Christian Dior Brooklyn Museum Exhibition Touts New York Influence
Christian Dior established the model for global branding in New York, while Maria Grazia Chiuri has been inspired by "Sex and the City" and the Brooklyn Museum's feminist art.
The New Look is arriving in New York once again.
After stops in London, Shanghai and Chengdu, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” will mark its U.S. debut Friday at the Brooklyn Museum.
The exhibition explores the house’s 70-plus-year history through 300 garments, photos, videos, sketches, accessories and perfume ephemera, augmented by art works from the museum’s collection.
There is a new focus on New York’s indelible impact on the history of the French house, and the rise of more affordable luxury.
That began when Christian Dior laid the groundwork for the luxury fashion business we know today by opening his international wholesale high-fashion ready-to-wear house in 1948 at 730 Fifth Avenue, with its own French-conceived, New York-made Christian Dior New York collection.
And the influence has continued today, with Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri soaking in New York inspiration high-and-low, from Sarah Jessica Parker’s signature T-shirt and tulle skirt look in the TV series “Sex and the City,” to the Brooklyn Museum’s female-focused art collection.
“When I came to Dior, I was obsessed — the first thing I said is, ‘we’re doing the exhibition in Paris, but after my dream is to have it in New York.’ Finally, after five years, we have the exhibition in New York,” said Chiuri, who joined the house in 2016 and will be at the museum for the opening party on Wednesday night and a virtual talk with artist Judy Chicago on Friday.
The Brooklyn Museum holds a special place in Chiuri’s heart as the nation’s only major museum to have galleries and a collection dedicated to feminist art, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center. The designer’s work at Dior has been intertwined with feminism since her spring 2017 rtw debut collection featured Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s manifesto “We Should All Be Feminists” emblazoned across a T-shirt paired with a midnight tulle skirt.
That T-shirt is front and center in a gallery dedicated to Chiuri’s contributions, with Judy Chicago drawings and test dinner plates for “The Dinner Table” nearby. Chiuri was so affected by seeing that monumental work, completed between 1974 and 1979, with intricate place settings laid out for 39 historical feminist icons, she reached out to collaborate with the artist on the runway set for her spring 2020 couture show.
“It’s my favorite place in New York,” said the designer of the museum.
The exhibition has a special focus on The New Look in New York.
When Dior arrived in New York City for the first time on Aug. 28, 1947, it was just months after his first couture collection presentation in Paris, when he answered wartime rationing and austerity with the ultra-romantic, cinched-waist, full-skirted New Look, named such by Harper’s Bazaar U.S. editor Carmel Snow.
Neiman Marcus gave Dior its “Oscar” Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, prompting the designer to embark on a trip through the U.S.
While the fashion press applauded, some American women protested, balking at the formality and longer hems of The New Look after the freedom feeling of the practical clothing they wore while working in the factories supporting the war effort. In Chicago, the designer was greeted with signs that read “Dior Go Home” and “Women Join the Fight for Freedom in Manner of Dress,” as seen in photos in the show.
Nevertheless, fashion-forward department stores, Hollywood stars such as Rita Hayworth and wealthy American clients such as Thelma Chrysler Foy snapped up The New Look, rekindling the influence of French haute couture, which had been interrupted during the war.
But couture had a limited clientele.
While touring major U.S. cities during his trip, Dior noticed American women were purchasing stylish off-the-rack clothing in standard sizes. The designer saw his real opportunity was in the middle class with rtw. If Seventh Avenue was already adapting French designs at lower prices, why shouldn’t he do it himself?
“Mr. Dior understood immediately that American women had a different style of life than French women, so he decided to reproduce the collection in a way that was more functional for the women in New York,” said Chiuri. “We need to remember women in New York started to work much earlier than in Europe. He understood in the USA, women were required to be elegant but at the same time, they want to move, they want to walk, they want to work and drive. I think that was very important for him to be in a conversation with American women.”
“He demonstrated that apart from being an incredible and exceptional creative person, he was also a good businessman,” Pietro Beccari, chairman and chief executive officer of Christian Dior, told WWD, noting that through seeing women protesting The New Look, Dior “learned about people from different regions of the world,” giving him insight other French couturiers did not have at the time.
A Dior quote in the exhibition reads: “The ways of life are important and you feel them better when you are in the right country.”
In October 1948, Dior opened a New York atelier and showroom designed by Nicolas de Gunzburg, channeling the gray-and-white interior of the original Paris maison. Lady Mendl, Marlene Dietrich and Mrs. Byron Foy attended.
Christian Dior New York collections were tailored to American tastes, with more relaxed fits, less décolletage, more restrained volumes and customizable skirt lengths. And they were sold to department stores across the country, including Lord & Taylor and Filene’s.
