For Christian Dior, name was destiny. The poet and artist Jean Cocteau thought the couturier’s name was a “magical” meeting of God, dieu, and gold, or. And Dior certainly had a Midas touch. He was the presiding genius of Paris fashion in the years after the Second World War. His famed “New Look” (1947) was powerfully symbolic. Because Dior didn’t simply design suits and frocks: he sketched the future, with his vision a dazzling rejection of the fear, poverty, skimping and saving of the war years. That wasp-waist? Peace. That full skirt? Hope. Those wide, soft shoulders? Freedom.
The V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is a bold refashioning of last year’s retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. With 200 haute couture garments and more than 300 objects, from perfume stoppers to Juliet caps, the show is a dressing-up-box delight. It is subtler than Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2015), more irresistibly wearable than Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion (2017). In fact, it is the greatest fashion show the V&A has ever staged.
More than a parade of finery, or a catwalk of greatest hits, it is social history in needle and thread; an elegant evocation of the post-war world. This exemplary exhibition covers the Dior story in 10 thematic rooms that take us from the infamous New Look (the phrase coined by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow) through the styles – some more faithful to the master than others – of his successors: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and the present creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri.
In the first room, we see the young Christian, born in Granville, Normandy in 1905, with his brother dressed in matching Pierrot costumes with wide, white ruffs. He’s stylish even in short trousers. The second room spotlights Dior’s most dramatic silhouettes: strikingly sculptural, even architectural.
A newsreel in the third room proclaims, “The Dior circus comes to London” and instantly we are caught in the whirl of the London season: coming-out balls, deb’s dances, court circulars. We meet Dior’s strong-minded muses: Nancy Mitford, Margot Fonteyn, the ungovernable Princess Margaret. How sweet she looks, how butter-wouldn’t-melt, photographed in Dior by Cecil Beaton for her 21st birthday, and how faded and party-ravaged the dress today. It’s a dress worn (danced in, smoked in) to destruction.
Marvel at that dress’s star (Dior’s lucky symbol) and quatrefoil sequins, and at the mother-of-pearl leaves on embroidered stems. Note the perfect stitching on the buttons of the “Bar” suit (1955) that opens the exhibition. Gasp at the pinched, impossible 19in waist of the suit’s silk shantung jacket.
There are little black suits from the Forties and Fifties; the “Daisy” suit (1947) ordered by both Mitford and Fonteyn; the “Debussy” dress (1950) embellished with hundreds of dragonfly sequins. Dior tucked and pleated cloth with reckless disregard for cost. One suit demanded 80 yards of fabric. A photograph from 1947 shows the designer running a gauntlet of women demonstrating against his wastefulness: “Mr Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor.” The protesters may have abhorred, but the women of Paris and London cried: “J’adore!” These skirts were made for twirling.
He dressed his women for fantasy and for life. His Cinderellas may go to the ball, but they take the Underground home at dawn. There’s a wonderful photograph of model Barbara Goalen wearing the “Black Swan” dress (1950) on a Tube platform.
Dior was awarded the Gold Thimble – Dé d’Or – couture’s highest honour, but it’s his seamstresses’ sore thumbs we should applaud. These “petites mains”, literally “little hands”, who pintucked, pleated, pressed and finished each hem and buttonhole are the quiet heroines of this exhibition.
One dress – the “Pérou” (1954) – took more than 600 hours to make. The room of white toiles – a celebration of the seamstress’s art – is a spotless vision of heaven as an atelier.
He might have given each gown a name like a sonnet – “Evening in Bloom”, “Little Dove”, “April”, “December Evening” – but Dior’s designs are never preposterous or de trop. The dress is always handmade to the woman, never the other way round.
It becomes clear, though, as you walk through the later rooms of the exhibition, that his heirs – Dior died in 1957 – sometimes tipped the scales too far the other way. John Galliano, for instance, creative director from 1996 to 2011, gives us soaring flights of imagination. But his dresses are for bals masquées, not Conduit Street and the Savoy.
Only Maria Grazia Chiuri completely succeeds in marrying Dior’s sense of romance with his restraint of line. Dior and Chiuri together turn “The Garden” room into a glorious waltz of the flowers.
The penultimate “Diorama” room is a treat: a rainbow of hats and heels by Dior collaborators Stephen Jones and Roger Vivier. Take your pick of feathered boots, crystal slippers, shrimp-tail hats, embroidered gauntlets, amber crowns, flowered turbans, Perspex pumps, butterfly masks and Queen of Hearts heels, all organised by colour.
The “Ballroom” is the exhibition’s final room, showing the glamour of the red carpet and the opening night. The Galliano slip-dress worn by Diana, Princess of Wales in 1996 is the least of the dresses here, but the décor goes a bit Dubai duty-free – a misstep in what is otherwise a finely mounted show. (Altogether it is far less a baroque jumble sale and far less cramped than the Alexander McQueen exhibition of 2015.)
You need at least an hour and a half to do this exhibition justice. Miss no mandarin collar, skip no scallop hem. Book tickets tout de suite. This is an exhibition to make you fall head over Vivier heels in love with the marvellous Monsieur Dior.
From February 2 to July 14. Details: 020 7942 2000; vam.ac.uk