior’s breakthrough 1947 collection that featured the now-iconic, post-war “New Look” silhouette that gave new shape to femininity after the masculine frames that dominated the war era. The strong curves and accentuated waistlines, along with ostentatious use of volumes of fabric (the skirts of the New look counted between 9 and 40 meters of fabric) had a definite hand in putting Paris back on the fashion throne after the rations during the second world war. Viewing this iconic collection through a contemporary lens, perhaps it is necessary to wonder whether the “New Look” sent female power back a few steps after the liberation of women from the household during the war.

The second part of the exhibition traversed the museum to a set reminiscent of 30 Avenue Montaigne, Dior’s most iconic address in the centre of Paris. This section physically felt more light, open and clean, and was certainly more fantastical and conceptual than its preceding counterpart. All seven of Christian Dior’s successors were represented in this section, which favoured subsections organised by themes and concepts above chronology. For example, one floor to ceiling display showcases the maison’s use of black and white across the decades. Another is themed according to the brand’s heritage of using flowers in its approach to design. Yet another showcased a vast amount of toiles, or garment mock-ups, from the Dior atelier, showing the work behind the illustrious creations. This was supported by a live performance of seamstresses, meant to display the craftsmanship of the house. Yet, it felt eerily staged and somewhat objectifying of the skilled labour force as circus animals.

Perhaps the most enchanting was the room of the stars, which housed the red-carpet gowns worn by Hollywood’s brightest, including the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and the more contemporary Charlize Theron, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna. Here viewers are also made aware of the brand’s historic patronage of royalty and first ladies, such as Grace of Monaco, Jackie Kennedy and perhaps most iconically, Lady Diana. Mood music and delightful starry lighting created a dreamy setting of tangible fantasy. A plaque on the wall explains the coincidentally poetic meaning of Dior’s name: “Dieu” meaning god, and “or” meaning gold in French. Looking around the luminous chamber, it was not difficult to imagine the designer as a veritable golden deity. This method of thematic arrangement is arguably more interesting, and eases viewers’ understanding of the brand’s codes.

Here, Dior’s legacy comes to life through the varied interpretation of its prominent creative directors, each influenced by their own era, vision and zeitgeist, whilst still capturing the distinctive Dior spirit – portrayed by the curators as a permanent remnant of Christian Dior’s enigma. Each of Monsieur Dior’s successors are explored in detail, from Yves Saint Laurent’s controversial, yet legendary reign, to Marc Bohan’s rational era, to the romance of Gianfranco Ferré, the British punk twist brought by John Galliano, Raf Simons’ minimalist approach and, most recently, the timely appointment of the first female creative director at the French couture house. Maria Grazi Churi has quickly established Dior as one of the leading brands advocating female empowerment, and has had a major hand in bringing about the current feminist trend and opening up the discussion on what feminism means today. This is quite interesting when contrasted against Dior’s own era and view on femininity.

The section on the house’s legacy communicated the continuation of the design philosophy many year’s after the founder’s passing, and expertly balanced the portrayal of the brand’s heritage with its spectacular present and implied future. The spectacularity of its staging, through use of sets, stands, lighting, projections, mood music and so on, arguably made great strides in overcoming the often-despaired lifelessness of clothes without bodies – clothes on mannequins rather than live people, where clothes instinctively belong. In everyday life, the wearer is the author, yet in such retrospective exhibitions as this one, the brand is the author. Instead of diminishing its subject, the spectacularity of the Dior exhibition, despite its highly commercial and brand-authored nature, was able to portray the creations mise-en-scene with a tangible atmosphere and narrative enshrouding the garments in context (be it brand specific context).

The sheer scale of the lavish exhibition was undoubtedly awe-inspiring. The queues rivalling those of the Louvre next door spoke volumes to the fact that this kind of affair resonates with people today. The millennial-minded experience showcased fashion as a cultural phenomenon, focusing on the heritage, craftsmanship and the creative genius of a seminal artist and brand. The beautiful title, “Couturier Du Réve,” celebrated the quintessentially Parisian dressmaker of dreams, in his city of dreams. However, it very deliberately again aimed to place Dior within a magical space, with the designer as a larger-than-life presence; a magician of fashion. Despite the educational undertone, blockbuster fashion exhibitions are highly manufactured and can not be divorced from their commercial intentions. Exhibitions are a new aspirational product offering (like fragrances and cosmetics) and a way for brands to capitalize on the vast majorities that can not afford their luxury products. We might not be able to afford Dior couture, but we can buy into the brand aura for the simple price of a museum ticket.


Words: Yolanda Senekal

Photographs, Layout, Graphics: Yolanda Senekal

*The exhibition is on until 7 January 2018.