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Back to Features 97

Dinner Dress
Black wool and silk faille
Fall 1949

Venus Ball Gown
Embroidered gray silk net
Fall-Winter 1949

dior at the met 

by Michael Klein

A stylish Cleveland friend flew into New York last week. We agreed to meet for brunch and then pay a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our destination was the Costume Institute and "Christian Dior," on view until Mar. 23, 1997.

You will find the Institute in the museum's north end, past the Egyptian wing, by going down two flights of stairs. And in honor of the show, mural size photographs of mannequins in Dior couture have been hung to line the walls. Its all a sign of the elegance and spectacle of the installation you are about to enter.

Crowded into a maze of display cases are Dior's slim, angular dresses from the late `40s cut in gray and blue-gray wool accented with buttons or fitted with sculptural cuffs and collars. Further along is a cluster of black cocktail dresses -- did Dior invent the little black dress or did he simply know how do design them better than anyone else?

There are shirt-waist dresses with full, wide skirts and long embroidered gowns and coats and hats and shoes. All the design here is underscored by the use of a narrow waist and an elongated silhouette which are Dior's two true trademarks.

The show surveys works from 1947 through 1957, all documented in a very handsome and beautifully detailed catalogue written by Costume Institute curators Richard Martin and Harold Koda. They examine Dior year by year, identifying the subtle changes always at work in his sketches -- one year a tiny, fitted jacket with a scooped neckline; the next a dramatic stand up collar; the third year a strapless gown that gathers in a giant bow. But the work is consistently the product of meticulous detail and fine hand labor.

As you explore the exhibition you come to realize that the colors, textures and patterns in this clothing -- his use of dusty pinks and pale whites -- can be as subtle as a Watteau or as exotic and vibrant as a Matisse. It is therefore not surprising to learn that Dior had been an art dealer earlier in his career. His sense of form and line and the ways that cloth reveals and covers the body is probably drawn from his lifelong interest in art. In fact, looking at one of the illustrations in the catalogue one cannot help but see a comparison between his 1949 "Cartwheel hat" and Matisse's elegant portrait The White Plume (1919).

Of course, you don't need the comparison to know that art was the foundation for what he achieved -- having spent many a night breathing in the Parisian art world only to later breathe out tailored garments for the commercial fashion world both in Europe and the United States. But there is also a romance in Dior, a sense of event mixed with costume. Dior knew well that the matter of dress was also a matter of protocol, and as an artist and designer, he also knew that this could all be dramatically emphasized by a novel wrapping and a wonderfully imaginative draping. Like a master sculptor Dior grasped the mystery of shapes.

Among the day and evening wear one also finds the costumes of celebrity clients -- Ingrid Bergman, Princess Grace of Monaco and of course Eva Peron, all of whom used Dior's talents to dress them for Academy Award luncheons or state dinners. (Many of the outfits shown here were donated to the Costume Institute by the generous Mrs. Byron C. Foy)

Dior is to fashion as Einstein is to physics: genius and imagination. And like Einstein and physics, after Dior the fashion world was never the same.

Yet Dior's arrival on the fashion scene after World War II was nothing less than scandalous -- sculpting in clothes, serving the rich, ignoring the psychology of the Ration Card that was still the norm in postwar Europe. The "New Look," as it was headlined in the press, angered "les Parisians" and others whose recently restored spirits were not quite ready for this great change. It was all too indulgent, wasteful, spectacular, feminine and expensive. But for Christian Dior, despite the social and economic problems of the immediate past, the future was now. His vision represented what was at once modern and classic, distilling elegance and style and selling it to the waiting world. His designs set the pace for fashion and the fashionable, then and for years to come, even after his untimely death at the age of 52.

But why such diverse crowds here at such an exhibition? My Ohio friend and I were astonished to find long lines throughout the Institute galleries. Especially for an exhibition about fashion that is as individualistic, elite and expensive as Dior. Its not the "taste du jour" of mass-market styling as at the Gap, Banana Republic or J. Crew. Don't we as a culture relish synthetic fibers and cheap reproductions? This is high-style, the construction of unique forms assembled to create a single image, a great look and to provide the wearer with the means for a magnificent entrance.

What does the popularity of this show mean? Does fashion satisfy our need for instant gratification, while at the same time it indulging our fantasy life, making us part of a select group of shoppers who know what to wear and where to wear it? Or is it nostalgia, remembering how Mom and her lady friends used to dress and how times have changed? More questions than answers, really.

Remember Audrey Hepburn in "Charade" or "Sabrina"? She is the focus of our attention not only because of the story line and her own charming presence on the screen, but because each scene is choreographed with her particular outfit in mind. Maybe that's what each of us wants -- at least for 15 minutes -- and that's what a man like Dior can provide.

MICHAEL KLEIN is a private art dealer and curator.