“Deep in every heart slumbers a dream, and the couturier knows it: every woman is a princess.”
Such was fashion designer Christian Dior’s philosophy.
Tangible, timeless and unmistakably feminine examples of his legacy — more than 200 garments from the House of Dior spanning the decades since his first collection took the fashion world by storm in 1947 — are on display in “Dior: From Paris to the World,” an exhibit that opened Monday at the Denver Art Museum.
The exhibit, on display until March 3, showcases not only the visionary work of the French designer, but also the continuation of his paradigm as interpreted by the six designers who have headed Dior’s empire since his death in 1957: Yves Saint Laurent (1958–1960), Marc Bohan (1961–1989), Gianfranco Ferré (1989–1996), John Galliano (1997–2011), Raf Simons (2012–2015) and Maria Grazia Chiuri (2016–present).
The exhibit is the first major Dior retrospective in the U.S., encompassing the entire 71-year history of the House of Dior. It marks the museum’s latest nod to fashion as art.
“This is really an amazing and exciting moment we’ve worked for for the last two years,” said Christoph Heinrich, the museum’s Frederick and Jan Mayer director. “It’s not just putting a dress on a mannequin — that’s what I learned… The degree of creativity is absolutely mind-blowing. This will bring a lot of people to Denver.”
Previous fashion-oriented exhibits — including a 2012 retrospective on Yves Saint Laurent, a 2015 Cartier show and last year’s “Star Wars and the Power of the Costume” exhibit — “encourage visitors to think a little bit differently about fashion,” Heinrich said.
Those exhibits’ success and the interest in the Dior retrospective shows that the Denver audience supports these explorations into the world of fashion.
The chronologically organized exhibit, designed and originated at the Denver Art Museum, focuses on how Dior reached out into the world. It’s not a traveling exhibit you’ll find in other cities. It was tailor-made for the Denver institution, organized “from scratch,” Heinrich said, by Florence Müller, the Avenir Foundation curator of art and fashion at DAM. Most of the pieces selected come from the Dior Heritage Collection in Paris, with others contributed from other museums and private collections.
Müller, who joined the museum staff in 2015, is an expert in contemporary fashion who curated DAM’s Yves Saint Laurent exhibit.
“I was impressed by the stylish atmosphere of Denver during the launch of the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition and discovered a huge interest for creation among a very educated audience. Denver is a city full of fresh energy and vitality connected with its traditional roots,” Müller said in 2015.
With the Dior exhibit, she set out to honor the man and the successive Dior designers, including assistant Saint Laurent.
“They have all brought to the House of Dior their own vision. All were paying their homage to the founder,” she said at a recent media preview of the exhibit. “Dior is one of the rare couture houses that was always on the top of the game of the fashion world. The focus is on the total look. Christian Dior wanted all the women in his House to be dressed from shoes to hat, costume jewelry to makeup.”
Dior (1905-57) was a pioneer in the fashion world who traveled globally, making contracts in many countries.
“Suddenly the world was his playground. He was opening doors all over the world,” Müller said.
The designer’s global outlook is one of the themes expressed in the new exhibit. It also documents his process, transcribing sketches into “toiles,” mock-ups in plain cotton muslin, which then were used to create patterns. It showcases a full wall of the stark white tailored pieces.
“Still to this day, that’s the way the collection is created,” Müller said. “Visitors will understand how complicated it is to conceive a garment.”
The glitterati of his day, including Josephine Baker, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, appreciated the sophisticated Dior style, which accentuated a woman’s curves. Well-heeled celebrities such as Natalie Portman and Rihanna continue to sport the design house’s couture.
The museum contracted Office for Metropolitan Architecture principal Shohei Shigematsu to design the exhibit, incorporating 202 couture garments, works of arts such as Claude Monet’s 1904 “Le Bassin des Nympheas” from the iconic Water Lilies series, sketches, videos, photos, jewelry and accessories.
Shigematsu, director of OMA’s New York office, said at the preview that because fashion exhibitions are new and experimental, this exhibit’s design could be more experimental. He created “cellular organic rooms” within the labyrinthine gallery space that were inspired by the curvature and femininity of the garments.
The exhibit backdrop, corrugated metal panels, reflect and enhance the colors of the Dior pieces, creating “an immersive environment for the visitors,” Shigematsu said. The final “wow” moment is a large room filled with lavishly clad mannequins on a “stage of metallic petals” that complement intricate petal designs in some of the gowns and embroidered fabrics displayed.
It takes time to marvel over every exquisitely tailored piece, be it beaded, bow-bedecked, tufted, beribboned, feathered, ruffled or elegant and simple. The museum expects visitors to linger in the timed, ticketed exhibit for up to 90 minutes, said senior communications manager Shadia Lemus.
“I wanted to be considered a good craftsman. I wanted my dresses to be constructed like buildings, molded to the curves of the female form, stylizing its shape,” Dior said.
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