Lessons in Living a French Life

Bringing a touch of French culture to everyday life

Your Weekly Voilà: 7 Decades Later and Christian Dior Still Influences Our Wardrobe 👗👜 ✨💗🇫🇷

Individuality will always be one of the conditions of real elegance.   - Christian Dior
I recently rewatched the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada. I have a thing for Stanley Tucci. (My favorite is his role as Paul Child in Julie and Julia.) I arrived at the part where Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly reminds all of us that fashion has everything to do with what we choose to wear. "You go to your closet and you select that lumpy, loose sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that sweater is not just blue. It's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean."

Oh the divine Ms. Streep is not done yet. She continues, "And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns, and then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent who showed cerulean military jackets, and then cerulean quickly shot up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores, and then trickled down onto some tragic Casual Corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and it's sort of comical how you think you made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff."

Clearly, a blue sweater is never just a blue sweater.

Few people know that I worked at Dayton's department store as an assistant to an assistant buyer in downtown Minneapolis. It was a long, long time ago. Very low on the food chain but I loved the job. Never threw my beret into the air ala Mary Tyler Moore. I kind of regret that. I could work those high heel shoes like nobody's business. Sure wish I had kept my black cashmere cape with the blush pink silk lining. It was 1982 but the cape was early 50s. I was not into big hair and leg warmers. Nope. I was all chignon (when my hair was long enough) and pearls. The House of Dior and Chanel were my inspiration and I followed them faithfully to see what might be trickling down to a store I could afford one day.

Until then, I supplemented my tiny but quality wardrobe from high-end consignment and thrift stores and Dayton's once a year clearance sale. Boy, do I miss those sales. I'd leave with a bag full of high-end clothing that needed seams mended, holes repaired, zippers replaced. Grateful again to my 7th grade sewing teacher. I use those skills almost every day.

Christian Dior was born in 1905 in Granville, Normandy but moved with his family to Paris at a young age. Before his career in fashion, Monsieur Dior owned a small art gallery that featured Picasso and Dalí. Finding himself penniless during the Great Depression, he lost his shop and began selling his drawings and sketches to magazines and couture houses. He found his life's calling. His love of art would always inspire his designs.

Haute couture can seem worlds away from our everyday life, but it has an impact on what we choose to wear. The catwalk Fashion Week in Paris is over the top. Yet, from the extremes you can glean where French styles are going to go in the next year and where the rest of the world will follow. Are hemlines up or are they down? Lots of embellishments or a more modern simple form? What is the new season's hot color? The world waits to see what Paris will dictate.

Two years ago, I had the good fortune and the wherewithal to stand in the cold rain of Paris for 7 hours to score two tickets to the Dior exhibition at Musée des Arts Décoratifs entitled, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. It was a spectacular journey through the archives, from sketches, accessories and perfume, to the most lavish couture gowns. As you are guided through theatrically curated salons, you realize how much the legacy of Dior has influenced our dress today.
Legend has it that Harper Bazaar's editor-in-chief, Carmel Snow, was the first to rush backstage to congratulate Dior after he debuted his first collection in 1947.  She exclaimed, "Your dresses have such a new look!"
It was February 1947. Christian Dior launched a new silhouette with its full skirt, "oh-my-goodness-how-small-is-that" waistline, and fitted jacket. It was a sweeping departure from postwar austerity and a total embrace of femininity. Within hours, women's wardrobes became obsolete. The world was ready to embrace a New Look of glamour and luxury.

Rationing of materials during the war had all but destroyed the fashion industry in Paris. Most designers fled to New York. Women's skirts rose to save on fabric. Jackets took on a boxy, military look. Women wearing pants was considered an acceptable attire. With one collection, women who had gained a measure of independence during the war years now had to trade in their trousers for 19th-century whalebone corsets and crinolines. It happens every time the boys come home from war. To be sure, there were critics to the House of Dior. Yet, the New Look was everywhere. Ever wonder where those full skirts and saddle oxfords worn by American teenagers came from in the 1950s? That's pure Dior.
The influence of Christian Dior in fashion can't be understated. Overnight, he revolutionized the fashion industry. The centerpiece of his collection was the Bar Suit, exemplifying Dior's vision for a new shape in womenswear.

