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.
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.