Dior’s haute couture show in Paris was a celebration of feminine power.
Creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri conceived the collection as an homage to Josephine Baker, the American-born dancer who arrived in Paris as a cabaret performer in the 1920s and went on to distinguish herself for aiding the French Resistance during World War II and campaigning in favor of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.
In her latest collaboration with a female creative, Chiuri tapped African American artist Mickalene Thomas to design the set, which paid tribute to Baker and a dozen other barrier-breaking women of color via giant embroidered portraits that wrapped around the inside of the tent set up in the garden of the Rodin Museum.
“I think it’s interesting to celebrate all the women that are references for other women. What interests me is how women of the past can serve as a reference for the future, regardless of the nationality or the background,” Chiuri said in a preview.
Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone and Diahann Carroll were some of the faces that looked down on the guests. “It was definitely very strategic to do this,” Thomas said before the show. “I think just alone for Maria Grazia to want to work with me, you know, as a Black woman from America who works in this genre is a radical statement in itself and it’s exciting.”
Baker’s narrative is interwoven with the history of Dior. A couture client, she wore the brand to perform in New York City in 1951 and was pictured attending a Dior show in 1959 alongside fellow singer Juliette Greco. Chiuri was inspired by all the facets of the entertainer’s persona.
Her stage costumes informed the eveningwear looks, which included a flapper-style crystal-beaded mesh dress with a long skirt split at the sides, the better to let its floor-length fringes dance around bare legs. A jeweled bustier top worn with a crinkled radzimir wrap skirt nodded to the more structured looks the singer favored in the ‘50s.
Tailored pantsuits in dry shantung silk, blistered jacquard or strict gray wool were modeled on the military uniform that Baker wore during the war and to address the Great March on Washington in 1963.
Most alluring of all were the off-duty looks. Silky robes were slung over a black smocked satin swimsuit or a rhinestone-embroidered top and shorts. Their easy allure was echoed in the softness of the coats, whether in masculine herringbone cashmere or an opulent floral and gold jacquard.
Chiuri likes to explore the ways in which women wield fashion as a weapon and was struck by the way Baker redefined her own narrative, shedding the racially stereotyped banana skirt she wore as a dancer at the Folies Bergère to appear in the pages of Vogue in the latest styles by couturiers like Jean Patou.
“Josephine Baker was a woman that immediately understood the power of fashion,” Chiuri said. “Fashion shows also in a way propose a territory where you can play with clothes and you work on your image and your personality and you change the rules, so I found the connection super interesting.”
“It’s the first time in my career that I have a female CEO,” Chiuri said. “I feel super happy because it’s a new experience for me and I think it’s great because it’s different. I think it’s an important step honestly also in the fashion industry because she has a lot of expertise. She’s really respectful of the artist part.”
It made for a heady cocktail of female influence that served to counter, in no small measure, couture’s long history of white, male-dominated rule.