Ahead of the National Gallery of Victoria’s landmark Christian Dior womenswear exhibition—‘The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture,’ featuring over 140 garments constructed since 1947—Museum presents a conversation with senior curator of fashion and textiles, Katie Somerville.
LAURA BANNISTER Let’s begin at the genesis of this exhibition. How did the relationship between the NGV and Christian Dior begin?
‘The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture’ runs from 27 August until 7 November at the NGV.
KATIE SOMERVILLE The first Dior works acquired by the NGV came … in 1972. One was a striking picture hat from the Marc Bohan era of the late 1960s, the other a pristine dress titled Grenade from YSL’s iconic Trapeze collection of Spring Summer 1958. In 2003 the NGV became a couture client when it acquired look 39 from John Galliano’s Haute Couture Spring Summer 2000 collection for Dior. The NGV now has 35 works by the house spanning 1947 to 2017 and the holdings continue to grow.
BANNISTER Can we talk a little about the various players involved in the curation? Who exactly were you working with at Christian Dior? How much freedom were both parties given over what to include?
SOMERVILLE For a project of this scale it is usual for many people work together throughout many departments across the entire NGV. For the last three and a half years, I have been fortunate enough to have the role as lead curator with support from my colleague Danielle Whitfield—[she’s been] responsible for researching and developing content related to the ‘Dior and Australia’ story. During this period, there have been several opportunities to travel to Paris to spend time with key staff from Dior Cultural Projects and Dior Heritage. The Dior Heritage Archive is an extraordinary resource—both for loans to the exhibition and for supporting documentation and research materials …
The curation has been entirely at the discretion of the NGV. In addition to the substantial number of works being lent by Dior Heritage, key loans have also come from major international public and private collections: Foundation Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent, Paris; Kyoto Costume Institute, Kyoto; Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Musée Christian Dior, Granville; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Hamish Bowles in New York.
BANNISTER I’m especially interested in the garments from the NGV’s own collection on show.
SOMERVILLE [There’s] day and evening wear from Christian Dior’s first two collections for Spring Summer 1947 and Autumn Winter 1947-1948—a crisp beaded linen day dress from his first collection and an iconic red silk satin gown titled Aladdin from the second. Fête au Village from the famed A Line collection of Spring Summer 1955 is a recent gift to the collection—all ruffles of sheer silk gauze embroidered with delicate sprigs of violets. There are two important works from Christian Dior’s final collection for Autumn Winter 1957—among them is the voluminous black silk taffeta Zerline evening dress adorned with a single black silk rose, gifted to the collection just [the other] week. These precious early works are complemented by a strong representation from the era when YSL lead the house and singular works designer by John Galliano, Raf Simons and Dior’s first female creative director Maria Grazi Chiuri.
His legacy lies not only in his magnificent high 50s glamour, but also in the quieter architectural skill of working with line and silhouette to create something technically impressive with as few seams as possible.
BANNISTER Can you give me some sense of how the works (be it garments, sketches, multimedia or historical ephemera) are organised, and how audiences proceed through the exhibition—the pace of it all?
SOMERVILLE The exhibition is presented around a series of themes; it’s not limited to a linear, chronological structure. We begin by looking at the establishment of the house of Dior and the critical early years … Revealing key aspects of [the designer’s] childhood and early career as an art dealer and fashion illustrator in the lead up to the opening of his couture house, this space will examine how he became such an influential force shaping the fashionable silhouette of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Next we explore the ‘Codes of Dior.’ With every collection, Christian Dior introduced a new line, silhouette and series of themes that established a repertoire of design codes now synonymous with the house. We highlight the following codes: The New Look, The Line, The Flower and The 18th Century. After an immersive exploration of the Dior ateliers, the exhibition focuses on the post-Christian Dior era with ‘Dior Reinvented.’ Since Christian Dior’s sudden death in 1957, the house has continued to evolve and consolidate its place in the fashion world under the guiding hand of six further directors: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri. Each have responded differently to the weight of Christian Dior’s formidable legacy and have successfully ensured the house has remained a relevant and leading force in the world of couture, from the 1950s to the present day.
The ‘Top to Toe’ theme allows visitors to consider the role that accessories play … From its establishment, the vision for the house encompassed all aspects of what it meant to be well dressed. This extended beyond skirts, suits and evening attire to include a ‘top to toe’ approach to dressing that included hosiery, hats, shoes, bags, make-up and fragrances. Many of these items have become as important to the house’s identity as the couture collections themselves.
The next section looks at the relationship between Dior and Australia in the period 1947–1957 … Australia was one of the very first markets outside of Paris to have access to original Dior designs.
BANNISTER Are there elements of the show you’d describe as radical?
SOMERVILLE It really depends on your definition of radical. The whole phenomenon of Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection—launched in February 1947—was experienced by many in the post war period to be a radical departure from the status quo … The skillful and creative way that Stephen Jones has been designing millinery for Dior over the past 20 years has at times been refreshingly radical.
BANNISTER Which elements in the house’s history—with the myriad designers who have moved through it—were of the most interest to you personally? Were there quieter, less overt moments, or historical oddities you stumbled upon and were able to include?
SOMERVILLE I have learnt many things during the last few years of intensive research. A couple of lesser-appreciated aspects include the extraordinary tailoring that Christian Dior championed during the early years. His legacy lies not only in his magnificent high 50s glamour, but also in the quieter architectural skill of working with line and silhouette to create something technically impressive with as few seams as possible.
BANNISTER I wonder if you see the audience as distinctive here—if, for example, you think a show about Christian Dior staged in Australia should be very differently curated to a show in Paris or London.
SOMERVILLE The exhibition content is universally relevant—developed to be the best expression of the impact, influence and evolution of the House of Dior for its 70-year history. Its location in Melbourne has not influenced the approach that we have taken to its curation and presentation.
BANNISTER There’s reference made throughout to the house’s relationship with Australia, and the Spring 1948 fashion show it held at David Jones. It seems an unusual (and expensive) location in the post-war era for a French brand to select. Why Australia?
SOMERVILLE From Dior’s very first collection to his last, Australians were amongst the first outside of Paris to witness, model and purchase original Dior designs. Within a week of Dior’s dramatic ‘New Look’ collection of February 1947, headlines celebrating his talent appeared in local newspapers, encouraging department stores to quickly add the house to their Paris itineraries. In March 1947, David Jones’s fashion experts flew to Paris on a seven-week buying trip, securing four outfits for the store’s spring parades—the first Dior garments to be shown in Australia.
By 1948 Dior was the biggest name in fashion. With much excitement David Jones announced they would be exhibiting the first representative collection … to be shown outside of Paris. The 50-piece collection of day, cocktail and eveningwear, would be shown in Australia for two weeks, ahead of New York and London. Opening to great fanfare in Sydney on July 31st, the extravaganza saw 12 flawlessly groomed Australian mannequins, all with eighteen-inch waists, parade the original garments alongside 34 locally-made reproductions. Audiences were completely enthralled.
When Dior died unexpectedly in October 1957, plans to bring a second major couture parade out to Australia were already in place. Organised by David Jones and the Australian Women’s Weekly, the event still went ahead, and in late November 83 outfits from Dior’s final collection arrived. Included were model garments titled Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Wattle—a sure sign that Dior cherished Australia as much as Australia cherished Dior.