“There is no other country in the world, besides my own, whose way of life I like so much. I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture. I even love English cooking.” As the mega exhibition ‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams’ opens at the V&A museum, we step inside Dior’s Dreamworld and speak to one of the shows curators Connie Karol Burks.
Photography ZOË STOTT Words POLLY MERCER
Beauty Papers: What do you think this exhibition gives us that we’ve not necessarily seen from other Dior exhibitions?
Connie Karol Burks: One part of this exhibition that is entirely unique is the section Dior in Britain, where we explore the influence of Christian Dior and Christian Dior’s appreciation of British culture, and its really exciting to uncover some of the lesser known stories. We have of course Princess Margarets 21st birthday dress that Christian Dior especially designed for her. We are very lucky to have it on loan from the Museum Of London, but also to put it alongside portraits by Cecil Beaton that are in the V&As collection. It was also great to uncover some of the stories of Christian Dior travelling to Britain with his house mannequins and putting on shows in country houses throughout the country.
In this show we have around 50 garments that have never been on display, ever. Some of those are from the V&As collections, some are from other museums around Britain.
It has been a fantastic process and other museums have been very generous in loaning their objects, so its really fun to be able to put them on display and reunite them.
BP: As a curator was there a particular item that got you particularly excited?
CKB: The Bar suit is an obvious one. It’s the first garment you see when you come into the exhibition and it absolutely deserves pride of place. It also ties together the link between Dior and the V&A which dates back to the mid 1950s, with the acquisition of that suit in 1960. The museum requested from Dior a quintessential New Look garment and of course it was the iconic Bar suit.
Personally one of my favourite objects, because we managed to find so much supplementary information about it, is Jean Dawnay’s suit. It’s a very neat little navy blue suit. We found sketches by the fashion illustrator Francis Marshall of Jean Dawnay wearing the suit, modelling it in the Paris salon. He would go over to Paris and sketch the latest fashions to be published in the British press. So we’ve got some of his original sketches, we’ve also got a photograph by the fashion photographer John French who took a picture of Jean Dawnay after the Savoy show in 1950, so she modelled that suit at the first Christian Dior fashion show in Britain.
We’ve also got the author Emma Tennant’s dress, she writes about it in her auto biography – it was her coming out dress. It’s a lovely red ball gown – quite scandalous for a debutant at the time but a fantastic dress none the less.
BP: Talk to me about the beauty and cosmetics – were there any surprises or stories there?
CKB: I think what is going to be one of the most popular sections of the exhibitions is the Diorama, where we have Dior top to toe in a way. You kind of want to eat everything. All of these bits are so important to the house of Dior and has been from the beginning. Christian Dior was always very keen on launching a perfume alongside his fashion line. He thought women weren’t dressed unless they were wearing their perfume. One of the exhibits is a range of lipsticks from the fifties – the way that he thought about makeup wasn’t just on a beauty level, he was really thinking about how they were going to look on your dressing table as well as what they are going to look like on your face. It is such a designer thing to do, and that’s also highlighted by the original Miss Dior amphora bottle.
BP: In a Dior garden… what do you think the base note is?
CKB: Lily of the Valley
BP: We’ve just seen a very exciting Haute Couture week. Do you think the romance and fantasy of Christian Dior – and his New Look – are still relevant in 2019?
CKB: Absolutely, its testimony of Christian Dior’s original designs, he was only head of his house for 10 years. It’s incredible the impact he has had. And it’s obviously also down to the subsequent six artistic directors that have reinterpreted the impact that he had and sort of redesigned it for a modern and contemporary audience. And that’s something that Maria Grazia is doing very successfully.
The original Christian Dior Junon dress, the petal one here, is reinterpreted by Maria Grazia’s spring collection 2017 with the new Junon pleated petal dress. There’s lots of examples throughout the exhibition. I think it’s really exciting to see them reinterpreting but maintaining the skills and the craftsmanship that are integral to haute couture and the skills that would be such a tragedy to lose, I think it’s important to keep them revitalised.
I think one of the interesting aspects of putting these things together is that with haute couture a lot of the pieces are runway looks but obviously the earlier pieces were made for specific clients and so they are often very different body shapes. A lot of the work thats goes into an exhibition is the mounting and we had about 20 specialist mounters, some that were flown in from all over the world to work on and make sure the dresses looked their absolute best for the exhibition. There was lots of sculpting – it might look like you can just do up the dress but there is all sorts of things going on underneath which is always really fun to see.
This exhibition space is actually just one big open space, so the build took about a month and the install took about another month.
The imagery featured here is taken from Dior and His Decorators: Victor Grandpierre, Georges Geffroy and The New Look. A new book by Maureen Footer and Hamish Bowles exploring the two interior designers most closely associated with Christian Dior.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams runs from 2 February – 14 July 2019 at the V&A.