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Sister Act: A Closer Look at the Quietly Influential Life of Catherine Dior

When Christian Dior debuted his history-making New Look (pictured above) on a cold winter day in February 1947, it was in a room scented with Miss Dior—a fragrance named for his heroic younger sister, Catherine. Photo: Courtesy Association Willy Maywald/ADAGP, Paris 2021

On paper, Catherine Dior is an unlikely heroine. Born into the prosperous Dior family in 1917, the youngest of five children, she seemed destined for a decorative existence. But when the family’s fortune suddenly vanished due to failed real estate ventures, a life of leisure seemed far less inevitable. In 1935, the teenage Catherine moved from the family’s stately home in Granville, Villa Les Rhumbs, to a dilapidated farmhouse in Provence. She soon escaped to live with her older brother Christian in Paris, selling accessories for a fashion house while he peddled his sketches.

When World War II broke out, the siblings returned to the South of France and grew vegetables that they sold in nearby Cannes. It was there, after Christian had returned to the capital in search again of the “atmosphere of chiffon,” that Catherine would meet and fall in love with Hervé des Charbonneries, a married father of three and member of the Resistance. As Justine Picardie relates in the new biography Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Catherine’s life then took another unexpected turn: By 1941, she had joined the Resistance, using the code name Caro. A recent novel by Christine Wells, Sisters of the Resistance (William Morrow), imagines the lively underground circuit that surrounded Catherine in Paris at this time.

From left: Catherine Dior during World War II; Justine Picardie’s new book, out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October. Portrait: Courtesy Collection Christian Dior Parfums, Paris; cover image: © 2021 Macmillan

Caro was arrested in 1944 and, after being repeatedly tortured by the Gestapo (she never betrayed her comrades), was sent to a French prison that had been commandeered by the Germans. A frantic Christian appealed to the Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling, who attempted without success to have Catherine released into his care. Instead, that August, she was delivered to the women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück, only to be transferred to further abysmal camps: Torgau, Abteroda, and finally, in 1945, to Markkleeberg. As the Allies approached, the detainees were sent on a death march, from which Catherine managed to escape. Apart from testimony she delivered against her torturers, she almost never spoke of her trials.

When Dior debuted his history-making New Look collection on a cold winter day in February 1947, it was in a room scented with Miss Dior—a perfume, as he imagined, that “smells of love.” As lore has it, the fragrance obtained its name when, in the middle of a meeting between Dior and his muse and colleague Mizza Bricard, Catherine walked into the room. “Ah, here!” Bricard exclaimed, “Miss Dior!” The same name would be given to a strapless “mille fleurs” evening dress, first shown in 1949. Meanwhile the real Miss Dior built a quiet life away from the world of fashion, living on her farm in Provence and selling flowers—alongside des Charbonneries—at Paris’s historic flower market, described by a giddy American reporter in 1954 as “an enchanted garden under the vast glass domes of Les Halles.” To this journalist, the market was a colorful, sunlit bubble, but the Dior siblings knew that the reality was messier, that it’s no easy feat to conjure life from soil—or cloth. For all the soft romanticism of the New Look, it was achieved with a rigid inner architecture. When her brother died in 1957, Catherine was named the “moral heir,” responsible for safeguarding his artistic legacy—a task she approached with great meticulousness, preserving the contents of his home down to his pack of playing cards.

Catherine and Hervé des Charbonneries after the war. Photo: Courtesy Collection Christian Dior Parfums, Paris

Despite shunning the spotlight during her life, Catherine is now being ushered into it—not just with these new books but in a flora-­inspired spring 2020 collection from Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri that was dedicated to Catherine and a 2021 bag deemed “the Caro.” Picardie’s book is of the moment, too, celebrating an unsung hero at a time when female influences are earning new acclaim. Nonetheless the elusive sister may remain largely unknowable. Unlike her brother, Catherine never wrote her memoirs, preferring to let her actions speak for themselves. When she was asked by a young veteran about her wartime experiences, her mantra was simple: “Love life.”


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