Exhibit Explores How Dior's Designs Echo Impressionist Paintings As a teenager, Christian Dior helped his mother design the garden at their home in Normandy, France. He carried his love of flowers — also the focus of the French Impressionists who came before him — along with him into his fashion career.

Exhibit Explores How Dior's Designs Echo Impressionist Paintings

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And speaking of fashion, a fairly dreary little seaside town in Normandy, France, is festooned with photos of roses these days in celebration of a native son. His parents wanted him to be a diplomat. Instead he grew up to become one of the world's most important fashion designers.

NPR's special correspondent Susan Stemberg went to see what the French fuss is all about.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: When it was time to create a new collection, Christian Dior, the French say Diar - a gentle gargle - had a ritual. He went to his garden and sat down.

FLORENCE MULLER: Exactly like on this picture, you know, sitting on a table in the middle of these flowers, and he was starting to design these drawings like this. And on (unintelligible) piece of paper, there was one dress.

STAMBERG: Fashion historian Florence Muller gathered drawings, photographs, dresses and paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, and others for an exhibition on Dior and Impressionism at Dior Museum in Normandy at Granville, the designer's hometown. She says the garden ritual served Dior from 1947, when he famously invented what was dubbed the New Look, until he died 10 years later at age 52.

Pudgy and bald, one wag said he looked as if he were made of pink marzipan. An old photo shows Dior in his garden, finding inspiration.

It's a very good photograph.


STAMBERG: You can see him in real concentration, sitting at this little table, with a pond behind him or a fountain. And the man is holding his head, right, with his left hand? He's thinking and drawing - he's creating.

MULLER: Yes. Each season, he had to invent so many dresses. Perhaps it's why he's holding his head. It's not so easy, you know, the work of a grand couturier.


STAMBERG: Could give you a headache.


MULLER: Yes, perhaps.


STAMBERG: When he was 15, Christian Dior helped his mother design their pretty garden in Granville. Up a winding seaside road, the pink house is a modest or, as the French say...

BRIGITTE RICHARD: It's not a very, very important house. But, In fact, it's a house of a bourgeois family settled in Granville.

STAMBERG: The Dior Museum's Dior's chief curator Brigitte Richard. Christian Dior's bourgeois father was a fertilizer manufacturer - handy, for gardening. Like the designer, the artists of Impressionism were also inspired by flowers. Curator Florence Muller picked two photos to make the point.

MULLER: You have here the idea of painters in their garden...

STAMBERG: Right, the most...

MULLER: ...like Monet...

STAMBERG: ...famous gardens.

MULLER: Of course, a garden created by an artist. And on the left side, Christian Dior with his gardens that were also creation, designed by him.

STAMBERG: Dior stands in his gardens, in a suit and tie. Monet, in suspenders and soft hat, looks more relaxed. But both were flower lovers: Monet put gardens on his canvases, Dior put them on women. Dress collections named for flowers; fabrics patterned with roses, lily of the valley - his lucky flower, he said - embroidered bouquets; full, full, skirts that swirl like petals.

Ha, said Chanel, just a bit competitively: Dior doesn't dress women. He upholsters them.


STAMBERG: A strapless gown with a gauzy white skirt, once worn by Sarah Jessica Parker, is placed near a Degas ballet class. John Galliano designed that dress. He did the Dior line from the late 1990s to 2011. Other Dior designers: Yves St. Laurent; and these days, Raf Simons.

Linking the clothes to Impressionism, a dreary landscape by the young Monet hangs near a dowdy 1956 Dior; tulips, a watercolor by Berthe Morisot, echoes a brighter Dior, from 1956.

MULLER: For example, here you can see this short dress for, let's say, cocktails.

STAMBERG: Strapless, pretty with pale flowers stitched on a scalloped skirt.


STAMBERG: The New Look that put Dior on the fashion map in 1947 - tiny waists, huge skirts, rounded shoulders - made a powerful statement after all the deprivations of World War II. With his New Look, Dior was saying a new day had dawned.

MULLER: It was very important because it was a symbol of a return to prosperity the beauty of life, you know, the return to the luxurious things, yes. You know, it was like a fairy tale again.

STAMBERG: Dior and Impressionism continues the fairy tale, with paintings and clothes, at the Dior Museum in Granville. The show ends Sunday in Normandy, France.

In Washington, few fairytales here, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: See Dior, Monet and various fashions at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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