When the V&A announced it was to display the UK’s largest and most comprehensive exhibition celebrating the life and work of one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century, it was met with a phenomenal response from fashion enthusiasts worldwide. The exhibition sold out just 19 days after it opened on 2 February, prompting the museum to extend its run by seven weeks. Originally scheduled to finish on 14 July, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams continued until last Sunday, selling out again and becoming the most-visited exhibition in V&A history.
I found myself checking the V&A Museum’s website on a regular basis in the hopes that additional tickets would be released for the dates I was going to be in London… luckily, my efforts paid off. Due to popular demand, V&A decided to extend its opening hours and I managed to get 2 tickets for the Friday 9:15 AM time slot. At £24 each, I found the tickets rather pricey, but as we later came to discover, the experience was worth every penny.
Without a shadow of doubt, I can say it was the most spectacular fashion exhibition I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. From the moment we entered the newly-renovated Sainsbury Gallery, I was in utter awe of the intricate attention to detail and work that must have gone into preparing the exhibition.
The New Look
With his debut collection that rejected the utilitarian and masculine way of dressing established during the 1920s and 30s, Christian Dior completely transformed the post-war European fashion scene. Back in 1947, at the ripe age of 42, the French couturier unveiled a range of whimsical and feminine garments that symbolised the beginning of a new era.
In response to the fashion show, the then editor-in-chief of the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snow, exclaimed: “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have such a new look!”, and a legend was born… Dior’s debut collection went down in the history of fashion as the “New Look”, characterised by enhanced busts, cinched waists, accentuated hips and extravagantly full A-line skirts.
The Bar suit
What better way to open the collection than with a replica of Dior’s Avenue Montaigne headquarters with the iconic Bar suit, named after the Plaza Athénée’s cocktail lounge, as a centrepiece. This two-piece suit (which I sadly forgot to photograph), consisting of an ivory shantung jacket matched with a pleated black wool skirt, remains one of the most recognised ensembles. It cemented Dior’s position as a fashion innovator and has been reinterpreted by the fashion house’s successive creative directors over the decades.
The walls were adorned with Dior’s personal sketches and memorabilia related to the life and death of the legendary designer. What particularly caught my eye, however, was a photo of the Little-Below-the-Knee club who staged a protest against the New Look in Chicago, holding banners with slogans like “Mr. Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor” … oh, how times have changed!
Dior in Britain
From his debut to his untimely death in 1957, Christian Dior designed 22 collections, each consisting of over 90 garments. I enjoyed walking around The Dior Line room which displayed ten key pieces from the House of Dior’s inaugural decade in mirrored boxes.
There was also a separate room dedicated to Christian Dior’s personal relationship with Britain. A self-confessed Anglophile like me, he fell in love with the country during his first visit back in 1920s. He claimed his frequent visits to Britain brought him a sensation of happiness and declared there was no other country in the world, besides his home country of France, whose way of life he liked so much.
While there were many beautiful dresses on display in this room, its highlight was the off-shoulder gown designed by Christian Dior for Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday. I admired it from every angle possible, marvelling at the magnificent craftsmanship that put Dior at the forefront of fashion.
Various references to the centuries past can be found in the designs of Christian Dior and his successors. Walking into the next room, I felt like I was stepping into a palace.
Looking at the array of lavish dresses with satin embroidery, floral motifs and opulent embellishments, at times I found it hard to believe that I was not taken back in time to the Belle Époque era, waiting to make my appearance as a debutante. The colour palette was very much in line with my personal affinity for pastels as well.
The next section was dedicated to Dior’s travel-inspired collections, including five countries: Mexico, India, Egypt, Japan and China.
From the moment I entered the room, my gaze was firmly set on the blush tulle gown with trailing cherry blossoms created by Maria Grazia Chiuri as part of the Haute Couture Spring – Summer 2017 collection. I also found it fascinating to learn about the escaramuzas, Mexican female rodeo riders who were the source of inspiration for Dior’s 2019 Cruise collection.
“After women, flowers are the most divine of creations.” – Christian Dior
Christian Dior’s love for flowers and gardens was often referenced in his designs. Before visiting the exhibition, I watched a fellow blogger recount her own experience on Instagram stories and I found myself replaying the video of the garden room over and over again.
Although I knew what to expect, I still found myself wonderstruck when I finally got to see its beauty from up close. With paper wisteria, clematis, lily of the valley and roses cascading from the ceiling, this room was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Fun fact: Did you know that lily of the valley was Christian Dior’s favourite flower and he often asked his seamstresses to sew its sprigs into the hems of his dresses for good luck?
Designers for Dior
Christian Dior’s vision and designs blended seamlessly with the creations of those who succeeded him at the fashion house. The next section of the exhibition presented each of the successive creative directors and their individual interpretations of the Dior style.
From the youthful, street-inspired couture of Yves Saint Laurent to the modern tailoring and ethereal gowns of Maria Grazia Chiuri, it provides great insight into Dior’s legacy spanning over seven decades.
At the heart of Dior are the places where the magic happens… ateliers. The next part of the exhibition featured a floor-to-ceiling display of white toiles or, in other words, garment prototypes. These test garments are typically made in white cotton fabric in order to check the fit, construction and shape of the design. Once they are adjusted and fabric and embellishments are selected, each haute couture piece is handmade, often requiring hundreds of hours of work.
And just when I thought I’d seen it all, it turned out V&A left the best for last. We walked through a dimly lit corridor where we found the Diorama section displaying colour-coded Dior accessories, lipsticks and fragrance bottles alongside a series of magazine covers featuring Dior looks (including one of my all-time favourites, Taylor Swift).
From there, we entered the exhibition’s grand finale – a giant ballroom with crystal chandeliers showcasing a collection of the House of Dior’s finest haute couture eveningwear. In addition to a rotating platform in the centre of the room, we were surrounded from all sides by the most glamorous, meticulously embellished gowns, including dresses worn on the red carpet by Jennifer Lawrence, Nicole Kidman and others. The display was accompanied by a sound and light show, transforming the ceiling from a shower of golden glitter into a starry night sky.
“In the world today, haute couture is one of the last repositories of the marvellous”.
If it all sounds a little excessive and fantastical, that’s because it was – the V&A exhibition did a wonderful job of transporting me into a fairytale, if only just for two hours. The balance between the timelessness of designs and the allure and opulence that Dior creations are synonymous with was perfectly maintained. It is no wonder that they have remained the choice of many celebrities over the course of seven decades and continue to grace the red carpets. I left the exhibition wanting to fill my wardrobe with Dior gowns… Sadly, a walk around their marvellous Mayfair boutique had to suffice for now.
If you got the chance to attend the Dior exhibition, what was your favourite part and why? If not, I hope my lengthy review managed to capture its essence and pay homage to Dior’s legacy. I can’t wait to see who the next fashion history exhibition will be dedicated to, although I know one thing for sure – Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams set the bar really high!