Five years before Richard Avedon photographed “Dovima With Elephants” at the Cirque d’Hiver, British television covered a Dior show at the Savoy Hotel in London under the title, “Dior ‘Circus’ Comes to Town.”
Maria Grazia Chiuri has long known all about the former. But the latter, not so much, until she started researching in advance of the Feb. 2 opening of “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The 1955 TV headline got her creative wheels turning, and soon Chiuri had uncovered less famous photos of Dior-bedecked models in circus situations, and connected dots between the designer and various mid-century artists who either worked in or were inspired by the circus. Along the way, she happened upon a sentence that intrigued: “Is it a man or a woman? It is neither one nor the other. It’s a clown.”
The clown, Chiuri reasoned, is one of many characters in a circus parade. “Each in some way represents a different attitude — the person that is brave, the person that is fun,” she said during a preview. “The dress represents the character. The circus is round, like a little world.” She put all of those thoughts together and, welcome to Circus Haute Dior.
Among its most high-profile characters: acrobats, only Chiuri’s were real, as she enlisted Mimbre, a remarkable women’s troop, unconcerned that they might distract from the clothes. “I think you have to give your dream, you give an emotion. I have an emotion to work with other teams, other artists that make other things,” she said.
That dream came together in what was probably Chiuri’s best show since her arrival at Dior. Like a savvy ringmaster, she wielded tacit but firm control over her players, even while pilfering liberally and specifically from high-intensity circus tropes. The prevailing palette was divided between mesmerizing, dusty pastels and combinations of black and white. The former came in graceful gowns, some of which (or variations thereof) are all but certain to find their way to the Oscars. The elegant flou ranged from metallic plissé goddess numbers to sparkling prints with billowing sleeves to a harlequin motif that matched the diamond-patterned floor under the big top. (It looked great — really.)
Yet while Chiuri’s Dior has often featured lovely gowns, she has struggled with tailoring, trying too hard to impose an empowered-woman new look on the New Look. Here, she said “basta” to that, letting archival references take a distant back seat to pure chic. (That said, a single obvious Bar reference turned up in an impressive incarnation, light as air and sans retro kitsch.) Enter the white and black, in finely detailed shirts over skirts and pants for night and day. Chiuri made alluring use of black boiled wool with frayed edges for an impeccable coat and column dress. Even when she worked the circus schtick into ringmaster fare — red passementried pantsuit; black tailcoat over pants — she rendered it deftly enough for us to imagine a stylish woman actually wearing it. And that’s not clowning around.