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Next week, the largest Dior retrospective ever mounted in Britain opens in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. 'Dior, Designer of Dreams' is set to be a cultural highlight of 2019. Pity Dior’s incumbent designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who has to compete with the shock and awe of Dior’s 1947 New Look and make current Dior seem equally as exciting and glamorous.
Except that the Italian Chiuri, who took the reigns at Dior in 2016– the first woman to do so – has an uncanny knack for cutting through the static of modern debate and turning it into box office gold. Stripy T-shirts bearing slogans such as 'We should all be feminists' signalled that this most romantic of brands was up for discovering a more modern language of femininity.
Arriving at Dior as the #metoo movement took off has played to her advantage, particularly as she’s listened to her millennial children about what concerns them: chiefly the environment and gender politics, neither of them subjects with which most middle-aged Italian designers are comfortable engaging.
While some see this as the snowflaking of a venerated French brand, and roll their eyes at the merchandising of social causes, Dior is more relevant to a younger generation than it has been for years. It’s also technically brilliant and slyly clever: in this collection, a paper-taffeta strapless ballgown with a hand-painted, blue-edged bodice had been washed to deflate its puffiness - a 2019 version of the voluminous tulle ballgown Princess Margaret worn on her 21stbirthday (featured in the exhibition)
Balancing a political point of view with luxury merchandise is a high wire act but Monday's couture show, at Paris’s Musee Rodin (another museum), saw Chiuri take to the trapeze again. Appropriately inspired by the circus, she sifted through the zeitgeist, emerging with five key talking points. How did she do?
1. There are many ways to be beautiful
Not so long ago, the catwalks were filled with a mono aesthetic: white, meek and very thin. "We were much more interested in the models’ attitude than their faces when we cast for this show,” Chiuri said backstage. Verdict: a few models had unconventional looks, but the real challenge to cutesy beauty came from Mimbre, a London based troupe of all woman acrobats who joined the models on the catwalk. Good call.
2. There are many ways to be strong
Over to Mimbre again, who have made challenging the acrobatic norms (Big strong man lifts tiny, fragile-looking woman) their stock in trade. While the models glided past in gossamer ball gowns looking both fragile and tough, Mimbre’s female cast created an all-woman climbing frame – with muscles. The clothes –tailored Bar jackets, magically constructed from translucent organza, strapless black wool jumpsuits over chiffon Pierrot blouses and ballet-style wrap sweaters- exemplified a couture that seems modern and relaxed.
3. There’s more to being a woman than sexiness and femininity
Sheer titillation and a display of nipples may contradict Chiuri’s feminist credentials but it’s all about context. By the time you’ve added neck ruffs , some impressively constructed “ruff” skirts and glitter bonnets, it all starts to look a bit Mary, Queen of Scots. Not just a topical reference to the Saoirse Ronan film, but a commentary on female power through the ages.
4. Sorry Cannes, flat shoes are (still) fashionable
Remember how foolish the organisers at the Cannes Film Festival looked when they banned flat shoes two years ago? Thanks to Dior’s glittery, chunky-soled Mary Janes, their shame shall not end.
5. The female body shouldn’t be a battle ground
Too thin, too fat, too this, too that…when catwalk models bodies start to look as varied as the acrobats in this show, progress will have been made.
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