Gender differences are so last century.
Maria Grazia Chiuri, who keeps close tabs on Millennial attitudes through her daughter and muse Rachele Regini, has been touting a feminist agenda since taking over design duties at Dior in 2016 — all the while, paying homage to highly specific facets of the French fashion house’s 70-year heritage.
In her pre-fall collection, she found a point of convergence between the two. The lineup, which mixed graphic men’s tailoring with her signature diaphanous evening gowns, was inspired by Surrealist artist Claude Cahun, best known for her photographic self-portraits in which she adopted a variety of guises.
Chiuri decided to explore this period after seeing the Dior retrospective at Les Arts Décoratifs, which wrapped last week after a record-breaking run. It included a room devoted to the couturier’s early career as a gallerist, and his friendships with Surrealists including Jean Cocteau and André Breton.
With her gender-ambiguous pseudonym and fondness for role-playing, Cahun makes an ideal muse for a generation craving new ways of defining themselves.
“At that time, in Paris, the modern woman was born,” said Chiuri, pointing at a mood board filled with images of the shaven-headed artist. “In a way, it’s very close to the idea that you use fashion and dress in a way that is very personal and in the moment, as you would like to represent yourself.”
That approach dovetails with the house founder’s architectural approach to tailoring and fondness for using masculine fabrics in his post-war designs, which were famously adopted by Marlene Dietrich — another of the season’s muses.
It also chimes with Hedi Slimane’s forays into androgyny as creative director of Dior Homme, namely with the launch of his Petite Taille for Women line in 2002.
Hence, a knee-length kilt — a nod to the floor-length ones for men that Slimane showed in 2004 — came in two guises: a black polka-dot tulle version paired with a tuxedo jacket, or a more traditional checked wool alternative topped with an oversized mohair sweater.
Sensible footwear prevailed — a temporary necessity for Chiuri, who is on crutches after breaking her femur in a Christmas Day fall. Options included sturdy black loafers with a gold initial buckle, or two-tone brogues, which also came in a dainty kitten-heel version.
The designer toyed with trompe-l’oeil effects, like a sturdy herringbone wool knee-length coat worn over a pleated dress that echoed its pattern — only this time, in a silver lurex knit. Another herringbone dress, with a prim funnel neck, revealed a saucier side in motion, as its pleated skirt flashed strips of black organza.
The clash between masculine and feminine energies was jarring at times: Who is this girl who sports a nipple-baring sheer corset under graphic black cage dress one day, and a matronly calf-length tweed skirt the next?
But the push-and-pull also resulted in some exquisitely ambiguous pieces, like a cape-sleeved black velvet gown spliced with insets of pleated navy chiffon that was equal parts austere and sensual.
Chiuri said Cahun and her ilk were a reminder that women don’t have to be confined to a single identity. “Sometimes, when you read about that, you feel that people were more modern at the time than they are now,” she mused. “I think that we have to remember these women, remember it’s possible to do what you want in life.”