Photo | Hana Nikčević

The Royal Ontario Museum celebrates couturier Christian Dior and his legendary body of work

Last week at the Golden Globes, Hollywood wore black. Effectiveness and sincerity aside, there’s one thing we know: clothing sends a message. In Toronto, recently-exhibited works in textile have placed a spotlight on these communicative possibilities. In Every. Now. Then (2017), the Art Gallery of Ontario showed Esmaa Mohamoud’s basketball jerseys-turned-ball gowns (One of the Boys, 2017); a year earlier, Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries featured Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore’s Rising to the Occasion (1987-91), a Victorian-style gown with a beaver-dam bustle. In addition, recent Sobey Award winner, Ursula Johnson was chosen in part based on her Ode to Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (2016), a birch bark jacket with a Bench logo. These works explore ideas of gender; ideas of identity––Blackness, Indigeneity; commodification; and the messages symbolically contained in material. As unique pieces produced specifically within the discursive space of “art,” we interpret these works as meaningful, as significant, as instigators of change. But what about when textile isn’t so clearly produced as just art? Initially, Dior might seem to lack significance. The exhibit denotes 70 years since Christian Dior founded the atelier named after him, and the ROM prides itself on being the steward of the largest collection of Dior’s works in Canada; still, there might be a question of whether the exhibit poses any relevant social arguments. The period on which the exhibition focuses, and from which it draws its objects, is that of the atelier’s foundational years, 1947 to 1957, during which Dior pioneered his “New Look.” At the centre of the “New Look” philosophy was an aim to uplift women from the hardships of wartime—its gravity, depression, and financial strains—by making them feel, once again, “like women.” Defining womanhood through opulent dresses, tiny waists, and full skirts isn’t “modern” or progressive by any stretch of the contemporary imagination; at the time, however, the concept was met with a frenzy of recognition and desire. Dior identified and responded to a nearly universal latent feeling, and, interestingly, even though this feeling was not exclusively or specifically about clothing, clothing was able to offer the ideal respite. As per a sexist tradition, works in textile have long been disparaged for being “lower” forms of art and “women’s work.” Likewise, fashion is denied credence as art for being seemingly too related to vanity and, again, the frivolous domain of women. With the “New Look,” however, we see fashion define a zeitgeist, and the ROM’s exhibit duly champions the multifaceted power of fashion in its relation to the centrality of self-representation. Curator Alexandra Palmer has designed an exhibit that dismantles the usual one-sided perception of fashion. Featuring pieces from a variety of intended contexts for wear, the exhibit studies the character-changing potential of clothing as well as the ways style responds directly to social context. Bags, shoes, jewelry, and perfume are included in the exhibit, looking at how the multifaceted experience of dressing oneself allows for the potential of the “lifestyle brand”—a character, a spirit, an all-permeating feeling that the consumer can attempt to channel in multiple ways. Samples of textiles and embroidery are shown alongside their makers’ catalogues; displayed next to these are Dior’s own notes regarding intended purchase and use. Seeing Dior thus—as an arrangement of creativity and economy—speaks to the often-overlooked complexity of fashion houses and brings up interesting questions of creative motivation. Palmer notes that Dior’s enthusiastic use of embroidery was a deliberate celebration of French culture and support of the national economy (the country has a historic tradition of great embroiderers). Which decisions, then, were aesthetically based? Which economically, nationalistically, or practically? Seeing the extensive amount of craft that went into each dress also calls into question the current mainstream model of “fast fashion,” which tends towards the cheap, disposable, and ultimately unsustainable. Included, too, are the names given by the designer to each of his dresses. This highlights their nature as art as we traditionally think of it (which is to say: as unique, original, titled works). Negotiating this, then, with the business side of a fashion house is a way of thinking that’s more commonly the domain of auction houses, private galleries, and commercial art fairs; bringing it into the new space of the ROM highlights the ubiquity of commercial concerns, often felt to be uncomfortably antithetical to the idea of “pure art.” This, again, points to the boundary-crossing nature of fashion and its ability to mean many things at once. Neatly organised into groups by style, however, and dramatically spotlighted in the darkened space, the pieces on show in Christian Dior are also––very simply––beautiful. The beadwork and embroidery of Palmyre (1952) is meticulous brilliance on a simple, ice-blue form; Isabelle’s (1952) silk-satin pleats are tied together with a form-giving, contrasting sash; the interweaving folds in the crimson silk of Delphine (1956) suggest the entire dress was magically folded into being. A bottle of perfume is illuminated as though a crown jewel; pinned embroidery samples uncannily resemble hides, suggesting they’re one step away from being animated. Each dress has a defined, geometric sensibility that imbues it with presence and life. Walking through the exhibit has something of the effect of walking through a crowd of ghosts. This direct relation of the dresses to bodies is referenced––information panels identify their original models, original wearers, and the occasions of wear––and the idea of self-representation is thus centred. There’s only one fairly minor issue worth mentioning: the use of iPads as digital didactic panels. For each of the dresses shown, there is an interactive screen with information about the item’s materials, production, and wearer, as well as detailed views and original sketches. Although informative and allowing for fantastic image quality, these can only be effectively used by one individual at a time. As a result, they’re far less convenient than analog didactic panels when the exhibit is busy (breathing down someone’s neck while they cycle through the pages at a snail’s pace, not recommended). Providing insight into what is often considered an irrelevant and unreal world, the ROM’s thoughtful presentation of Dior’s works grounds couture in the social, economic, political, and personal. The meticulous creative and organisational work that went into creating each of Dior’s couture pieces is made apparent, and this begins to explain why it’s possible for fashion to have answered a near-universal desire: it’s simultaneously an artwork, a piece of clothing, a relationship, and a statement. This, in turn, only highlights the magic of the show’s visual effect—unconsidered, it’s stunning; considered, it’s stunning with evidence. In allowing scholarship and passion to coexist, the ROM rightly affords fashion the multifaceted consideration that art traditionally receives. Christian Dior is on at the ROM until March 18, 2018.