Hot on the heels of last month’s brief history of feminism, this month’s theme is fashion history, using as an example the current exhibit at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary: Christian Dior.

For those who love textiles, fashion, or design history this is an amazing chance to see actual dresses produced more than 60 years ago by one of the most iconic Parisian couturiers (fashion designers). Christian Dior presented his first collection in February 1947 to worldwide acclaim. It was dubbed the “New Look” because it was in direct contrast to the WWII-era style that preceded it. While the women’s apparel of the early 1940s was angular and masculine, Dior’s fashions were curvy and feminine. Gone was the make-do-and-mend mindset of rationing. Instead, Dior’s creations used yards and yards of luxurious fabrics in multiple layers for just one ensemble; and, outfits were meant to be changed frequently — from day dresses to cocktail dresses to evening dresses. These categories formed the organizational layout of the Glenbow exhibit.

Another innovation of Dior was his use of media, which enhanced the popularity of his aesthetic. While he designed haute couture (high fashion), he also inspired more populist clothes in his style through numerous magazine articles. He was great at marketing a full range of products, several of which were also on display at the Glenbow. These included accessories like shoes, jewelry, and perfumes. In addition, Dior wrote books to “educate” women about fashion. I interviewed my elderly Auntie who had grown up on the prairies during the 1950s, and although she did not recognize the name of Dior, she vividly recalled wearing dresses that featured the key ingredients of Dior’s genre.

While Dior’s designs were fundamental in changing the style of women’s attire, his vision was not without its critics. During the war, women had experienced many new freedoms. Large numbers of women had been employed in traditionally male jobs, which necessitated practical, often military-inspired, clothing. At the conclusion of the war, returning soldiers demanded their jobs back, as well as a restoration of conventional gender roles. Women were relegated to the domestic sphere and their clothing became more decorative than functional. People were also anxious to forget the deprivations of wartime and the new affluence of the post-war period was expressed with glamour and opulence. Dior’s collection embodied the values of the day by looking back to the femininity of the 1700s and 1800s; the hourglass silhouette Dior championed required corsetry, a foundation garment that had been abandoned decades earlier. According to the text of the Glenbow exhibit, Dior’s more extravagant clothes could not be put on by the wearer alone; she required assistance. Of course, this inability to dress oneself highlights the removal of female independence at its most basic level.

Despite the ethical implications of his creations, from an artistic viewpoint they are magnificent. The volume of the frocks, with their wide skirts, is commanding. The colours of the fabrics, particularly the silk satins, are vibrant and saturated. The patterns of the embellishments, such as beading and embroidery, are intricate and rich. These sumptuous garments are stunning and make for an impressive display. The visual impact actually caused my jaw to drop when I entered the hall. Even more mind-blowing is contemplating the countless hours of labour required by teams of specialists, hand-sewing the array of components, for just one gown.

The Glenbow exhibit utilizes the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum and focusses on examples generated during Dior’s lifetime. The grouping of items by category unfortunately camouflages the subtleties of the evolution of his work. However, the progression of Dior’s collections are illuminated by the chronologically presented images here. When Dior died in 1957, his company was taken over by other designers and is still a powerhouse today. Coincidentally, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England is also presenting a Dior exhibit at the moment, but it encompasses a longer timespan. Highlights of their exhibit, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” which runs until 1 September 2019.

My mom and I visited the Glenbow on a weekday last month and we spent a leisurely two hours examining the many clothes and accessories and reading through the computerized captioning. From the signage in the gallery, I suspect that weekends and the monthly Free Thursday evening are packed, however. The exhibit runs until 2 June 2019.

This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.