Currently Reading – Christian Dior: History and Modernity, 1947 – 1957

I am sure that all of you know I do not collect haute couture clothing. Well, actually, I do have three couture ensembles. One was a lucky and cheap flea market find, one was an eBay bargain, and the other was a splurge that I bought for myself to wear. But while I don’t seek out couture pieces to collect, I will on occasion, enjoy a good book on haute couture.

I bought Christian Dior: History & Modernity, 1947 – 1957 because a person whose opinion I respect recommended it on Instagram.  And she was right. This is a great book.

There was a time, not so long ago that books on historic fashion were all about the pretty pictures of beautiful clothes. And while I love looking at these books as much as anyone can, they always leave me wanting more. I want to know the historic context, the construction details, the fabrics used. In this new Dior book, that’s what Alexandra Palmer gives us.

This is not so much a book about Dior as it is about the Dior garments in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. A year ago many of the dresses were on exhibition in the museum. I recently read a complaint of sorts that maybe the subject of Dior was being overexposed, with there being five major exhibitions within the past two years. All I can say is that if the exhibitions lead to the type of scholarship shown in this book, then overexposure is fine with me.

The bulk of the book consists of garment “biographies” in which each dress is looked at in detail. We are treated to the inner workings of construction, told who made the fabrics (and ribbons, as in the case of Soiree Romantique, above), shown the original press photo and any magazine features.

To a person who loves the construction aspect of fashion, this is a real treat.

There is so much information about each garment that I’ll be rereading each biography, taking my time to absorb the wealth of detail.

We also get a really good look at how haute couture designers and workshops work with clients to individualize each design especially for the owner of the dress. In many cases, there are vintage photographs of the original owner wearing her Dior. The gown above is Palmyre, and it was owned by Dorothy Boylen of Toronto.

The left photo shows the reverse of the embroidery, which was made with the use of a tambour hook. These embroideries were actually worked on the reverse. On the right is a finished front panel for this gown.

Clients often chose to have a design made in a different color than was originally envisioned by Dior. In this case, Caracas was designed as a black dress, but I think it works quite well in this icy blue.

And here is the dress in black, worn by Sophia Loren.

Both dresses were made in a special silk developed by the textile firm Staron, a frequent supplier to Dior. Staron would offer as many as 300 colors in a collection. You can see some of them in the top photo.

Click to enlarge

Probably my favorite part of this book was the six technical sketches of patterns developed by Berta Pavlov. Seeing a simple black dress with a pleated skirt all laid out that way makes it more than obvious that Dior did not do simple. This skirt was constructed by sewing thirty-three two-piece godets into slits cut into the one-piece skirt. That means this skirt has a total of ninety-nine seams.

Unfortunately, this leads to what I disliked about this book. Many of the garments were black, and they were photographed on a black background. As you can see, the dress just melts into the black. At first I thought it was just my very poor eyesight playing evil tricks, but as this lightened photo shows, there simply is not enough contrast for one to be able to see the dress.

I find this a bit puzzling, seeing as how we are treated to all kinds of details and close-ups throughout the book, but then can’t see the finished product in many cases. Still, it’s not enough to keep me from really loving this book.

If you want a biography of Christian Dior, this is not the book. If you want to learn more about how haute couture as practiced by Dior led to some very remarkable clothes, then this is the book for you.





Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

20 responses to “Currently Reading – Christian Dior: History and Modernity, 1947 – 1957

  1. Wow this is my favorite era for dresses. That looks like a great book. I’m surprised they did black on black for some of the photos though. In theater they always told us not to wear all back for an audition because we’d blend in if the stage background was black… I LOVE the dress Sophia Loren is wearing. Great entry thanks!


  2. jacq staubs

    Incredible! I personally – love the detail/as you point out the construction is the key. The built in merry widow / girdle when appropriate. By the mid 80’s the artisans that literally made these creations were disappearing. I was told by designers – pattern cutters / finishers / embroiderers were all but gone. Nothing compares these days. Must have this book.


  3. Sam

    I must find a copy of the book as I know I would love reading and re reading it. Thank you. Sam the Aussie


  4. ceci

    You find the best things – this looks like a fascinating book! I always want to see the insides of clothes and so seldom get to.

    Thanks for sharing this.



  5. I was interested by the difference between the original concept for the blue and white Soiree Romantique dress and the much less full-skirted version in the ROM collection. Seeing these details really helps to clarify how couture is adjusted to each client. Considering what these clothes cost, the client has a right to expect practicality and a flattering fit — but it’s good to be reminded that great designers are not gods, imposing their fantasies on passive consumers.


  6. Christine Seid

    Wow, Lizzie. Another bull’s eye. Clearly a book for a sewer/designer/tailor/textiler. Thank you for sharing those photos; the detail is wonderful. At first I thought the live model of Soiree Romantique had sleeves! Then I enlarged the photo and saw they were full-length gloves. Oh-la-la.


  7. Hello, I found your lovely article on the Christian Dior: History and Modernity book. It seems fabulous. Thank you for your article.
    I was wondering wether to find and buy this book.
    I’m desperatly trying to figure out the Caracas-dress and make my own dress inspired by it. But I keep struggling to understand how it was done and the more it slips away, the more I become fascinated by the design. There are very few seams in the dress and at places it seems to be one piece of fabric…
    You wrote that there was a lot of information on construction of the dresses. So I was wondering: is there more information on construction on the Caracas dress?
    I am temped to buy the book anyway, but it would be a help in my search if there was more info on the Caracas dress.
    Thank you very much


  8. Does the book reveal about the hip supports for his trademark New Look? I’m hoping that they showed patterns for those supports.


  9. Hello, Tanks you for your article !
    I’ wondering: is there information on construction on the Bar suit ?

    Thank you in advance 🙂


  10. Ricci Maria

    Hallo and thank you for this review.just an inquiry, please; is there the pattern of the Caracas dress too? thank you once again and kind regards from Italy :*


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