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Advertised as the first retrospective of the House of Dior in the United States, Dior: From Paris to the World transported visitors from the interior of the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building through the doors of a storied atelier to enter the exhibition gallery. Curated by Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Fashion Florence Müller and designed by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA New York, the exhibition was presented in a series of irregularly shaped rooms. An individual gallery was devoted to each of the seven head designers of the House (Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and Maria Grazia Chiuri), explaining their contributions to the House of Dior. Additional thematic rooms were interspersed between the galleries, with a grand finale in a single, large space featuring forty-nine ensembles arranged on petal-shaped stepped platforms.
Navigating the exhibition involved holding a large, long audio player and punching in numbers displayed near some of the garments. Other objects were marked using a separate numbering system, and information about every garment was printed inside of a small paper booklet that you also needed to carry if you wanted to read the information about the pieces while viewing them. There was a lot to look at in some places, with archival fashion videos running near dimly lit paper records, a painting hung next to each garment, and a soundscape playing in each room. While the museum’s website provided general information about accessibility, it was not apparent what language options were available for the audio or printed booklet, which was surprising considering the high profile of this special exhibition. The audio content was a necessary component of the exhibition and was narrated in part by Müller. With such minimal written content in the galleries, the audio provided a better understanding of the connections and themes presented throughout the exhibition.
Eight designs by each of the creative directors from Dior to Chiuri were featured in their respective rooms. Signature elements of each designer were explored, including their interpretations of the original aesthetic that Dior himself developed during his ten years at the House. This approach allowed each designer to stand out in his or her own right while maintaining continuity within the exhibition. It also helped to bring forward one reason the House of Dior has lasted for over seventy years—each head designer brings creativity and original voice to the position, but each also honors the ideas of the company’s forward-thinking founder.
The first garment encountered upon entering the exhibition was the fitted white jacket and full black skirt of the Bar suit from Dior’s debut Corolle line in 1947, part of what the press dubbed the “New Look.” This first gallery space included designs from each creative director, emphasizing the influences they took from Christian Dior. Visitors then moved into a gallery devoted to Dior’s background, including his early career as an art gallery director, where examples of his designs were on view. His influence on the House was more apparent as elements of his aesthetic were explored throughout the exhibition, including the ways subsequent designers incorporated his vision into their work. Yves Saint Laurent and Gianfranco Ferré were the least-represented designers, which is not surprising as both had short tenures at the House. Both Marc Bohan and Raf Simons were well represented, though Bohan’s story disappeared a bit in the overall narrative of the exhibition. He was creative director for nearly thirty years, but his design aesthetic was more understated than several of the others. Bohan was best understood in the themed room that featured dresses worn by some of the brand’s most famous and loyal clients, such as celebrity Elizabeth Taylor and socialite Betsy Bloomingdale; many of these clients’ iconic looks are by Bohan, and the elegance and wearable appeal of his designs are apparent. Current creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman to hold the role, was also represented in her own gallery, bringing the story into the present.
John Galliano dominated the exhibition through his eye-catching, avant-garde designs and in the number of his pieces featured. Over forty of the garments included were by Galliano, who served as head designer from 1997 to 2011. His story is as complex and contradictory as his designs; his forced departure from the House after several racist outbursts and a struggle with substance abuse was mentioned in passing. Noticeably absent was a clear discussion about the controversy surrounding several of the lines he created during his time at Dior, including the S/S 2000 couture line inspired by homeless Parisians that led to protests outside the atelier, although a design from this collection was featured in the Galliano room.
The exploration of haute couture fashion as art and in conversation with artists of other mediums was prioritized in part through the gallery-style presentation with minimal labeling and select audio accompaniment for particular pieces. Works of fine art, paintings in particular, were shown alongside the garments throughout the exhibition. This combination was especially effective in the themed room of Dior’s garden, which examined his love and appreciation for nature. A photograph of his garden was printed in large scale and repeated on a circular banner that ran around the top of the gallery. Impressionist paintings were displayed next to dresses made from textiles and in silhouettes related to this aesthetic, adding important context for understanding the artistic and historic inspirations behind the clothing.
In a room titled “The Office of Dreams,” after Dior’s own name for his studio, one wall featured twenty-five toiles (muslin test garments of designs) while the opposite wall displayed flat pattern versions, allowing visitors to view the two-dimensional and three-dimensional stages of pattern design. Both sides of the room were white-on-white, creating an eye-catching effect. A floor case was placed below the flat pattern side of the room, which displayed embroidery samples, sketches, and other archival records of the complicated process required to bring a design from idea to garment. This small room in the exhibition was extremely helpful in teaching museum visitors the great skill behind couture design while also showcasing the creative abilities of the exhibition designer.
The large final room of the exhibition was arranged around the Western European trope of the Four Continents—Africa, Asia, America, and Europe—and explored the idea of Dior’s designers taking inspiration “from Paris to the world,” as the exhibition’s title states. Here again were a significant number of Galliano’s designs, many of which are quite literal interpretations or risky appropriations of traditional dress from around the world. The work featured here, which included all seven head designers, was an unequivocal celebration of what other cultures can bring to couture fashion. Questions about cultural appropriation were not addressed, though it was apparent that everything from Scottish folk dress to the Japanese kimono was referenced in the designs. Their arrangement in the gallery, using a concept popular in Western Europe at the height of its colonial and empirical world history, contributed to an overall feeling of the glorification of European design and the Othering of non-European art and culture. Bringing forth design’s inherent questions of inspiration, appropriation, and attribution would greatly enrich any fashion exhibition in an art museum (not to mention many nonfashion exhibitions in such museums), and would also move fashion as an industry forward by increasing public awareness of the challenges in creating artistic design responsibly.
Müller’s Dior: From Paris to the World is one of several recent retrospective exhibitions on the House of Dior connected to the seventieth anniversary of the House in 2017, including one cocurated by Müller at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, July 5, 2017–January 7, 2018) and another at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London curated by Oriole Cullen (Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, February 2–July 14, 2019). A book coedited by Müller and art director Fabien Baron carrying the title of the Paris and London exhibitions was published in 2017.
The Dior Héritage Collection and the House of Dior were the major lenders to this exhibition. Müller’s relationship with them developed over her curatorial career and enabled her to include exquisite examples of the House’s design history, from garments to sketchbooks, and even a price list sent to Marilyn Monroe for Yves Saint Laurent’s first line at Dior. That the US venues for this recent spate of Dior retrospectives are not in New York or California is an important moment in the longer history of fashion exhibitions at major art museums. For those Americans who appreciate the history and creativity behind fashion houses such as Dior but do not have the resources to visit major coastal cities, much less European venues such as Paris and London, Dior: From Paris to the World is a rare chance to engage with the international art world and haute couture in alternative cities. The foresight of the Denver Art Museum in bringing Müller onto their permanent staff in 2015 demonstrates their investment in continuing to provide such opportunities for the rapidly growing population of Denver and the wider region surrounding it.
Assistant Professor, Department of Design and Merchandising, and Curator, Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising, Colorado State University, Fort Collins