Christian Dior ran his couture house for only ten years. However, from the New Look’s crescendo in 1947 to his untimely death in 1957, he created such a clear blueprint of his style and, importantly, his rounded approach to business that his name remains inseparable from Paris fashion and his brand thrives seventy years later. The exhibition Dior: Couturier du rêve at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris is, therefore, a suitably grand display that covers three thousand square meters and, along with the accompanying catalogue, is simultaneously fascinating and overwhelming in scale and scope.
The hagiographic approach to individual designer retrospectives has been crystallized by those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the 2011 show Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty set the bar for showmanship and set design. Arguably, the Dior exhibition takes this as a starting point and goes further, to create a dazzlingly elaborate series of rooms that lure visitors deeper and deeper into hyperesthesia. David Howes’s term for the heightened multisensory impact of contemporary design, in particular in shops, seems particularly apt for the carefully controlled yet at times disorienting selection of objects, images, and texts in their varied settings.1 While the exhibition begins quietly, with solemn, darkened displays that provide Dior’s biography, the hint of what is to come is already embedded in the complex interaction of paintings, film clips, illustrations, photographs, and more that glow and flicker in the half-light.
The last Dior retrospective in Paris took place in 1987 and was also held at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. As Pierre-Alexis Dumas notes in his catalogue foreword, this setting—between the historical glamor of rue de Rivoli and the Jardin des Tuileries—is the perfect location to celebrate Christian Dior’s place within Parisian and international fashion. Florence Müller and Olivier Gabet, the show’s curators, had thirty further years of Dior’s creations to explore. The show encompasses Dior’s early start as an illustrator, his work as a gallerist, and his shift into couture. Müller’s attitude to exhibitions is fascinating, revealed in short clips on the brand’s eponymous Instagram feed. She describes exhibitions as a “logical continuation” of fashion shows, and indeed, the layout is best understood as comprising thematic shows, different but connected, that convey the house’s style over seven decades and seven creative directors. Müller takes the analogy further to state that the main difference between fashion shows and fashion exhibitions is the fact that at an exhibition it is the visitors that move to see the displays, rather than being seated to watch live models walk.
This vision of museum visitors as flâneurs is extended in the catalogue, where Charles Baudelaire is again evoked to describe the intrinsic links between literature, history, and couture: “[T]he entire exhibition presents an interplay of Baudelairean connections between fashion and art” (9). Indeed, the exhibition is so huge, covering two floors and two wings of the museum, that it at times feels as though you are walking the whole city of Paris, the city at the heart of Dior’s aesthetic and the birthplace of haute couture. The visitors provide the crowd—literally; the exhibition is sold out despite extended hours—that defined Baudelaire’s depiction of modern urban life, and the enormous number of objects on display encourages our mobile gaze to glance and observe rather than to slowly examine.
Once the couturier’s early years have been covered, the labyrinthine space leads visitors through a kaleidoscopic series of displays that collapse straightforward linear chronology in favor of striking comparisons across the house’s history to show how its designers have turned to the founder’s core preoccupations in their own iterations of Dior style. Thus, eighteenth-century room settings see John Galliano’s theatrical evocations of rococo paintings and Raf Simons’s restrained reworking of eighteenth-century menswear into elegant women’s ensembles in close quarters. At another point, an all-white magical garden is suggested with pale paper foliage hanging from the ceiling and mannequins clad in petal-like gowns and dresses scattered with embroidered foliage and delicate buds, including Christian Dior’s own confections and Yves Saint Laurent’s “Tulip” dress, to describe the influence of gardens and flowers on each generation.
All aspects of Dior’s output are incorporated, demonstrating the founder’s modern, all-encompassing approach to building his brand. Makeup, perfume, clothes, and accessories create a Dior environment, a world of products to entrance visitors and consumers. On the first floor, the completeness of this worldview is conveyed in the twisting galleries of the “Colourama” section. Each hue is represented behind glass, and visitors crane through the throng to see the perfume bottles, illustrations, jewels, hats, lipsticks, and garments that cluster into a rainbow of Dior fashion. The effect is mesmerizing and highlights Dior’s and the curators’ understanding of fashion as a very specific form of communication which appeals to multiple senses and, to be most successful, must appear to be a seamless, all-consuming Gesamtkunstwerk in which each piece speaks coherently for the whole.
This is underscored, ironically, by the lack of a coherent style in the exhibition overall. Instead, there is a cacophony of displays, each appropriate to the theme rather than linked to the others. The exhibition does not provide coherence, but rather Dior’s style does. This provides a meta-comment on how brands evolve—by identifying key elements that must be continually repeated, each time with details reimagined to create apparent newness. Visitors are jolted into fresh concentration at every turn, despite the show’s exhausting size. It is hard to become jaded when now you see a room towering with toiles seemingly reaching to the heavens, and in a small corner, an atelier worker demonstrating the craft skills fundamental to haute couture; or now, a parade of tailored garments, each framed by a glowing neon proscenium.
These constant reminders to look do not just revive flagging visitors; they also recall the approach of long-term Dior collaborator Alexandre de Betak, who was responsible for many of the most elaborate and memorable fashion shows of the past twenty-five years. Betak is a keen observer, not just of fashion but also of fashion audiences. He realized that the growth of digital media, especially Instagram, meant that the front row watched the runway differently, and he factored this into not just the show’s design but crucially also its pacing. He allowed time for smartphones to be pulled from bags to capture the important first look and considered how to ensure repeated images would be taken throughout, as he noted in an interview with CNN. “Today Instagram is the new channel, the new role. It’s the biggest media outlet in the fashion world. … So, when 15-second Instagram videos first launched, we adapted to them, and tried to create filmable moments that lasted 15 seconds at a time.”2
In the exhibition itself, visitors observed with eyes and with phones held aloft to record each section and ensemble. The show’s finale is a quintessential Instagram story—in a high-ceilinged space set as a ballroom, all of Dior’s creative directors’ most lavish gowns are displayed. This is dazzling in itself—to see so many technically and aesthetically refined garments together, at eye level and stacked up high as though balanced on the layers of a lavish wedding cake—but this is not the coup de grâce. Slowly, you become aware that the lighting is changing and shimmering with gold; the most luxurious snowstorm seems to engulf gowns and visitors alike, and then it is gone.
This scene has been posted many times, but do not be tricked into thinking this renders the exhibition ephemeral. Instagram may be based on a feed of images to be flicked through, but it also creates archives, living on in each individual’s account. A huge number of brands have recognized this potential new form of archive, and therefore of public communication, including Dior itself, which, alongside its existing YouTube videos of craft and collections in process, has become adept at using still and moving images to create a digital environment that can be glanced at or perused at length and as a whole rather than as part of a feed. Fashion historians, fans, vintage collectors, and curators also have their own accounts that curate their experiences of, for example, exhibitions such as this, and situate them within the context of one person’s aesthetic choices. Curators who recognize the platform’s power to both enhance and collate visitors’ experiences may well be realizing what fashion designers such as Christian Dior did decades ago—that fashion’s ephemerality is part of its just-out-of-reach appeal, but that ephemerality is also part of a myth built on brilliant communication, a keen eye for interconnected design forms, and a very good archive.
Rebecca Arnold is senior lecturer in history of dress and textiles at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
- 1. David Howes, “Hyperesthesia, or, The Sensual Logic of Late Capitalism,” in The Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader, ed. David Howes (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 281–303.
- 2. Monica Ainley, “The ‘Fellini of Fashion’ Alexandre de Betak on the Future of the Runway,” CNN Style, October 2, 2017, http://edition.cnn.com/style/article/alexandre-de-betak-fashion-show-revolution/index.html.