Dior Reveals Haute Couture Masterpieces

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School of Pharmacy

This week Synapse introduces a limited series honoring one of the world’s foremost couturier, Christian Dior.

“Haute Couture” literally translates to “high sewing” or “high dressmaking.” It is the making of exclusive clothing to a client’s specific body measurements, usually from very expensive, top-quality fabric and materials. Everything is done by hand with extreme detail from start to finish, and only by highly trained, experienced sewers in a designated Paris “atelier,” or studio. In order to be classified as “haute couture,” fashion houses must meet certain rigorous qualifications.

In 1946, Christian Dior launched The House of Dior, his haute couture fashion house, at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris. At the time, World War II had just ended, and wartime fashion was still the norm. However, when Dior showed his first couture collection in 1947, his fresh, innovative designs quickly gained mass attention, establishing him as a top designer across the globe.

World War II had greatly disrupted the couture world, limiting international fashion transactions between Paris and the United States. But immediately after the war, high-end American retailers, such as New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, and San Francisco’s I.Magnin & Co., again started to purchase French couture pieces, such as those from Dior. Soon, I.Magnin & Co. came to form an especially close bond with the House of Dior.

With his great endorsement of French fashion, Grover Magnin, president of I.Magnin & Co., was eventually awarded the Medal of the Legion of Honor by the French government. The award ceremony was held in San Francisco, and Dior attended.

In honor of the ceremony, I.Magnin & Co. hosted a benefit gala at its elegant Union Square store, which Dior toured and called the “White Marble Palace.” Then, at the gala, Dior presented six pieces. These pieces, which were all from his 1949 “Milieu du Siècle” collection, were all beautiful. But two of them — Venus and Junon — were perhaps the most beautiful of them all.

They were never meant to be for sale. And upon looking at them, it was easy to see why.

Included amongst four other showpieces, they were breathtaking, showing the limitless imagination of Christian Dior’s designs. He’d named one of them “Junon” and the other “Venus,” intending for them to be sister pieces — both beautiful, and yet obviously unique.

Venus was soft and delicate. Inspired by “Venus rising from the sea,” she had a full skirt of pink tulle, emphasized by an overlayer of “shells” that cascaded down the back into a slight train. Each shell glimmered with paillettes and sequins, which sparkled like rose gold. She was a pink ocean, out of which a mermaid — the wearer — would seem to rise, just like Venus the goddess herself.

Junon was a bit louder. Despite her more understated bodice, her skirt was a showpiece all in itself. Composed completely of sequin-lined “petals,” it looked like a peacock’s tail, alluding to the favorite bird of Junon, wife of Zeus. With her royal blue and silver beading, she was the perfect foil, yet loving friend, to her dear sister Venus.

And once Grover Magnin saw them, he deemed them “museum pieces.” They were not for sale. The San Francisco Examiner, which covered the gala collection, echoed his statement.

Not long after, in November 1949, Magnin’s company donated the gowns to San Francisco’s de Young Museum with the accompanying note: “I. Magnin & Co. presents with pleasure to the de Young Museum two magnificent evening dresses by the master, Christian Dior. These creations were brought to America because I. Magnin & Co. feel that as fashion leaders, it was their responsibility to let the women of California see them. It is believed they will be a document for future generations, portraying the greatest talent and genius of the present era.”

And there in the museum, the sisters stayed, highly prized and cherished by all.

(Re)birth of Venus

Then, seventy years later, a special request came knocking.

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris was putting together a grand exhibition. Named “Christian Dior, Couturier du rêve,” or “Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams,” it intended to pay homage to the legacy of Christian Dior and his successors.

Fittingly, the museum was contacting institutions all over the world to request loans for key Dior showpieces. And they wanted the two sisters to be there.

Junon had traveled the world a bit more extensively, and was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time, so the de Young team focused their preparations on Venus. They first brought her to the Textile Conservation Lab for a conditions assessment.

Though she had been carefully treasured, the years of storage had taken their natural toll. A layer of grime had collected on the sequins, and the sewing thread attaching the embellishments had begun to fray.

But no challenge was too big for the de Young conservation team.

To remove the grime, they painstakingly cleaned each feather-like paillette with a moistened swab, restoring some of the gown’s original luster. Noting the weakening threads and the potential for sequin loss, they knew that “handling” the gown as minimally as possible was key.

Thus, they decided that having the piece already mounted on a mannequin would be the safest option for her journey to France.

And so, in preparation for Venus’s travel, the construction team built a huge wooden crate, along with a silk-covered sliding “tray” to secure the mannequin and minimize gown contact. To keep everything as still as possible during transit, they placed foam channels into the crate’s ceiling for further support of the mannequin’s head.

Meanwhile, after mounting Venus onto the mannequin, the conservation team wrapped each of the gown’s “petals” in tissue paper. Afterwards they placed a custom-made silk shroud over the entire piece for extra protection. Then, after multiple checks to ensure that everything was in place, they watched as the construction team carefully maneuvered the mannequin into the crate for delivery.

Days later, a group of staff members watched as a gigantic wooden box was rolled into the foyer of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Unscrewing off one side of the crate, they gently slid the mannequin’s tray out onto the floor. Nearby, three helpers eased the silk shroud off of the figure, the anticipation around them clearly rising.

“It’s Venus coming out of her shell!” someone said in French.

And indeed, she was.

Next week, we discuss the virtual exhibition at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris that brought Dior's work back into the spotlight and proved that his worldwide celebrity has not diminished.