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Christian Dior's Postwar Golden Age Comes to the ROM

The dramatic, waist-cinching, full-skirted fashions of Christian Dior's New Look debuted in the spring of 1947, signalling a postwar return to elegance and the revival of the Paris couture industry. It was seen as a celebration of luxury after a long period of hardship.

But it also marked an about-face for women, who were ceding their wartime jobs back to men. That meant trading in their factory coveralls for throwback 19th century corsetry and some very cumbersome clothing to return to keeping house. The New Look outfits demanded much of the wearer. Theywere heavy, restrictive of movement and breathand required an assistant or twoto get strapped into.Hardly liberating.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the House, an exhibit, titled Christian Dior, opens at the ROM on Nov. 25 and runs through March 18. It spans the golden age of the iconic designer, the decade running from 1947 through 1957. The exhibit is sponsored by Holt Renfrew - the luxury department store was the first to bring the French couturier's work to Canada.

Tracing how those handcrafted wonders of the French couture ateliers affected transatlantic trade and women's lives right here in Toronto has been the focus of much of ROM curator Dr. Alexandra Palmer's body of scholarship.

Palmer, who is senior curator, Nora E. Vaughan fashion costume curatorship, has selected more than 100 objects, including 38 outfits from the ROM's permanent fashion and textile collection showcasing day looks, evening wear and ball gowns for grand occasions. There are also borrowed accessories and examples of the intricate embroideries used by the House of Dior in that period.

In the exhibit preparation process, the museum team reverse-engineered the incredibly complex patterns, weighed and measured and did detective work on the details of the actual pieces, which is how they illuminated their links to historical fashion. Many of these dresses were donated by Toronto and Montreal socialites, who wore these pieces here in Canada.

They also discovered how cumbersome these pieces actually were to wear. These dresses used, "a breathtaking amount of material," Palmer says. To make the skirt for the 1948"Isabelle" formal ballgown that is a highlight of the exhibit, Dior used two complete circles of material, some 13 metresof fabric, or to put it in perspective, enough to cover a couple of sofas.

This gleefulextravagancewas atthe heart of the New Look, she says. The show's notes, presented on ipadsinuser-friendlycontrast to theold-schoolformality of the items they describe,cite a quote from Dior himself dating to 1956: "The war was over... What did the weight of my sumptuous materials, my heavy velvets and brocades matter? When hearts were light, mere fabrics could not weigh the body down." The hem measured nearly 14 metres in circumference: that is a lot of hands (or petites mains in the parlance of the couture atelier) and a lot of sewing. The atelier worked with master embroiderers. (Work from three embroidery houses Dior employed over that first decade - two of which are long defunct - are represented in the show.) Plus custom shoes (some borrowed from the Bata Shoe Museum), accessories, jewelry and hats. The exhibit will highlight the extraordinary and nearly-lost craftsmanship of the artisans who "produced extraordinary ribbons, beads, sequins and embroideries that Dior incorporated into his dresses with the assistance of his imaginative pattern makers, tailors and seamstresses," Palmer says.

The Dior atelier had its own cabine or permanent crew of mannequins (a.k.a models), and each dress was fit onto and worn by a specific mannequin. Incidentally, most of the mannequins went by one name only, so they were actually the prototype for modern supermodels. Each dress in the exhibit has been traced back to the mannequin who wore it in the original show.

"Dior showed a complete look, the whole package," Palmer says. But the story of what the dresses became belongs to the owners. Before designer "vintage" became such an overheated market, socialites used to donate their finery to museums for proper preservation and study. "The window on that is closing," she says.

Postwar Christian Dior is a strong suit of the ROM archives, and examples in the show include a spectacular fall season 1957 cocktail dress named "Venezuela," which was a gift from Toronto philanthropist Carol Rapp. And the Estate of Molly Roebuck donated the Dior dress of then-12-year-old Elaine Roebuck, a silk organdy confection with cotton embroidery, worn to her Bat Mitzvah in Toronto in the spring of 1957. The young girl's dress shows the Dior style translated in more age-appropriate detail.

The question for Palmer is: "Why was Dior successful?" Yes, he had deep pocket investors in a time of economic boom. "But people still had to buy in," she says, and the return to more constricting styles after the freedoms of wartime dressing seem at first counterintuitive. But then, fashion is about reaction. "The '50s had to happen for the '60 to happen," she says.

Dior had "a very strong idea," she says, that resonated with how women wanted to look. "It is more than long skirt, cinched waist and rounded shoulders." Palmer has included a 19th-century gown in the exhibit to illuminate the kind of techniques Dior was reviving, including double bodices and corsetry. "But at the same time, the couture atelier was his research and development lab," she says, and you see ideas from earlier collections expanding through subsequent years.

A standout jewelry piece borrowed for the exhibit comes from renowned Toronto collector and costume jewelry dealer Carol Tannenbaum. "This was a period of optimism, wealth and growth, and the costume jewelry of Dior in that era had real grandeur. It was made in very small quantity with great awareness to detail and construction. The piece she has loaned is a lily of the valley necklace made of pearls with poured glassleaves.

"This is fantasy jewelry, and it is very rare. It was made by Dior's jewelry designer at the time, Roger Scemama." Tannenbaum found it at the Armoury art show in New York many years ago, "It just wowed me. I paid a fortune for it. It had to be mine. It has a beautiful long neckline, and it lays like a garment. There is nothing timid about it." Calling it "one of the great pieces I've seen in my career, in 35 years," she says she had not worn it since last spring to a Bar Mitzvah in New York. "The auction houses are having a field day with this period," and prices now are "forbidding," she says.

Fashion is an animate art, meant to be infused with social context, movement and the wearer's personality, so staticmuseum shows are always a challenge for curators to bring to life. This one is compelling because ofits local context: The fantasydresses seem somehow closer because they are part of our past, too.And despite its natural sex-appeal, fashion scholarship itselflagged behind other subjects for a long timebecause of traditional biases, says colleague Sarah Fee, a curator focusing on Eastern Hemisphere Textiles and Fashion.

Fashion and textiles have only recently become hot areas of study, Fee says. "In the '60s, '70s and '80s, textiles were disregarded because of male bias. But in the '90s, feminist anthropologists started to make the connection that cloth is central to identity, social life and religious life. Fashion got back on the radar, and has brought it back to such an extent that we can barely keep up." The ROM has some 55,000 items in its permanent textile collection, ranging from BCE to present, across the globe and across cultures. The historical archives have more relevance, today, says Fee, because fashion "is not just east to west, west to east, it is not a top-down only phenomenon. Street culture is happening across time and space." As popular interest in fashion grows, fashion exhibits have also become reliable turnstile churners for museums around the world. Anna Wintour's Met Ball has become the most exclusive invite in celebrity-land; the giant photo op anchors the fashion calendar and raises money for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and launches an annual fashion exhibit. Paris is also currently hosting a 70th anniversary celebration of Dior at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. Palmer herself is the author of a book for the Victoria & Albert museum in London called Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise 1947 -57; the V & A has held many sellout fashion events, including Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier and Missoni.

And rather than a catalogue of this new exhibition, Palmer will be producing another book, focusing on the ROM's Dior pieces set to launch early next year. Illustrated with photos shot by official Dior photographer Laziz Hamani, it will be called Christian Dior: History & Modernity,1947-1957, (ROM Press 2018) For info on lecture series and other programming related to the show, go to:


Christian Dior's Postwar Golden Age Comes to the ROM 1

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