Besides the couture dresses and accessories, the exhibition included numerous photographs, letters, and sketches by Dior, himself. All was artfully curated in various settings to tell a story set over 7 decades.

The exhibition told the story of Christian Dior's life and how he tied couture to his love of art, beauty, and nature. He adored flowers and translated that love to his garments. There were over 300 breathtaking dresses displayed, the majority from the Dior Heritage collection, never before seen in Paris. Other pieces came from world museums or private collections.

When you are standing in front of haute couture, you are reminded of the skill and talent required to create these garments. They are one-of-a-kind pieces of art. The embellishments, hems, seams, everything is done by hand. It is an amazing testament to the individuals who work in the ateliers and whose high level of artistry often goes unrecognized.

During World War II, Christian Dior escaped to the south of France but then returned to Paris to help with the resistance. Apparently, he passed information gleaned from the wives of Nazi bigwigs to his sister who was in the French resistance. She was captured and sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women in northern Germany. Dior used his influence to help in her release. It is Catherine Dior who is honored by her brother when he named his first perfume, Miss Dior, in 1947.
A woman’s perfume tells more about her than her handwriting.
- Christian Dior
Christian Dior died in 1957 of a heart attack in Italy. The windows of the House of Dior were covered in black and almost buried under mountains of flowers left by mourners. It was his young assistant, a 21 year-old Yves Saint Laurent, who became the new creative director of the House of Dior. A true sign of timelessness is when something can flourish long after its founder has passed away.

Fortunately, Yves Saint Laurent's vision included less whalebone and more softer, easier to wear clothing. In particular, Americans desired more casual and affordable styles. The ready-to-wear market exploded in the late 1950s. Wholesale fashion companies were able to purchase Dior designs and produce them for a mass market. Stockings, handbags, make-up, perfume all became a part of the Christian Dior licensing in 87 countries.

Monsieur Dior once said, "The detail is as important as the essential is. When it is inadequate, it destroys the whole outfit." This rings true today. The House of Dior's accessories are still the most coveted of the season's collection.
One part of the exhibit divided the House of Dior by color. It began with white and progressed through the color spectrum. The curators of the museum went through thousands and thousands of artifacts to arrange the display. An art form in itself. 
Nearing the end of the exhibit, one finds oneself in this amazing room covered in muslim examples from floor to ceiling with mirrors on the ceiling so it appears that the designs go on forever. Muslim is the first fabric iteration of a garment - the moment that inspiration takes form. 
Seventy years after Christian Dior launched his first collection, Maria Grazia Chiuri is the House's first female creative director. She doesn't seem like the corset wearing floral dresses "New Look" kind of designer. Nope. She's flipping Dior femininity into a feminist message. Her debut show sent a very clear message: "We should all be feminists." This slogan from the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was emblazoned across t-shirts and reminded the world that Dior was still cutting edge and influencing what we thought and what we wore. To be sure, those t-shirts were worn by women not permitted an ounce of body fat, a jarring disconnect against the mantra of modern feminism. Nevertheless, it is groundbreaking for French haute couture. Reminding us again that it is not just a blue sweater.

Fashions change but good design is timeless.

Walking through the luxury pieces produced by the House of Dior can seem so foreign from what we have in our own closets. It is an aspirational look at fashion. Only a few can afford these works of art. But it leaves one with a renewed sense of investing in well-made clothing that will last for years. It doesn't have to be Dior or Chanel. It can be a favorite black A-line skirt that goes with everything and never goes out of style. Maybe it's your Grandmother's cashmere coat that makes you feel glamorous when you pair it with a vintage scarf. Look for quality fabrics and craftsmanship when selecting your wardrobe pieces. Simple designs that are timeless and work together.
Not all of us can afford haute couture. But we can treasure and wear with confidence a fabulous wool cape with a pink lining found at a local charity shop.

À bientôt mon amie,