1905 - 1957

Christian Dior: Ball gowns

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1947 Christian Dior established his now legendary maison de la couture with a collection that rocked the postwar world through its full-blown romanticism rendered in extravagant amounts of what had been rationed fabric. Creating a new silhouette every six months, Dior went on to be the dominant voice in fashion for ten years until his death in 1957. For his evening dresses of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Dior made masterful use of surface embellishments. After the deprivations of World War II, the designer believed that the survival of the haute couture relied on its ability to restore fantasy and luxury to women's wardrobes.
"Eugénie" ball gown, fall/winter 1948–49
Fashion history's equivalent of Impressionism is the silhouette of the Second Empire. At the matrix of the modern era, this style betokened the new. As both high culture and low culture have embraced Impressionism for its most salubrious, blithe aspects, so the court of Eugénie, familiar from Franz Xaver Winterhalter's mid-nineteenth-century paintings, commands a continuing interest. The full circumference of this gown's sweeping bell shape disposed toward the back and its lacy sheerness recall the 1860s. 

Like Impressionism, the revival of the Second Empire can be a bottleneck causing banality and sentiment in its retro forms. Dior imparted incomparable luxury to the finish, suggesting that he was able to surpass what could easily be a stale icon by sheer extravagance. A detail of lace at the scalloped strapless neckline reveals Dior's means of structure. Tiny curlicues of wire support the lace in the same way that the unseen bones support the bodice. In the small and the large form, Dior substantiated structure, even when the effect seems lacy and light.

"May" ball gown, spring/summer 1953
Dior reveled in the paradox of the natural and the sophisticated. The most telling example is his frequent self-presentation, not as a man who symbolized the authority of French taste, but rather as a simple gardener, farmer, and mill owner. In "May," flowering grasses and wild clover are rendered in silk floss on organza. This "simple" patterning of meadow-gone-to-weed is composed of the tiniest French knots and the meticulously measured stitches of the hand embroiderer, suggesting that for Dior, it was not only that beauty resides in the most rustic, but also that the most successful artifice is a beguiling naïveté.

Dior set exacting tasks for his embroiderer, Rebé. The embroidery is set in a nuanced spacing of elements with the densest application at the waist, thinning as it falls away to the hem. This seemingly organic application, simulating a diminishment in nature, is further enhanced by Rebé's repertoire of embroidery stitches to create a dimensionality of the surface. The effect is optically then like a meadow's variegation.

"Junon" dress, fall/winter 1949–50
By 1949, Christian Dior’s instinct for calibrated innovations of the body’s "line" had established him as fashion’s preeminent arbiter. That year, "Venus" and "Junon" (or "Hera" to the Greeks) dresses were among the most coveted of his designs. Dior’s Venus was realized in the delicate 18th-century gray that was his signature, frosted with iridescent beading and embroidery. But his "Junon," the design shown here, is more vividly conceived. The magnificent skirt of ombréed petals, like abstractions of peacock feathers without their "eyes," obliquely reference the bird associated with the Queen of the Olympians.

The Rebé embroidery, of exceptional richness, allows the soft platelets of tiered fabrics to function as if they were overlapping feathers of the peacock's tail. Of all Dior's works in the 1940s, the "Venus" and "Junon" ball gowns most fully represent his reliance on opulence to reestablish traditional values. Even in the inevitable comparison to 19th-century dress, it would be hard to think of a garment equal in luxuriance.

"Venus" ball gown, fall/winter 1949–50
Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus depicts the goddess of beauty and mother of love on a seashell, carried by waves to the shores of Cythera. Through images such as this, Venus, born of the sea, came to be associated with glittering embroideries intended to replicate foaming waves. This extraordinary ball gown by Christian Dior, of foggy gray silk tulle, arrayed with an overlay of scallop-shaped petals, is called "Venus." The bodice and shell forms of its skirt are embellished with nacreous paillettes and sequins, iridescent seed beads, aurora-borealis crystals, and pearls. The glittering overskirt and train adumbrate both the seashell motif and the crescent wave patterns of Botticelli’s Venus. 

Rebé embroidery, more than that of any other embroidery house, evinced a fine 18th-century sensibility compatible with Dior's profound longing for the past. Only four years after World War II, the artisanal trades had fully recovered, rendering to the couture materials and applications as rich as before. As Dior restored a grand silhouette, he also reinstated artisanal luxury. Even the most subtle molded paillettes and graduated sequins were available and were used by Dior.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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