In 1996, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a major retrospective that honored French couturier Christian Dior. Despite the former gallerist opening his namesake label’s first-ever New York atelier five decades prior and leaving a resounding influence on fashion, Dior wouldn’t enjoy another major retrospective in the city for 25 years. That changes with “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” which recently opened at the Brooklyn Museum on September 10 after stints at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai. Through voluptuous haute couture garments that exemplify Dior’s silhouettes pulled primarily from the archives, “Designer of Dreams” chronicles the French couturier’s seven-decade legacy and meteoric rise to fashion eminence.
It all started when Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Carmel Snow famously called Dior’s first designs the “New Look”—garments lined predominantly with percale and the use of corsets and petticoats that made his dresses flare out from the waist, giving his models a curvaceous appearance. Though it sparked some backlash at the time, the “New Look” ended up revolutionizing women’s fashion and and re-established Paris as a nexus of the industry after World War II. Neiman Marcus bestowed upon Dior the coveted “Oscar” Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion shortly afterward, prompting him to embark on a trip across the U.S. that culminated in his New York branch opening on Fifth Avenue in 1948.
“As early as 1947, with his celebrated “New Look” collection, Christian Dior transformed his sudden name recognition into the international expansion of his House, becoming a precursor of contemporary globalized fashion,” said Florence Müller, Avenir Foundation curator of textile art and fashion at the Denver Art Museum, who co-curated the show with the Brooklyn Museum’s Matthew Yokobosky. “The opening of the first New York branch, in 1948, was a prelude to this worldwide fame. Following the presentation of ‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams’ in Paris and London, the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum pays tribute to this unique historic fashion adventure initiated between Paris and New York.”
Distinguishing this leg of the exhibition, however, are photographs, archival videos, sketches, and works from the Brooklyn Museum’s own collection. It’ll also see the institution’s grandiose, 20,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts Court—designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1893—reimagined as an “enchanted garden” that showcases Dior’s manifold sources of inspiration, from the splendor of flowers (“I have created flower women,” Dior once quipped) to classical and contemporary art (a painting by Paul-César Helleu, one of Dior’s favorite artists, makes an appearance).
A dedicated spotlight on American masters of photography will feature rare prints by David LaChappelle, Annie Leibovitz, Irving Penn, Lillian Bassman, Frances McLaughlin-Gill, and Herb Ritts. They surround a special presentation of Richard Avedon’s seminal photograph Dovima with Elephants, which pictures the model appearing poised and fearless among elephants and draped in the first dress that 19-year-old Yves Saint Laurent ever designed for the house. The surreal image originally appeared in a 14-page story on Parisian fashion published in the September 1955 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, where Avedon worked as a staff photographer until 1965.
A presentation of subsequent creative directors after Dior’s untimely death, in 1957, traces the house’s ongoing evolution within the context of cultural history, from Marc Bohan’s affinity for Jackson Pollock and John Galliano’s reinventions of Dior silhouettes drawing from Egyptian sculpture and Giovanni Boldini paintings. Besides reflecting on Dior’s legacy, the show also proves how the house continues to refine its vision—and how there’s much more innovation to expect as it rushes headlong into the future. The exhibition will spotlight the work of Maria Grazia Chiuri, who has kept feminist issues at the fore as the current and first female creative director of Dior women’s. In 2016, she debuted T-shirts emblazoned with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement “We Should All be Feminists” and has committed to having the collection’s official images photographed by women. Her work feels particularly well-suited in the Brooklyn Museum, the nation’s only major institution to have galleries and a collection dedicated to feminist art, which includes Dior collaborator and feminist artist Judy Chicago’s ceremonial The Dinner Party.
Chiuri notes how the Brooklyn Museum hosted the 1949 exhibition “Two Centuries of French Fashion Elegance,” which featured French costume dolls produced by the Syndicat de la Couture de Paris as a token of gratitude to the United States. “The mannequins showcased pieces by the best French couturiers, among them Christian Dior, of course,” she said in a statement. “I think it’s wonderful to revive this tie and cultural legacy; it’s fundamental to celebrating the link between Dior and the United States, which was so important for transforming Monsieur Dior and his brand into an international force.”
“Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” will display at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn) from Sept. 10–Feb. 22, 2022.