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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jess Cartner-Morley in New York

Marlene Dietrich is the muse for feminist retelling of Dior’s story

Models walk the runway in clothes that are mostly coloured black
Models walk the runway during the Dior autumn/winter 2024 show at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Photograph: Andrea Renault/AFP/Getty Images

Christian Dior probably did more than anyone in the history of fashion to make an hourglass figure a symbol of the perfect woman. The tiny waists and exaggerated curves of his 1947 New Look collection were not just a fashion sensation but a cultural one. Dior cut a visual template for femininity that ruled unchallenged for the second half of the 20th century.

So Marlene Dietrich, the pioneer of androgyny who seduced Hollywood in a suit, tie and top hat, was an unexpected muse for Dior’s latest catwalk collection, staged at the Brooklyn Museum in New York on Monday evening.

With their hair lacquered into Dietrich-style waves, models wore starched white shirts and slouchy pleat-front trousers, velvet evening pyjamas, or cowl-necked gowns cut from slivers of inky silk. “She was hyper glamorous,” the Dior designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri, said backstage, “and one of the first actors to understand the power of a look to define who she was”.

Christian Dior and Dietrich were close friends, the actor spending weekends at the designer’s country home near Milly-la-Forêt when she travelled to Paris for his shows, and insisting he dress her on screen. (“No Dior, no Dietrich” was her famous ultimatum to Alfred Hitchcock, when approached to star in the film Stage Fright. He complied.)

Chiuri, the first female creative director of Dior, has reinvigorated the house by challenging assumptions of what femininity looks and feels like. This show, focusing on Dior’s unexpected synergy with Dietrich, was the latest chapter in her feminist retelling of the Dior story.

An esoteric soundtrack – Yoko Ono mixed with the godmother of German punk Nina Hagen, plus a live performance by Kim Gordon – set the scene, along with an installation in the museum’s central atrium of pairs of women’s hands, wrought in dazzling neon as bright as the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson River. The artist Claire Fontaine described the work as being about “the way in which anatomy has been used to discriminate against women”.

But Dior did not stage a blockbuster show in New York primarily as a platform for feminist consciousness-raising. Chiuri has tripled the profits of Dior in her tenure, and the spectacular event, for an audience of 800 including the actors Anya Taylor-Joy and Rosamund Pike, was first and foremost a showcase for selling clothes and handbags.

New York has been part of Dior folklore ever since Carmel Snow, then the most powerful fashion editor in New York, coined the phrase that became synonymous with the house when she commented, after his hit 1947 show: “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look.” On the catwalk, French and American flags were merged on a saddle bag – starting price £3,000 – while the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower were painted on to evening gowns. Chiuri described the collection as “my idea of what New York style is. This is a city where everybody walks, and that has given functionality to fashion. That idea of a woman wearing sneakers with another pair of shoes in her bag, or in an evening dress with a coat thrown over it to walk home, has been a powerful influence on my style.”

The Brooklyn Museum, home to the first gallery devoted to feminist art in a major museum, was chosen as the venue for its heritage in championing female artists. With a recent survey reporting that female artists account for 11% of recent acquisitions and 14.9% of art on display in big US museums, the Dior designer, who cites the museum’s The Dinner Party installation by Judy Chicago as “an important part of my education”, said she hoped to partner with the museum to raise awareness of the underrepresentation of women in art.

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