One of the most meaningful post-show bows ever taken at a fashion presentation was when the entire Christian Dior atelier came out on stage at the end of its 2011 fall/winter Haute Couture collection. Fifteen-year creative head John Galliano had just been infamously dismissed, and the full team’s appearance was a gesture that highlighted the fact that a designer for a brand is only one cog in the creative execution wheel.
It’s that awareness that Royal Ontario Museum fashion curator Dr. Alexandra Palmer wants to impart to those who visit the museum’s Christian Dior exhibit, which opens Nov. 25, and focuses on the first decade of the house from 1947 to 1957. Many of the garments that will be on display are from the ROM’s own archives, donated over the years by Toronto’s society set. I spoke with Dr. Palmer about how Canadian women acquired these Parisian Haute Couture garments, the genius of Christian Dior, and the lure of fashion-focused museum exhibits.
We’ve seen unprecedented results from international fashion exhibitions; why do you think there’s such an appetite for these kinds of shows?
Fashion is something that everyone can relate to in a very personal way, whether you love it or hate it. It’s a daily, ongoing relationship or trial that we have. With fashion, you can try on things and discard them or take them on physically in a way that you can’t with any other form of decorative arts. It’s also a way of expressing ourselves in very complex social, psychological and artistic ways. But fashion is very much associated with women and frivolity and vanity, so we have these huge complexes about it. Museum fashion exhibitions valorize it, and make it all right to think about fashion in an intellectual way.
Besides the fact that this is the 70th anniversary of the house, what makes Dior such a perfect subject for the ROM’s upcoming exhibit?
My dissertation was on the ROM’s Haute Couture collection, from 1945 to 1963. I looked at the influence of Haute Couture in North America and what happens to it when it leaves a design house in Paris. When I went to Dior, I realized they have extraordinary archives that most design houses don’t have. It’s more than just records of the designs: It’s complete business records and documents. The house was created post-war, for the post-war economy, so all the things that we think about like branding, design, and licensing, Dior really did from the inception. Other houses were doing it too, but Dior had unbelievable backing behind it. It was a huge outfit in terms of business, people, information, tracking information and a way of keeping statistics that other houses didn’t have the wherewithal to do. So Dior’s really interesting because you can actually get this information that doesn’t survive in a lot of other houses because they’re old, or they moved, or they just weren’t set up yet. They were just struggling to make clothes and get by because Haute Couture’s a very complex industry. And Dior pioneered a lot of new business strategies in the post-war era. The ROM’s collection is very strong in these years between ’47-’57 — the years of Monsieur Dior, before he died. It’s wonderful to be able to get the dresses out, photograph them and work with them. I spoke to many of the women who wore the clothes when I was doing my dissertation, most of whom are no longer with us. So I know that Mrs. Eaton wore this for dinners at home only…. That kind of information brings these dresses to life and makes you understand the clothes and context of the social world that was going on then.
Where did these ladies buy the Christian Dior label back in those days?
Holt’s and Creeds and Simpson’s and Eaton’s. And now we don’t have Creeds, Simpsons, or Eaton’s anymore. What’s particularly interesting is this whole American system of trade and bonded models. The Paris Haute Couture relied very, very much on the North American market for money. And a lot of that market was to do with manufacturers who would take the Paris designs and copy them and make lots of money. Stores like Bergdorf’s and Neiman Marcus and similarly in Canada, Holt’s, Creeds, Eaton’s, and Simpson’s, needed the top designs in the world to show people that they were leading players, telling you what was going on. So they presented these fashion shows. But the clothes were expensive because they were Haute Couture, and you were also charged duties and taxes on bringing them in. The Americans were charged duties and taxes on everything — the zippers, the beading. They had this complicated way of taxing things to that point that they could be virtually unsellable because they were so expensive by the time they’d landed them in the U.S. and those taxes were paid. So the Americans developed the system called “bonding”. Garments were brought into the U.S. under a temporary bonded permit, with the agreement with Customs that they had to leave the country within three to six months. The stores could bring them in and immediately have their shows. Then they’d take orders from special clients. When the original dresses had to leave America, they were sent to the closest place, which was Canada and South America. The Canadian store buyers went down to to New York and bought up as many of these fabulous dresses as they could and then brought them back to Toronto. They’d phone up their best clients and say, the bonded models are in! Come down! And the elite of Toronto and Montreal dropped what they were doing and immediately went to get what they could.
Was there the same kind of gravitas to wearing a Dior label as there is today?
It was always prestigious to wear Haute Couture dresses. They’re beautifully made and from Paris, so there’s this magic about that. But it was a different time. Women wore the dresses for their social functions, for their daily lives, and for a lot of the philanthropic work they did — The Art Gallery of Toronto, as it was called, the symphony, the ballet, the hospitals. A lot of these women wore their suits to the committee meetings to plan the events. But what’s really different is the consumption. Wardrobes weren’t as huge and over-the-top as they are today. People really valued their clothes and they wore them a lot. The clothes were expensive, but not outrageously expensive. They were “affordable”. They were for the elite, the women with means, but then they would donate them. There was no real vintage market until the late nineties, so they were given to the Hadassah Bazaar or the Junior League. As a member of the Hadassah or a member of the Junior League, that’s what you did. And then they were also given to the museum, because the ROM’s Betty Brett, the curator, was consciously trying to build up an Haute Couture collection at the Museum as examples of good design for Canadian designers and the public to learn about, and to be able to study.
s there a part of you that laments the fact that the fashion system has changed to such a degree that there may not be the same kind of sentimentality attached to garments?
I think people are still tremendously sentimental about their clothes, but what we’ve lost is an appreciation of construction, textiles, how things are made. They don’t have the information to really understand what went into making garments. That’s what I’m trying to retrieve with this exhibition, so that people can understand that yes, it looks really pretty, and it’s a Dior, but what is it about that garment, who worked on it, how did it get to be there? I’m interested in capturing the names that supported Haute Couture, because under one designer called Christian Dior, there are hundreds of thousands of people propping him up, from the woman who made the dress, or the man in the atelier, or the tailoring workshop, the mannequin who it was made to measure for. Then there was the textile manufacturer who had to make that textile one or two years out; behind him there’s someone who dyed the thread and spun and wove it; then there’s the embroiderer who presented the embroidery designs that the couturier selected from; then within each design there’s an unbelievable choice of colour and sequins. In one dress we have something like 32 different kinds of sequins and five different kinds of silver thread. And these things are fantastically three-dimensional. It’s a whole little world down there of layers and layers of beads and things that you don’t even really see with your eye, but when you’re moving, would just glint in the candlelight or in the light of the ballroom. It’s absolutely fantastic. All these people coming together to ultimately make one dress…. It’s amazing.
Since you’ve seen such exquisite things from the past, can today’s fashion ever measure up?
Oh, it doesn’t measure up. That’s what’s interesting about fashion and design. We’re always going forward, exploring new ways of putting things together or exploding them. That’s the drug, right? That’s what’s endlessly fascinating: How we choose to reconfigure our world, even if we don’t actually need to. We know how to make clothes and how a sleeve fits, and now we have spandex, so that really helps. But that’s not the reason we do this. It’s to solve other problems of where we sit in the world and how we are. It’s the designers, the stylists, the wearers who manage to grab all those various things and assemble them in a way that works, so people think, ‘Wow! That’s really cool. I want to look like that!’ Christian Dior was very, very good at putting his finger on the pulse.