In Style + Design

Style Lessons From NGV’s ‘House Of Dior: 70 Years Of Haute Couture’

Curator Katie Somerville gives us a history lesson on Dior and how the House continues to define style today.

This year marks the 70th year of the House of Dior. In the capricious world of fashion, where storied labels are struggling to remain commercially viable and emerging designers are folding, it’s a milestone worth celebrating. And, as you’d expect, the French fashion house is doing so in style.

Melbourne has been chosen as one of only three cities worldwide to mark the historic anniversary, with the NGV presenting ‘House Of Dior: 70 Years Of Haute Couture’ from August 27.

The retrospective will feature 140 couture garments, from Christian Dior’s iconic “New Look” collection through to pieces from the house’s subsequent designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Raf Simons and the label’s current (and first female) creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri.

We talked to Katie Somerville, senior curator at the NGV, to get a sneak peek at what will be on offer for fashion lovers when the exhibition launches this weekend. A seasoned veteran who has logged over 21 years working with the NGV’s fashion and textiles collection, Somerville spent three years exploring the Dior archives in Paris and securing pieces from individual couture collections to bring the exhibition to life. 

Australia and Dior have a long relationship

Australia has had a strong connection to Christian Dior ever since the designer sent his first spring/summer collection down a Parisian runway in 1947. With its revolutionary wasp-waisted, full-skirted silhouettes (dubbed “The New Look”), the collection caused a sensation. It turned a page on the austerity of World War II and ushered in an era of post-war glamour.

Somerville says news of the groundbreaking collection quickly reached Australia.

“It was immediately reported in local press within a couple of weeks of that collection showing in Paris. You had newspapers as far and wide as The Mercury in Hobart waxing lyrical about this incredible new designer on the scene.”

Australian department store David Jones was quick to support the new designer.

“In July 1947, David Jones negotiated four of the works from that now iconic new look collection to come to Australia and be shown as part of their French Fashions For All parade,” says Somerville.

The next year, a buyer from the store met with Christian Dior to negotiate an exclusive deal that saw the label hold its first ever show outside of Paris, at David Jones’ Elizabeth Street flagship in Sydney.

“Dior took this potential market for his work very seriously,” says Somerville. “He had a very global outlook, and it was reflected even in the way he named each of his garments in his collections. Many of them were named after international cities… There are quite a number of works named Sydney or Melbourne. There’s even a work named Canberra.”

Couture is the closest fashion comes to perfection

Couture may not be accessible to the masses – prices start at the tens of thousands for daywear – but it’s the pinnacle of fashion, where a designer’s most ambitious fantasies are realised.

“Couture is about presenting the very best example possible of individualised perfection in a garment,” says Somerville. “When you think of fashion as an art form or a creative form, couture is taking it to its furthest degree in terms of technical proficiency and creativity.”

‘House Of Dior: 70 Years Of Haute Couture’ pays homage to the craftsmanship of couture, displaying pieces that were laboured over for hundreds of hours at the House’s two ateliers (both of which are operational to this day).

“The ateliers are full of people with incredible skills, with many years of experience, who are responsible for translating the vision of the creative director,” says Somerville. “The atelier space is almost like a laboratory in a sense. It’s where, no matter how extreme or challenging the concept is, a core group of people are responsible for bringing that vision to life.”

Examples of the atelier’s meticulous work are on display throughout the exhibition, with traditional techniques such as embroidered and hand-painted fabrics featured in everything from daywear to ball gowns.

Despite estimates that there are only 4,000 clients for haute couture worldwide, it remains relevant to a much broader group: those seeking sartorial inspiration.

“One of the most powerful things about fashion, regardless of the era you’re looking at, is that aspirational element – something you find inspiring that sparks in the confines of your own wardrobe. It’s sort of a generator of ideas and inspiration, without which I think the fashion landscape would be a far lesser place,” says Somerville.

Christian Dior probably influenced what you’re wearing today

Look down. If you’re wearing head-to-toe black, you have Dior to thank.

“When people think of Dior, they do picture a sort of high ’50s glamour, the ball gowns, the tulle, the beading,” says Somerville. “But Dior was, in fact, a number of things. He was a huge fan of the colour black, which of course remains a central tenet of most contemporary wardrobes to this day.”

During the 10 years in which Dior led the house (until his sudden death in 1957), each collection he presented told a new and distinctive style story. His focus on continually presenting innovative ideas was revolutionary at the time and ended up influencing the cycle of seasonal trends that the fashion industry operates within today.

“It was this sense that we take for granted now,” says Somerville. “What’s going to be the new black? What’s going to be the new silhouette? Even that idea of the length of a skirt, if it’s going to be maxi or midi, that kind of expectation is very much something that was fostered by Christian Dior, and really fed by the press, and has now become just common practice.”

Reinvention is the key to longevity

Fashion designers are masters of reinvention, and nowhere is that clearer than in the NGV’s exhibition, which highlights works from each of the six designers who have reigned over the House since Dior’s death.

“Each of the house designers has in their own way addressed the heritage and the legacy of the Christian Dior period, but then done something in their own way,” says Somerville. “The exhibition looks at that really interesting balance between heritage and modernity.”

From Yves Saint Laurent to Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria-Grazia Chiuri, each of Dior’s successors has displayed an ability to take the design codes of the house – such as flowers and hourglass-shaped suits – and invest them with relevance. From Galliano’s theatrical styles to Simons’ minimalist creations, it’s clear that through every evolution of the House, Christian Dior’s legacy shines through.

Couture informs our understanding of luxury

The final room in the exhibition is dedicated to the idea of ‘Magnificent Dior’… it’s what everyone will be dying to see,” says Somerville.

The room features some of the House’s most technically elaborate and opulent ball gowns, spanning 70 years.

“One work from the early ’50s is a beautiful tulle, full-length evening gown with a strapless bodice, with wonderful beaded crescents that descend in graduated form across the skirt of the gown, to mimic in a way the reflection of the moon on water,” says Somerville.

Another incredible work, a ball gown with a four-metre train, is from John Galliano’s first couture collection for Dior and displays the designer’s masterful control of volume and tailoring.

The sheer variety of works on display speaks to our understanding of the nature of luxury, as a quality that is achieved through painstaking craftsmanship, restricted only by the limits of imagination.

“Sometimes it’s about the physical impressiveness of the garment, sometimes it’s about technical skill, and sometimes it’s the number of hours involved,” says Somerville. “It’s a wonderful group of works that show that idea of magnificence in all of its forms.”

House Of Dior: 70 Years Of Haute Couture runs from 27 August – 7 November, 2017 at NGV International. Find out more here.

(Lead portrait image: Christian Dior, Paris (fashion house); John Galliano (designer) Look 25, dress 2011, spring−summer 2011, haute couture collection Photo © Guy Marineau. Lead article image: National Gallery of Victoria and House of Dior announce House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture at NGV International, August 2017. Models (left to right): Sandra Sundelin, Alejandra Zuluaga, Ella Bond, Maddison Lukes, Bela Pelacio Hazewinkel. Photo: Wayne Taylor)

Published 22 August, 2017