“What you see in the famous Mad Men series,” says Denver Art Museum curator Florence Müller, “he has invented this.” Such is Müller’s pithy description of the deep and lasting influence of legendary French fashion designer Christian Dior, the subject of a sweeping retrospective opening at the DAM in November. “Dior: From Paris to the World” will look back on 70 years of the styles created by the master couturier and the designers who succeeded him at the head of the celebrated maison.
Müller, a native Parisian and the former director of the Union Française des Arts du Costume (now part of the city’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs and essentially the equivalent of the Met Costume Institute in New York), joined the Denver Art Museum in 2015 as the Avenir Curator of Textile Art and Fashion. She recently sat down with artnet News to preview the exhibition, which will be the first major Dior retrospective in the United States.
The 200 or so exquisitely crafted haute couture dresses selected by Müller—along with accessories, archival photographs, sketches, videos, and correspondence—will chart the trajectory of the house from its founding by Christian Dior in the 1940s through the tenures of subsequent directors Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and, today, Maria Grazia Chiuri. All are superstar designers in their own rights.
“We will even have dresses from the latest collection of Maria Grazia Chiuri, which is very difficult, because it’s the collection that will be on sale for the customers right now,” said Müller, stressing the show’s up-to-the-minute relevance. Another topical item, and one of the few ready-to-wear looks on view, will be Chiuri’s famous spring 2017 T-shirt with the slogan “We Should All Be Feminists.”
It’s hard to overstate Dior’s impact on fashion, past and present. His first collection arrived in 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War. Emerging from years of rationing and deprivation, the public was clamoring for luxury again. Perhaps more significantly, “people, and women, were waiting for something new happening in this new world,” said Müller.
“Everybody wanted to forget about the nightmare of the war,” she said. Dior more than obliged, with an optimistic vision of beauty and grace, soon dubbed “the New Look.” Instead of the trim suits of the early ’40s, which economized on fabric and echoed a square, military silhouette, Dior gave women soft shoulders, nipped-in waists, and voluminous skirts. If it sounds familiar, it’s because this overtly feminine hourglass figure became the iconic look of the 1950s. He also acted as an ambassador of sorts, touring global markets and convincing buyers and private clients alike that postwar France was still the capital of the fashion world.
Last year, in honor of the house’s 70th anniversary, Müller mounted “Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. “The idea was to have the exhibition in Paris,” where the maison began, “and then to bring a part of the exhibition to Denver,” she explained. But the Paris show’s runaway popularity, with attendance exceeding 700,000 visitors, took everyone by surprise, inspiring Müller to revise her plans and raise her show’s ambition. “The success of the exhibition in Paris was huge,” said Müller. “In fact it was a record in terms of success. It was the record in the fashion exhibitions.”
“The waiting line was totally phenomenal—it was going from the Rue de Rivoli up to the River Seine,” she recounted. “Parisians, they have no patience. But they came with little seats and umbrellas because it was cold and rainy all the time. And they came with sandwiches. To wait up to eight hours. Eight hours of waiting in line.”
Müller radically rethought the Denver exhibition, swapping out two-thirds of the objects from the Paris show for new items, many of which have never before been on view, and pivoting the focus to Dior’s North and South American clients, like Hollywood actresses Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Mexican film star María Félix, and Venezuelan socialite Mimi Herrera, as well as current celebrities like Rihanna, Zoë Kravitz, Natalie Portman, and Charlize Theron. “The message is: If you have seen the Paris exhibition, you can still come to Denver,” Müller said with a laugh.
Another difference will be the exhibition design, conceived by New York-based architect Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at the Rem Koolhaas firm OMA. His vision takes its cues from the curves of Dior’s feminine shapes as well as the geometry of the museum’s Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton Building, which will house the 14,200-square-foot exhibition.
Asked whether blockbuster fashion exhibitions are becoming a more frequent part of museum programming, Müller said, “Totally.” She cited a list of institutions queuing up to host their own versions of Dior, including London’s V&A in 2019.
“Everybody is on this thing right now,” she said. “The directors of big museums are hoping to have this sort of big exhibition. Because it’s enormous. And it’s enormous not just because of the fact that you have a lot of visitors—that’s one aspect that’s interesting—but in terms of image, visibility on the social accounts.”
“First of all, in the fashion world, you have a lot of magazines—much more than in the art world, much more than in the design world,” she noted. “And then you have all the social media, with people taking their pictures. But, you know, it’s not a joke. When I’m doing the mounting of the exhibition, and I’m building all the groups, I think about this. I think about the selfies. Because, from my point of view, an exhibition has to be beautiful, because of all the photos people are taking. And you can’t control these photos. You have to be sure that a photo taken by anybody is beautiful.”
But Müller also looked beyond Instagram to another reason for museums’ sartorial successes. “You can be afraid of the art world,” she said. “If you don’t have any artistic education, you can feel, ‘Oh, I’m far away from this, and I have no knowledge.’ While with fashion, everybody is dressing themselves. You have this everyday experience with clothes.”
“I would say it’s very democratic,” she continued. “And what is very democratic, too, is the fact that in the fashion world, just a few people have the access to the collection. The fashion shows are shown just to journalists and buyers, and that’s the end. But with a fashion exhibition, you suddenly have the access. You have this privilege of looking at these dresses that were shown just five minutes—not even five minutes, three minutes—on the catwalk.”
“You cannot try them,” she conceded. “But you can see them from very close.”
“Dior: From Paris to the World” opens at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Pkwy, on November 19, 2018. Tickets will be available starting on October 6.
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