There are few fashion movements that are innovative and unique enough to be regarded as revolutionary. However, in 1947, Christian Dior went down in the history of fashion for debuting his New Look. With radical, ultra-feminine silhouettes, these garments challenged the utilitarian aesthetic that dominated womenswear during World War 2. As soon as Dior introduced the world to his dresses he quickly became recognized as a fashion industry trailblazer. His genius is as influential today as it was in the 40s and 50s when he first emerged. The Royal Ontario Museum celebrates the lasting legacy of the House of Dior in an original exhibition, Christian Dior, presented by Holt Renfrew.
This exhibition brings all the glitter and glamour of Dior to Toronto in a way that captivates even the most discerning museum goer. Senior Curator Dr. Alexandra Palmer, drew from the ROM’s extensive collection from the first ten years of Christian Dior haute couture. The exhibition dazzles viewers while also sparking new dialogue about Dior and the people who helped develop his revolutionary French fashion house. The dresses and accessories showcased in this exhibition are nothing short of breathtaking. Dr. Palmer‘s research proves how the artistry of Dior’s iconic lines, bespoke textiles and romantic embroideries laid the foundation for eternal international influence.
The dresses in the collection were donated to the Royal Ontario Museum by Toronto and Montreal socialites who wore them in the 50s with a few gowns being the ROM’s own acquisitions. While the definition of Canadian fashion frequently draws a blank in people’s minds this exhibition reflects how some fashion movements are so revolutionary they have the unique ability to connect people, from continent to continent, with a global thread. Dr. Palmer says the dresses in the show are “fragile records of the lives and aspirations of those who made, sold, and wore them. I have interviewed many of these women and men to capture their stories and the transformative power of fashion.”
The exhibition was executed in a compressed 9 month time frame which was possible due to the level of research Dr. Palmer had completed before the exhibition as well as her strong relationship with Christian Dior Paris Archives. “Research is an ongoing project that never ends. It’s a continual mining,” Dr. Palmer explained when discussing the work that went into planning the exhibition. This exhibition showcases the masterful design depth of Dior dresses which Dr. Palmer said required her to take a much more “cross disciplinary” approach to the New Look. Of course working in a museum that is as expansive as the ROM also adds a rich layer of world history to Dr. Palmer’s relationship with the Dior exhibition, “curating this exhibition was not just about making the link to Dior, but rather to objects in the rest of the museum such as 18th century embroidery.” Dr. Palmer was diligent in considering how handiwork, skill and knowledge are all essential ingredients in the recipe for creating something that will become important and able to withstand the test of time.
The concept behind the show was driven by broader ideas about how fashion shifts across time, space and gender. “I wasn’t focussing on Dior’s greatness, I’m much more interested in the house of Dior and the people who made it. Mechanical things that make the success the house of Dior,” said Dr. Palmer whose goal was for audiences to look deep and understand all elements of the dresses. Each garment in the collection is incredibly complex and represents the byproduct of a staggering number of decisions. It is this dynamism that is what draws people in and makes them enjoy the show.
The exhibition embraced digital media through iPads that featured additional information and photographs. However Dr. Palmer urges audiences not to let the curse of easy Instagrams and Snaphat photos replace a hunger to understand. “We need to stop thinking that we know everything because we can take a picture of it. The people who created these dresses had deep knowledge and imagination. Being able to look at 5,000 beads and knowing which ones you wanted would have been really difficult. That took real training, skill and thinking” explains Dr. Palmer. This exhibition encourages appreciative looking by identifying what’s under the name Christian Dior and inviting audiences to dive deep into the magical and iconic world of French couture.
There is no other way of describing this exhibit other than a masterpiece. Dr. Palmer’s expertise in Dior is truly amazing. This exhibition leaves viewers feeling enamoured, introspective and thinking about Dior in a new way. Dr. Palmer finished our interview by saying “museums are a place to engage audiences and offer sideways thinking” this exhibit definitely does that and more!
For more insight into the world of Christian Dior and life as a curator keep reading for my exclusive interview with Dr. Palmer!
F&B Inc: Do you think it is possible for a future designer to have the same impact Dior has had over the fashion industry?
Dr. Alexandra Palmer: We have a much more pluralistic society and fashion is many fashions now. It is different than it was when Dior was alive. There are so many looks now that are acceptable at the same time, same moment, same situation. That didn’t really happen before. In the 50s everyone wore Dior (or something inspired by his work.) There was a set uniform. The mass impact of Dior isn’t possible anymore. We are a much more fragmented society. But innovation is still incredibly important in fashion and that comes from technique as it always has.
F&B Inc: What is the most challenging part of curating an exhibition?
Dr. Alexandra Palmer: The fun part and the challenge is showing people what they don’t know. It’s more interesting to say ‘Hey! We have this fabulous stuff. Let me show you how amazing it was in this time, in this country.‘
F&B Inc: Is there a designer whose work you would love to showcase for an upcoming exhibition?
Dr. Alexandra Palmer: I am much more concept driven than designer driven in terms of our collection. I have spent so long researching Dior. While we do have a lot more 20s, 30s and 40s couture I am more interested excavating historic designers who were important in their time but are under recognized.
F&B Inc: What role does the prevalence of social media play in planning an exhibition in the digital age?
Dr. Alexandra Palmer: I work in the museum. We are creating something that people physically come and see. Today we are very aware of the “Instagram moment” in an exhibition. However, for me that isn’t a driver for design or selecting pieces. Everything in the exhibition has to have meaning and context. Social media posts of an exhibition are just a modern result of what we do.
F&B Inc: What is your advice to anyone who is interested in pursuing a career as a curator?
Dr. Alexandra Palmer: Get a PhD. Do your homework, do your readings. Knuckle down! If you’re a student recognize it is a luxury and you will never have that time again to think and spend so much time with something intellectual. It is a real privilege being a student and you have to recognize that.
To attend any of the upcoming Christian Dior events at the ROM and to get a ticket to the exhibition before it closes on March 18th click here.