The NGV’s exhibition features over 140 garments along with more than 50 accessories, sketches and photographs.

Christian Dior’s iconic New Look, unveiled in his Spring 1947 collection, is the stuff of legend, revolutionising women’s fashion as it did. Less well known is the fact that Australia hosted the first complete Dior collection to be shown outside of Paris just one year later, when 50 original Dior garments toured to Sydney. Later, Dior even named some of his designs “Melbourne” and “Sydney” and a number of his looks were called Australie.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the House of Dior, the National Gallery of Victoria is presenting a new exhibition featuring over 140 garments along with more than 50 accessories, sketches, photographs and other archival material. Entitled The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture, the exhibition also offers an insight into the operation of the Dior atelier workrooms, the role that accessories and perfumes have played in expressing the complete Dior look, and Australia’s part in the early history of the fashion house.

Christian DiorChristian Dior draping fabric over fashion mannequin Sylvie c. 1948 Dior Heritage collection, Paris © Christian Dior Photo: Bellini

Drawing on the NGV’s own considerable collection, with another 90 garments coming from the House of Dior archives in Paris, it is the biggest Dior retrospective ever seen in Australia. “It’s a curator’s dream come true working on a project like this. And I think for many members of the public it will really strike a chord,” says Katie Somerville, the NGV’s Senior Curator, Fashion and Textiles.

Although the exhibition covers the entire history of the House of Dior it isn’t laid out chronologically. “However, we do start at the beginning,” says Somerville. “It was very important to establish who Christian Dior was and what his background was, because by the time he established the House at the end of 1946, he was a man in his early 40s. He had done several other things, including running a couple of contemporary art galleries, so it’s important to set the scene because it helps to understand why potentially he had the right mix of design prowess but also the business skills for that major shift [that he spearheaded] in fashion.”

To explain what visitors to the Gallery can expect, Somerville talks Limelight through an imaginary tour of the exhibition. “We start with a look at the early years of the House. In the next major space, we explore the codes of Dior, which, I guess, are like the guiding design principles for the House. All of those were strongly established during the 10-year period when Christian Dior was designer for the House, and all of them remain very relevant to the way that the House continues to create and present fashion,” she says.

Katie Somerville, exhibition curator and Senior Curator, Fashion and Textiles, NGV at The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture at NGV International, 27 August – 7 November 2017 Photo: Wayne Taylor

There are four essential codes, explains Somerville, the first being the New Look. “So, it is that first incredibly influential silhouette that Dior presented in that first collection: nipped in at the waist, that soft curved shoulder line and then the voluminous skirts accentuating the hip line. That is something revisited across time by many subsequent designers.” There’s the “line” of the House – the terminology Dior used for the architecture and silhouette that underpinned each collection.

The flower also features strongly. “He was a very passionate gardener and lover of all things botanical. This began in childhood. He grew up in a family home on the north-west coast of France where they had a lovely garden. He used to help his mum a lot in the garden so it expresses itself in a lot of ways in his work and designs after his death,” says Somerville.

“Some of the garments and collections are named after flowers. There was a tulip line for instance, and lily of the valley line. But it’s also about the physical design of the pieces. Some of them have a magnificent floral embroidery, for some it’s printed fabric, and some are literally in the form of flowers, kind of sculpturally shaped to mimic the form of flowers.”

“Another really interesting one is that he loved history, not just his fashion history but more generally – architecture, decorative arts, even garden design history. He particularly loved the 18th century, so there are these lovely threads through his work and in the work of John Galliano or Raf Simons, referencing the 18th century either in the garment shapes or the decorative devices and motifs,” says Somerville.

DiorChristian Bérard, Illustration of the Bar, afternoon ensemble 1947, Dior Heritage collection, Paris © ADAGP, Paris 2016/Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney

The next sections look at the atelier workshops and the work of Dior’s successors after his sudden death in 1957: Yves St Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri, the House’s first female Head Designer.

Top to Toe looks at how quickly Dior included accessories: hats, shoes, stockings and makeup. “One of the fascinating things is how early perfume was a part of the story… The very first perfume he created called Miss Dior, he named after his sister Catherine. And that was presented in the very first year of the House. That space I’m likening to the ultimate dressing room or jewellery box experience. It’s going to be quite dazzling,” says Somerville.

Fascinating for Australian audiences is the little-known connection between Australia and Dior. “When he presented that very first collection in February 1947, there were Australian fashion buyers at that parade so some key works were selected to be shown in Australia. So, within months, David Jones had a parade of Paris fashion [with] four pieces from Dior’s first collection,” explains Somerville.

Inside the ateliers of the House of Dior c.1950, Dior Heritage collection, Paris © Christian Dior. Photo: Bellini

“About a month later, the Australian Women’s Weekly likewise had a French fashion parade and again within that a selection of pieces from Dior were shown. But the really incredible story is that the following July, a very intrepid buyer from David Jones negotiated directly with Christian Dior to bring out an entire collection of 50 pieces from that Spring/Summer collection to be shown in Australia before it was shown anywhere else outside of Paris. It’s incredible to reflect upon it now. Just before Christian Dior died, he was negotiating yet another spectacular tour of the Autumn/Winter collection from 1957 and this was around 83 pieces that toured to Australia and travelled to a number of cities over a number of weeks,” adds Somerville.

“Even more extraordinary was that this time he also sent seven of his house mannequins or models as we call them today to present the collection. Sadly, he died before that collection was sent to Australia but the tour went ahead. We have many column inches of press coverage from the time because both the garments and mannequins caused an incredible stir and interest locally.” The NGV has even managed to contact a couple of the models from that tour, now in their 80s, and has interviewed them about the experience.

The final space, called Magnificent Dior, celebrates the extraordinary, voluminous, bedazzling ballgowns for which Dior is known along with other intricate garments from across the entire 70-year history of the House. Displayed in a theatrical setting, Somerville says: “It’s our exclamation moment!”

The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture is at National Gallery of Victoria International until November 7.