Tracing Christian Dior’s Evolution, From the Postwar ‘New Look’ to Contemporary Feminism

An exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York chronicles the fashion house’s 75-year history

Installation view of the Dior exhibition
"Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through February 20, 2022. Paul Vu / Brooklyn Museum / Dior

In the aftermath of World War II, French fashion designer Christian Dior spearheaded a new era of style with his extravagant, ultrafeminine creations. Now, writes Miles Pope for Vanity Fair, a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York is chronicling the House of Dior’s 75-year history, “masterfully blend[ing its founder’s] artistry and legacy.”

Titled “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” the 22,000-square-foot show features more than 200 haute couture garments, photographs, videos, sketches, accessories and other items, some of which are on public display for the first time. As Hamish Bowles reports for Vogue, “Designer of Dreams” features garments by both Dior and his successors at the fashion house, including Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and current artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri.

For the new exhibition, curators converted the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court into something straight out of the pages of Vogue. Designs on view “exemplify ... the French couturier’s fabled silhouettes, including his groundbreaking ‘New Look,’ which debuted in 1947,” according to a statement. “... The exhibition also brings to life Dior’s many sources of inspiration—from the splendor of flowers and other natural forms to classical and contemporary art.”

In addition to tracing the brand’s evolution, “Designer of Dreams” includes dresses inspired by 18th-century fashions, a “colorama” display of Dior accessories and a gallery outlining Dior’s dressmaking process. Compared with the original version of the show, which debuted at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 2017, the New York iteration is more focused on the present, dedicating a significant amount of space to Chiuri’s creations.

Tracing Christian Dior's Evolution, From the Postwar 'New Look' to Contemporary Feminism
Christian Dior's 1947 bar suit, afternoon ensemble with an ecru natural shantung jacket and black pleated wool crepe skirt © Katerina Jebb / Brooklyn Museum

“Chiuri is, of course, the first woman to helm Dior, which is a big deal, but the exhibit doesn’t really explore what that means beyond ... catchphrases” like “We Should All Be Feminists and “Would God Be Female,” writes fashion critic Vanessa Friedman for the New York Times.

In Paris, Friedman adds, “I actually learned something about Dior the man, who started his career as a gallerist. And it was convincing in presenting the way he established the vocabulary of the house: the extravagant yet trim femininity of the ‘New Look’; his lush color palette; his fascination with flowers, filigree and tarot.”

Born into an affluent family in Granville, France, in 1905, Dior was one of the leading designers of the 20th century. He trained under couturiers Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong before establishing his own fashion house in 1946. Over the next several years, Dior developed his trademark “New Look,” which featured lower waistlines, smaller shoulders, defined waists and voluminous skirts—a marked departure from wartime padded shoulders and short skirts.

“What was heralded as a new style was merely the genuine, natural expression of the kind of fashion I wanted to see,” the designer once said. “It just so happened that my personal inclinations coincided with the general mood for the times and thus became the fashion watchword. It was as if Europe had tired of dropping bombs and now wanted to let off a few fireworks.”

Writing for Deutsche Welle in 2017, Jan Tomes argued that Dior’s vision of “radical femininity” appealed to the postwar public’s sense of nostalgia. He “didn’t want to create everyday clothes for the pragmatic woman of the fast-moving century but rather sell a dream of the good old days, when women could afford to be extravagant and deliberately glamorous.”

Tracing Christian Dior's Evolution, From the Postwar 'New Look' to Contemporary Feminism
Here and Now Agency

Dior’s relatively conservative designs attracted criticism from those who accused him of “taking away women’s newly attained independence by lacing them up in corsets and making them wear long skirts again,” per Deutsche Welle. As fashion designer Coco Chanel commented, “Dior doesn’t dress women. He upholsters them!”

Despite these critiques, Dior’s designs remained immensely popular both during his lifetime (he died of a heart attack in 1957) and in the decades after. But the fashion house’s legacy isn’t limited to its founder, Chiuri tells Booth Moore of Women’s Wear Daily.

She adds, “I hope people see how the history of the brand was shaped by so many, because sometimes when we speak about Dior, we don’t realize how many designers worked at this brand, and it’s very important because it’s not only the history of Mr. Dior, but also Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan and John Galliano.”

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum in New York through February 20, 2022.