"When an English woman is pretty, she is prettier than a woman of any nationality. I adore the English, dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well, but also in those flowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.".
It might surprise you to learn these words were written by Christian Dior. The French couturier also noted, "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.”
Dior had become an ardent Anglophile after coming to London to perfect his English as a 21-year-old in 1926, and after his iconic New Look revolutionized fashion in 1947, by establishing a glamorous new silhouette, Dior presented a collection in London in 1950. The day after his show at The Savoy, the couturier organized a second showing of this Verticale Line Spring/Summer 1950 collection; a secret presentation at the French Embassy in London for the royal princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, the Duchess of Kent and Princess Olga of Greece. During that presentation, great attention was given to stressing the use of British textiles, says Oriole Cullen, Fashion and Textiles Curator at the V&A.
Christian Dior's close relationship with Britain will feature in Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, a major fashion exhibition due to open in February at the V&A. Although this show is largely based on the blockbuster exhibition Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve (photos featured in this article), organised by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris in 2017, it has been significantly reimagined and includes some dresses that have not been displayed before such as Dior's Nonette (a navy blue wool suit) from his Verticale line collection presented at the Savoy.
Another highlight will be a white gown worn by Princess Margaret for the official portrait for her 21st birthday shot by Cecil Beaton in 1951. The young princess — who Dior described as a "real fairy-tale princess, delicate, graceful, exquisite" — had first visited the French couturier at his Salon in Paris in 1949, during her first trip to Europe and she remained a faithful client for many years.
Other notable early British clients included author Nancy Mitford, ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, and Emma Tennant, who selected a red silk organza strapless dress called Fête joyeuse (which will be on display) for her official debutante presentation at the royal court in 1953.
The V&A exhibition will bring to life some of Dior's spectacular fashion presentations in stately homes for example two of the dresses, including the golden dress Perou with rich geometric embroideries, presented at Blenheim Palace in 1954 in aid of the Red Cross, which was attended by 1,600 paying guests and where Princess Margaret was a guest of honour. The H-line collection presented in 1954 at Blenheim was particularly controversial because it deliberately flattened the bosom to create an elongated shape, with the press at the time debating whether the H-should stand for Heavenly or Horrid.
The couturier established a London presence in 1952 and over the years collaborated with many British manufacturers, including Dents (gloves), Lyle & Scott (knitwear), Rayne (shoes), and Mitchel Maer (costume jewellery).
V&A director Tristram Hunt says "the exhibition will celebrate the history and impact of one of the 20th century's most influential couturiers."
Drawn from the Dior Archives, the exhibition presents over 500 objects, with more than 200 Haute Couture garments shown alongside accessories, vintage perfume and make-up, plus illustrations, fashion photography and video footages. It also showcases highlights from the world-class couture collections of the V&A, which started acquiring Dior sketches and garment as early as the 1950s.
"The influence of Christian Dior’s design was all-pervasive and helped to define an era," Cullen says, adding, "In their own individual ways, each of the House’s successive artistic directors have referenced and reinterpreted Dior's own designs and continued the legacy of the founder, ensuring that the House of Christian Dior is at the forefront of fashion today."
Aside from the attention on Dior's connection to Britain, the exhibition’s other sections will be largely similar to those first presented in Paris, looking at his biography, the New Look and how it has been reinterpreted over the years, the influence of fashion history on Dior's design as well as his interest in foreign cultures and his love of gardens and flowers, a constant source of inspiration for the house.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will run from 2 February – 14 July 2019. Tickets are on sale now.