Hardly a person alive who doesn’t know about Dior or even the house of Dior, and for a man who lived a scant 52 years with only 11 of those as head of his own maison in Paris, how could he have such an influential effect on fashion and particularly fashion history?
Schiaparelli was one of those early 20th century designers who took her inspiration from the arts more than from anything else. She fancied herself as a surreal artist and along with Salvador Dali made a name for herself. But her styles were basically very classical. They were also practical and offered a very timeless palette from which she could do her surreal designs.
She wisely knew that she couldn’t have a wild design like a shoe hat and have something equally as weird on the body and not take away from the hat. This is called focal point, the point of interest and/or dominance in art. When studying art, you have the elements of design and then the principles of design. The elements are all the different parts of the design (line, color, shape, size, space, value, and texture) and the principles are how you put the parts together (contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity, and focal point). Schiaparelli knew that you couldn’t have to focus points or else the whole thing fell apart, cats and dogs start sleeping together and it’s the end of the world as we know it!!!
So what she did was keep her garments amazingly tailored, classic and beautifully proportioned to the body so that that could act as a palette for her more daring hats, ornamentation or maybe a crazy sleeve here and there.
But her designs were so classic and timeless, little did she know that they would last for decades. Events of history helped along the way. The Schiaparelli suit became so popular and so classic, that the period between the two great wars in Europe in which economic conditions in some parts of Europe were so bad, any woman could afford a Schiaparelli-look-alike pattern and make herself a fashionable outfit.
You didn’t have to be wealthy to look really nice. As conditions in Europe became worse, war finally broke out, and with that, rationing started so that all resources went to fighting the war – on both sides.
More than ever this silhouette from Schiaparelli became the uniform of the day. It was economical to make, it was classic, it was fairly stylish, albeit sometimes plain, but it was most of all serviceable which was the keyword of the day.
This started the 3rd decade of the Schiaparelli design and even if folks were tired of it, it was at least clothes, and designers couldn’t very well be frivolous even if they felt like it. It was all about the war.
In May 1945, V-E (Victory in Europe) ended the war, and the powers that be in Paris decided that they needed to bring back the fashion capital of the world home – to Paris. New York had other ideas as the fashion capital had moved to the shores of the United States during the war. The New Yorkers were not about to let that happen.
Enter Christian Dior.
This is the famous Bar Suit from Maison Dior in February 1947. This was his first show under his own name and wow what a show. But then wow, what a design. It SCREAMS happy, no more rationing, we won, time to celebrate and be frivolous, and this design is.
These were all exorbitantly frivolous designs that were the rage of Paris. New York had no choice after this. This is the power of real talent, and especially of Dior. The whole idea of making such gloriously extravagant designs that set the world on notice that the war really was over!
And although you would think that is enough for one person to accomplish in one lifetime and he could live on that reputation for decades, unfortunately, Dior was only the head of his Maison for 11 years before he died. But that wasn’t the end of Dior’s legacy to the world.
Dior had selected a young designer who had been working at his maison, to take over as head of his house after he died – a Yves Saint Laurent, who lasted for 3 years before he set out to start his own house.
The Marc Bohan was at the helm for 29 years, longer than any designer, but he went out to start his own house. Then Gianfranco Ferré who left 7 years to go out and start his own house. The John Galliano.
Besides YSL, probably John Galliano is not only the best known, but also had the most influence on the house for the years he was head of the house. An extremely talented designer, and like most artists was probably more sensitive than we ever knew. Here’s the famous list of all the designers heading Dior after Dior. Notice that YSL, Bohan, Ferré, all had houses of their own. The rest are considered some of the top designers in the world.
Christian Dior – 1946–1957.
Yves Saint Laurent – 1957–1960.
Marc Bohan – 1960–1989.
Gianfranco Ferré – 1989–1997.
John Galliano – 1997–2011.
Bill Gaytten – 2011-2012.
Raf Simons – 2012–2015.
Maria Grazia Chiuri – 2016–present.