Through his experience in New York, Dior created a business model other European brands would follow when entering international markets.
Open through Feb. 20, 2022, the exhibition was curated by Dior scholar Florence Müller, Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Fashion at the Denver Art Museum, in collaboration with Matthew Yokobosky, senior curator of fashion and material culture at the Brooklyn Museum.
Never seen before, a dozen Christian Dior New York looks open the exhibition, along with postcards and press clippings documenting the designer’s trips to America. Of particular note is a grouping of black architectural dresses from the 1950s, next to a Charles Eames screen, to highlight the American impulse to democratize good design, and trailblazing New York artist Louise Nevelson’s famous black sculpture “First Personage.”
It’s interesting to see the Christian Dior New York looks contrasted with a trio of haute couture pieces; one notices the ease in the sleeves and waistlines of the American styles, compared to the more rigid haute couture New Look Bar jacket and skirt, for example.
“He wanted to capture movement, and you see the bow that goes up like an arrow, this is exaggerated in the 1948 red ‘Arizona’ haute couture coat, but in the 1949 red Dior New York ‘Cigare’ dress, you get the same idea of something ascendant with the collar, the hips framed by pockets, but more subtle and wearable,” explained Muller. “In France we have more a pyramidal vision of society.…It was more difficult this idea of ready-to-wear for everyone. Dior’s discovery of the U.S. was an inspiration.”
“The reason for Dior New York was partially financial because of import issues, but also to bring it to a larger audience,” added Yokobosky, noting that prices of the collection were on par with designer rtw today.
Another treasure is Dior’s 31-inch Fashion Doll 1880 (Afternoon Ensemble), which entered the Brooklyn Museum’s collection in 1949, making it the first U.S. museum to acquire a Dior. The doll was included in France’s “Merci Train” of thank you gifts to the U.S. following World War II, Yokobosky said.
New to the Brooklyn exhibition is a visually striking section dedicated to the leading American photographers who helped sell the image of Dior around the world, including Lillian Bassman, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, William Horst P. Horst, William Klein, David LaChapelle, Annie Leibovitz, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, Cass Bird and Tyler Mitchell.
Richard Avedon’s iconic “Dovima With Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior” photograph from 1955 is juxtaposed with the actual Dior haute couture gown it pictures from fall 1955. There is also a photo from Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 “The Last Sitting” with Bert Stern. Although it was uncredited, because Monroe died before the fashion editorial had a chance to come out, she was wearing Dior.
Looks by artistic directors who succeeded Dior — Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Chiuri –– are also included, with the designers’ sketches, inspirations and mood boards. Five Bohan dresses are new to this exhibition, as is a YSL pink trapeze dress from 1958, exemplifying how he took Dior in a very different direction during his brief tenure, freeing the waist.
“I hope people see how the history of the brand was shaped by so many, because sometimes when we speak about Dior, we don’t realize how many designers worked at this brand, and it’s very important because it’s not only the history of Mr. Dior, but also Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan and John Galliano,” said Chiuri, the first woman to head Dior, who has brought an activist streak to the brand echoed all the way back to the protesters Dior first encountered in the U.S..
One of the most Instagrammable sections, the museum’s 10,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts Court has been transformed into an enchanted garden of 102 dazzling embroidered and flower-covered dresses in vertical displays reaching to the ceiling.
There is also a room devoted to Hollywood, with gowns worn by Rita Hayworth, Dietrich, Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Charlize Theron, among others. Also included are two recent acquisitions — the embroidered top and short skirt worn by freshly minted Dior ambassador Yara Shahidi to the 2021 Critics Choice Awards, and the Dior cape customized with the names of female directors snubbed by the Academy worn by Natalie Portman to the 2020 Oscars.
Since opening at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 2017, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” has been seen by more than 3 million people, said Beccari. “What I sense is whoever goes comes out with a Dior tattoo because they understand the richness, the complexity of this house, which is among the most sacred in luxury today,” he said. “We believe in their power, so we invest a substantial amount of money to have these exhibitions around the world with a local twist.”
The next stop will be the M7 arts center in Doha, Quatar in 2022.
The Brooklyn Museum exhibition comes at a moment when Dior is investing heavily in the U.S. market with the opening of a 6,480-square-foot temporary boutique at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, new retail locations in Santa Clara and San Diego; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Houston and Orlando, Fla., and renovated stores in Manhattan and The Shops at Crystals in Las Vegas.
“It is a fundamental market for Dior. American clients are racking up in placement to some of our most important clients, it’s true for men, women and jewelry,” said Beccari. “We will continue pushing the market share in the years to come.”