LONDON — The New Look never grows old, at least not at the Victoria & Albert, where Christian Dior’s Bar Suit, a pleated wool skirt and silk shantung jacket with a 19-inch waist, is the all-time favorite.
“We have about 100,000 objects in our dress and textiles archive and study center and they range over hundreds and hundreds of years. The most requested one to see — from designers, researchers, academics, students, and members of the public — is the Bar Suit,” said Oriole Cullen, curator of “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” which opens Feb. 2 and runs until July 19.
“The suit became emblematic not only for Dior, but as a reference for 20th-century fashion, and that middle decade. It really sums up the Fifties, the amazing fashion photography of the era and a generation of people who had grown up in strained circumstances,” added Cullen in an interview ahead of the largest and most comprehensive U.K. show on the house of Dior.
“Designer of Dreams” is also the first fashion exhibition to be staged in the vast new galleries, designed by Amanda Levete, on the west side of the building. They showcase more than 500 objects, memorabilia and garments, including an array of ensembles by the founder and the creative directors who followed him: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
While this exhibition may be based on the 2017 show, “Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve,” organized by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the majority of the content is new, and the accent decidedly British.
There’s the tulle cloud of a gown embroidered with gold and worn by Princess Margaret for her 21st birthday portrait, shot by Cecil Beaton, and a chic take on a nun’s habit, in navy blue wool and cotton piqué. Known as “Nonette,” and originally worn by Dior house model Princess Galitzine, the bodice and skirt were recently acquired by the museum and are on public display for the first time in the new show.
The novelist Emma Tennant’s blood red silk organza debutante’s dress has its place in the show, as do outfits worn by Nancy Mitford and Margot Fonteyn. A whole area, Dior in Britain, spotlights the designer’s buzzy fashion shows at venues such as Blenheim Palace and the Savoy.
The show also highlights Dior’s work with British manufacturers, including Dents for gloves, Rayne for shoes, Lyle & Scott for knits and Mitchel Maer for costume jewelry.
Other rooms have names such as The Garden, highlighting how flora fueled the imagination of Dior and his creative heirs alike, and The Ballroom, an ode to eveningwear and to the endurance of couture’s artisanal skills.
Cullen said the moment was right to stage a Dior show to the U.K., given the house’s anniversary in 2017, and the political and social conversations going on right now in the U.K. and elsewhere.
“We are very lucky to have a fabulous audience and following in terms of fashion, and there has been a great response from our members. I think, at this point, when the world is going crazy outside, this is an uplifting escape. These are definitely tumultuous times and I think this brings us back to look at beauty. That is very much the message,” she said.
Cullen also pointed out that a focus on the environment, on cutting waste and boosting sustainability have given couture new meaning. The V&A’s most recent exhibition, “Fashioned from Nature,” explored the relationship between fashion and the natural world, so this show was an understandable next step.
“Everything in this exhibition is couture, so it is also about that idea of amazing craft and techniques and considering clothing as more than just something throwaway. Some of these beautiful pieces are 65-70 years old, so there is the idea of taking care of things, of looking after things. It’s also about the people who are making the clothes and the skills they use. Couture is not just about the embellishment. It is about every seam that you can’t see that has been handmade,” Cullen explained.
In a separate interview, Dior’s creative director Chiuri said the show gave her the opportunity to reflect not only on Dior’s designs, but on fashion, the passage of time, and why couture has become modern again.
“Sometimes, we are so focused on the present, on the next show, the next step. Today, everything moves so quickly. This idea of fashion as something that you throw away is very far from the idea of couture. Couture is timeless. We have to reflect on our environment, which is why couture has become something very modern. It’s about a coat that you can keep all your life,” said Chiuri, who was wrapped in a long navy blue cashmere coat and wearing monogrammed sneakers from the brand.
She also talked about some of her predecessors at Dior, and pointed to Bohan as a great modernizer. “He was a designer who moved Dior into the future. Saint Laurent was very important, but he was very young and very close to Mr. Dior, so for him it was so difficult. Marc Bohan was probably more relaxed in his role, and he was designing in a historical moment when women started to become more independent,” she said.
Asked about particular pieces that captured her imagination Chiuri named the “nun’s” bodice and skirt. “I’d never seen it before — I’d only seen the sketch — and I think it could have an influence on my future designs. It is so severe, but it’s also a functional piece because you can take off the collar.”
She also pointed to Princess Margaret’s off-the-shoulder gown, saying that Dior dressed “the most important influencer of the time, Princess Margaret. Dior’s was the modern image of a princess.”
The show itself, she said, is a mix of French and British cultures, a mix of soft lines and Savile Row construction on suit jackets. “Dior was fascinated by British culture, the big house, the big garden, royalty, society, and he made it all with his point of view; he made something new.”
Her advice about how to approach the show? “You can enjoy the beauty, but you can also reflect on time, and how fashion reflects time and women and the cultural moment. Like a fashion show, it’s not only about the clothes.”