Inside “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” at the Brooklyn Museum

In the bleak Parisian February of 1947, in a city still wounded from the Occupation,

In the bleak Parisian February of 1947, in a city still wounded from the Occupation, the shy 42-year-old designer Christian Dior launched his debut collection in a handsome Belle Époque mansion on the Avenue Montaigne, with backing from the textile magnate Marcel Boussac. Fiercely superstitious, Dior had found a metal star on the sidewalk and felt that it was a positive omen. In fact, the collection, named “Corolle,” and swiftly dubbed the “New Look” by Harper’s Bazaar’s Carmel Snow, was far more of a dazzling success fou than he could ever have imagined. The Dior name was soon synonymous with Parisian glamour and allure and reaffirmed the supremacy of French fashion.

Later that debut year, Dior was invited to Dallas by the legendary retailer Stanley Marcus to accept an award, and traveled around the country for six weeks. “It was a revelation to me,” noted Dior of his American adventure, even if, in Chicago, he was greeted by women from “The Little Below the Knee Club” bearing placards declaring “Mr. Dior We Abhor Skirts to the Floor.” Müller has discovered that these women were involved in the American garment industry, and that their protest was protectionist: With America cut off from Paris fashion news during the Occupation, the country’s fashion industry had developed in exciting new ways, with a voice all its own. Dior’s debut, however, triumphantly proclaimed the supremacy of French style once more and for the next decade, until his untimely death at the age of 52 in 1957, the eager American store buyers and Seventh Avenue manufacturers hung on every Dior diktat and paid high premiums to reproduce his models that were then sold at all levels of the market.

Dior opened his first flagship outside Paris in New York soon after that visit. The Brooklyn Museum exhibition opens with some examples from Christian Dior’s New York collections, shown alongside some of the designer’s Paris originals. These American clothes were high-end ready-to-wear and not haute couture, but the examples chosen nevertheless have considerable élan and drama, designed for brisk American lifestyles and glamorous evenings on the town that reflect, as Müller notes, “a Hollywood sense of drama.” “When I am in New York,” Dior noted at the time, “I wish to work in the American way… I feel that I am a genuine American couturier in New York, just as I feel I am a French couturier in Paris.” The New York sensibility is cleverly evoked in a grouping of little black dresses (Dior once declared that he could happily work in black alone) that are shown with contemporary black artworks, including a striking Ad Reinhardt painting, Untitled (Composition #104), 1954-1960; Louise Nevelson’s dramatic early sculpture First Personage, 1956; and a gleaming screen by Charles and Ray Eames with volutes that, as Yokobosky posits, suggest the pleats in a Dior skirt.