BY TIASHA BHUIYAN
“Fashion in this age of machines, has become one the last refuges of the human, personal, and individual element.”
This quote by Christian Dior himself, dating back to 1957 and gracing the banner by the entrance of the exhibit, captures the essence of why visitors are pouring in for tickets. Indeed, the Christian Dior exhibit presented by Holt Renfrew at the Royal Ontario Museum continues its success nearly two months since its opening. I made the mistake of buying tickets onsite, and had to wait two hours for my entry time because of the crowd – on a Wednesday!
The museum displays a collection of forty gowns in addition to accessories from the French designer between 1947-1957, a critical period in history as the end of a devastating world war. It was also, unbeknownst to Dior, the last decade of the designer’s life. The collection is therefore, quite different from the designs you see by the House of Dior on runways today.
Dior redefined dressmaking by bringing back historical skills and influences. For example, his black Audacieuse gown came with two styles of corsets, one for the afternoon and one for a formal evening, inspired by dresses from the 1800’s that came with multiple pieces for different occasions. However, the designer’s works were “unprecedented” in their cuts and materials. Intricate textiles embedded with pearls and silver are on display along with plain fabrics which were timeless staples.
Nonetheless, the allure of the exhibit is not just the beautiful works of art but the stories that curator Alexandra Palmer managed to bring to life. The exhibit’s sponsor, Holt Renfrew, was an exclusive Dior retailer in Canada in the 1940’s where socialites would flock to for the newest fashions. Palmer decided to keep with the theme of local fashion and interviewed the socialites who donated their own gowns. One of them was Elaine Roebuck, who donated her custom-made Dior dress from her Bat Mitzfah in 1957. The silk organdie dress adorned with daisies boasts childlike joy as well as elegance, so it is no wonder why it made her “feel like a princess” at 12 years old. Indeed, Palmer was right when saying the collection contains “fragile records of the lives and aspirations” of everyone involved.
The stories, the wonder, the magic of the designer pieces are truly the attraction to this exhibit. Looking at the collection, it is evident they were made in a bright time. After the second world war, Dior wanted to completely move away from the masculine designs of the 40’s consisting of shoulder pads and knee-length skirts. Instead, he wanted to bring back luxury and femininity with cinched waists and long flowing full skirts. The designer said, “it was a look of peace…it reflects the times.” It truly was a time of romance, celebration, and relaxation where women could focus on fashion again with peace of mind and Dior’s designs became the new staple in a fashionable woman’s closet.
The designs reflect the personalities of the women who bought them. From the striking crimson cloth of Delphine, to the glamorous sequined bodice of Palmyre, and the delicate embroidered lavenders of Avril, no two pieces are the same. It was important for Dior to create clothes that were made for the women who would wear them and to do so he believed he had to “understand the needs of elegant women all over the world.” Regardless of their social class, Dior wanted all women to look their best. His three criteria for elegant dressing could still be followed today: simplicity, good taste, and grooming.
My friend and I ended up staying at the exhibit for about an hour despite it being a relatively small one-room collection. We were surrounded by people of all ages reading the plaques, studying the dresses, and watching the short documentary with intense fascination. Couture entered the heart of Toronto, Dior entered the hearts of its residents.
If you like history, fashion, or both, I would recommend checking out this exhibition. But beware, you will probably have an urge to go vintage thrift shopping after. (I would currently do anything to walk into an upscale grand ball wearing the Isabelle, a dramatic black evening gown with a double circle skirt.)
Christian Dior is open until March 18th, 2018. The ROM is also holding workshops and a speaker series for in depth information on the process behind Dior’s work. Details can be found on https://www.rom.on.ca/en/dior.