22 DEC 2017: This year Paris has been celebrating the birth of one of its fashion darlings, the 70th anniversary of the House of Christian Dior.  To coincide this ode to high fashion, the Royal Ontario Museum is showcasing Dior’s work in an exciting new exhibition.

Established in the spring of 1947, with the opening of the House of Dior on 30 Avenue Montaigne in the 8th arrondissement, the little townhouse transformed into the bedrock for his groundbreaking designs, which were dubbed, “The New Look.”  

The New Look

Women shrugged off the harsh lines from the war years and grasped at the paper-thin chiffons and rich silks that clasped their waistlines like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.  New silhouettes that often did not make financial sense whatsoever: way too much material, way too much design - way too much work. The use of romantic embroideries, iconic lines, and luxury textiles is trademark Dior.

While the City of Light has been beaming the spotlight on the legendary haute couturier at a record-breaking retrospective now on at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs other institutions around the world have also been paying homage to the extraordinary designer.

ROM Christian Dior highlights

The ROM’s Christian Dior exhibition which runs until March 18 looks at Christian Dior’s early influences like the role corsets played, the revival of legacy industries from silk manufacturers to one-of-a-kind embroidery, design codes synonymous with the House of Dior, insights into the Dior atelier workrooms, and the role that accessories have played in expressing the complete Dior look and the milestones.

But remove the dainty pleats a bit more to discover the exhibition draws extensively from the ROM’s own collection from the first decade of Christian Dior’s haute couture (1947-1957).

The treasure chest of textiled gems come from a coterie of Canadian socialites who have permitted the ROM to delve into their wardrobes to build a fascinating glimpse into Canada’s ladies-who-lunch-crowd while giving a flashback on Toronto’s yesteryears.   Featuring 38 designs, many of which were worn by Toronto’s socialites of the period, the pieces are contextualized with Dior accessories and perfumes, and augmented by contemporary film, sketches, fashion photographs, and advertisements.

Holt Renfrew connection

In 1951 Alvin J. Walker president of Holt Renfrew Montreal (est. 1837) negotiated a 5-year license with Christian Dior Paris. He secured the exclusive Canadian rights to sell Christian Dior haute couture in his eight high-end stores across the country, as well as permission to make custom orders in the Montreal workrooms

In 1955, Christian Dior, arrived in Toronto to launch the new Holt Renfrew Store on Bloor Street, the presenting title sponsor of the exhibition. 

The exhibition has a display of charming memorabilia chronicling the exclusive event. In turn, for his corporate ingenuity, France recognized these important business negotiations and honoured Walker with France’s highest national award, the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 1963. The medal is also in the exhibition.

Mid-Century Canadian Socialites

Other locally spun notes include dresses worn by such corporate vanguards as Mrs. John David Eaton “Signy” from the Eaton’s department store fame whose indelible ink silk velvet dinner dress glistening in beadwork was worn for a party she hosted in her home.  

“She wore this dinner dress when she was entertaining at home not out because she wouldn’t want to upstage her hostess,” says Dr. Alexandra Palmer, the exhibition’s curator, and author of the award-winning book, Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise.

Palmer herself researched Dior and found some fascinating Canadian connections, one of which can be viewed on the confectionary gown called Palmyre.

Designed for the autumn-winter 1952 collection, the gown uses a novel textile called Celanese, an acetate which is a byproduct from celluloid movies. Palmer describes how factories across three nations: France, the United States, and Canada, helped to create a lustrous luxury silk satin that originated from the cellulose pulp of hemlock trees in Prince Rupert, British Columbia via a silk manufacturer in the United States to a leading embroidery house in Paris called Ginisty et Quenolle inspired by 18th century patterns to create the Palymyre.

The gown is constructed using 35 different materials embroidered with needle and a Luneville hook on the man-made Celanese acetate satin. Used are three silver threads, four lengths of bugle beads in silver, purple, and blues; five stacked square and triangular sequins; red and blue glass stones; round and oval pearls, and Swarovski crystals.

“I’m very happy to report one of my fun pieces of research has its roots in Canadian soil,” she says, of the haute couture gown that was worn by a celebrity cast from the Duchess of Windsor and Mrs. Charlie Chaplin to Toronto socialite Dorothy Boylen who chose to wear the dress for her photograph in the 1953 Toronto Telegram Best Dressed List. (Both the gown and samples are in the exhibition).

The day of my visit I spotted a “Golden Girl” radiant in red whose wide smile lit up a dimly lit red and black tartan coat dress. “I fell in love with it and I got this dress to match my hair,” laughs Lillian Weiss, 97, one of the patrons who worked on a cancer fashion show for 20 years. The dress is called Batignolles, named after a neighbourhood in Paris in the 17th arrondissement known for an active cultural scene popularized after the artist Edouard Manet painted its café life in the late 19th century.

“What was the occasion for your dress?” I ask the Dior customer who purchased her smashing frock in Toronto at Creeds. “Occasion? You don’t need an occasion, I just liked it and I bought it,” she exclaims describing how she wore the dress for dancing at The Highlands nightclub in Cambridge.  

In Christian Dior’s Little Dictionary of Fashion there’s an entry from 1954 fittingly on display beside Mrs. Weiss’ beloved piece: “There is no key to good dressing. If there were it would be too easy, rich women could buy the key and all their fashion worries would be over! But simplicity, grooming, and good taste… cannot be bought… they can be learnt by rich and poor alike.”

The Spring of ‘57

Among the several Toronto tie-ins featured in the exhibition, there is another local discovery by a trio of dresses. At first glance you think a wedding, the centerpiece with its white velvet flowers throughout the fabric has a shawl collar finished with a floor length skirt sweeping into a back fullness.  The accompanying youth-sized dresses might easily be for a wedding party. It turns out it was the spring of ’57 and a young Elaine Roebuck wore a custom made Dior dress for her Bat Mitzvah.  “How did you ever sit in that Dior?” I ask admiring the elaborate frock of white organdy embroidered all over with narcissi and golden centres.

“It was a dress, and I was only 12,” she responds of the skirt billowing in five layers of organdy as she recalled one cold harsh winter train trip to Montreal for a prerequisite muslin fitting before the mock-up was shipped back to Paris for completion all the while eying herself in a family photo on display. Sadly, Dior died later the same year.
He once famously said, “My weakness…is architecture. I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body.”

Christian Dior gave every creation a name to transport the wearer to another time or place.

The ROM exhibition Christian Dior offers a rare opportunity to examine firsthand the creative process of the Paris haute couture industry during the 1950s and see first-hand the influences that are still felt today.

In an era of fast fashion and ready to wear where the choice du jour today accentuates comfort alongside a pair of sneakers, this temporary exhibition puts aside conventional inhibitions and draws on the world of fantasy and make-believe.

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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