As far as John Galliano’s unceremonious and infamous exit from the House of Dior, I do not excuse it, but I do understand it. Consider this – the house is now run by a business corporation, and yes it should make money, but the owners are keyed on only making money not really making art, so the pressure is on the artistic head (aka designer) to come up with a show each time that is better than the last….that means that the Pre-Fall has to be better than the S/S RTW (Spring/Summer Ready-to-Wear) which has to be better than the S/S Couture, which has to be better than the Resort, which has to be better than the F/W RTW (Fall/Winter RTW), which has to be better than the F/W Couture, which has to be better than the previous year’s Pre-Fall….and on and on. Year after year the artistic head of the house has to bring in 30-ish designs for each of those shows. That’s a whopping 180 to 200 new, innovative, never-before-seen, profit-making, news-making designs every year. It’s enough to drive a person crazy or to drugs, alcohol and all the other vices du jour to the point where a person is liable to explode.
Because a person cracks under such horrendous pressure does not make him a bad person. He literally had reached the extent of his emotional and psychological resources. And we all have those limits. Artists, particularly very well-known and famous artists have a tendency to reach this point more than the rest of us, who are more apt to make house payments, have insurance, have a savings account and an IRS rather than risking everything for an idea or concept as really well-known artists do. This is what makes them admirable – they take the risks that the rest of us won’t, don’t or can’t. That doesn’t excuse the behavior either – it possibly explains it, but doesn’t excuse it.
Now when that artist, clears his/her head and heads into a more realistic but still following the path of his/her dream, after having reached the bottom – that’s the artist to really watch because that person knows his/her limits and will hopefully act accordingly. That’s essentially where John Galliano is today, and he is definitely a designer to watch. He is immensely talented and very gifted and very much worth a look. I’m not really crazy about his Maison Margiela stuff, but he’s designing under his own name again, and those fashions are prescient, beautiful as well as new and different.
One caveat here from me and that is that I happen to prefer this style of clothing and am thrilled to see its return. And probably if this was being shown on the runway of Joe Schmoe, I would be singing his praises too, but it’s not – it’s John Galliano who has the guts to show it and I love what he’s doing.
But back to the deliciousness of Dior and his magic. Nothing says this better than a few pictures here and there to describe what a lot of people refer to as the Golden Age of Couture which was heralded by Dior who stayed at the helm for the duration of his life.
These are referred to as toiles (twahls) which are the designers’ test pattern to test the design and further refine it. Most professional designers do this, although they also drape on the mannequin – in this case, a live model…
A small photo but shows so much, mostly the seamlines and delicate fitting to make the silhouette that Dior was so famous for. What you can’t see, but I know (cause I’ve cut these out before) is that the piece that is so tiny around the waist, sometimes only 3″ or so inches, ends up being often 20″ or 30″ wide at the bottom. That means that the fabric to the side of the 3″ around the waist, is all waste. THAT’S why the Dior New Look was such an extravagantly expensive cut….there was a tremendous amount of waste in the cut.
For the penultimate presentation here’s a 1952 Spring Fashion Show from Dior. This truly is the height of fashion.
February 2, 2019, the Victoria & Albert Museum is opening an exhibit Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams which will be a show spanning the 70 years of the house’s existence. The V&A site will have an extensive presence online with this show and it’s even fun to droll through the list of classes, workshops, and tours that they have set up for the exhibit. Maybe if the site gets enough hits from this side of the pond it will travel to the US as the Savage Beauty show that the V&A did a number of years ago. There is also currently an exhibit at the Denver Art Museum which isn’t nearly as extensive as the V&A exhibit, but it is closer.
It’s easy to see why Dior was so instrumental in the fashion world but also in the world of every-day dressing in the 20th Century. Through his designs, the age of world wars was over and the prosperity that the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s brought was displayed and manifested with each season of clothes from the couture designers headquartered in Paris. Dior was as much the instigator of the feeling of prosperity as he was the manifestation of it. To capture the feeling of the mid-century in clothing design is strictly the purview of an artist.
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