THIS COAT

Dior is imminent. In the little lull left before Melbourne’s fashionistocrats finally flock to the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition, The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture, Janice Breen Burns ponders what it is, exactly, that makes our hearts skip and flutter.

Christian Dior "Aventure" haute couture collection, springsummer 1948. Photo: Patrick Demarchelier. Model: Sasha Pivovarova. Art+Commerce

Christian Dior “Aventure” haute couture collection, springsummer 1948. Photo: Patrick Demarchelier. Model: Sasha Pivovarova. Art+Commerce

This article first appeared in The Saturday Age Spectrum magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald

A few weeks ago I had an epiphany at one of those “girl gang” lunches that are so popular in certain circles these days. I’m not usually a fan of any event that wilfully excludes blokes but this seemed like a fun bunch, more my age than the 20-something “influencers” I habitually mix with, and it was the guest of honour who insisted “women only” so, what can you do?

Halfway through entree and first flutes, cheeks were flushing, cacophony nudging the customary 80-odd decibels and I was chit-chatting to the woman on my right about an encounter I had had that morning with Bronwyn Cosgrove and Katie Somerville, respectively the National Gallery of Victoria’s senior conservator and senior curator, fashion and textiles. We’d pored over a particularly rare and precious thing; tipped it up, turned it inside out, upside down, looked into its beautiful soul. I was still heady.

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“This coat,” I was saying, “perfection. The most vivid, beautiful thing … Dior Red haute couture … fresh from Paris … and they laid it out like a creature for me – like a sleeping beauty! – on the cutting table …”

As we spoke, I became vaguely aware that forks were pausing around us, decibels dropping, eight pairs of ears uncoupling from their own chit-chats and tacking into ours. “So we pored over this incredible thing … cotton gloves, of course … and I can’t tell you … utterly, utterly … the cashmere cloth, the silk, the stitching, the cut and shape, the detail …”

Dior in his atelier

 

And there it was; my epiphany. With a few pings – “Dior”, “couture”, “hand stitching”, “Paris” –  I  had diffused half a dozen disparate girly chats into one passionate all-in about, of all things, a coat. How? Why? Well. Couture, especially the freakishly precious haute variety protected by France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, just, frankly, enthrals us all. The laborious, pernickety skill and craft of it. The beauty, splendour and gobsmacking glamour.

It’s our sport; our footy, cricket and Formula One, all rolled into one delicately hand-stitched imaginary package. And though few of us could even dream of mustering the rumoured but rarely confirmed $60,000-plus for a single gown, like any sports fan worth their club scarf, we strive to mesh echoes and elements of its nature into our ordinary lives. We love it so.

Christian Dior, Paris (fashion house) autumn-winter 2013-14, Raf Simons (designer). Dior Heritage. Photo: Thomas Lohr.

Christian Dior, Paris (fashion house) autumn-winter 2013-14, Raf Simons (designer). Dior Heritage. Photo: Thomas Lohr.

In the NGV’s vast textile conservation laboratory, the Bar Coat, Dior Haute Couture number 36887, aka Look 10, a special, fresh-from-Paris commission by the NGV from the autumn-winter 2012-13 collection of then creative director Raf Simons, is spread out on an elbow-high timber table.

“We wanted a key work to represent Raf,” Somerville says. “A legacy.” Simons’ creative direction was short-lived at Dior but his nod to its heritage, pointed and unique. His Bar Coat wasn’t named lightly; it’s a thrilling reprise of Christian Dior’s 1947 Corolle silhouette better known as The New Look.

“Raf was looking back,” says Somerville, “not in the theatrical way of, say, John Galliano [his infamous predecessor], but in his own, much quieter, architectural way. It’s still his [design], but all the references, the key hallmarks [of Christian Dior’s legacy] are embedded in it.”

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Cosgrove pulls on white cotton gloves and leans over the coat. It appears life-like in this light, reclining as if asleep. She flips a section of its silk satin-lined cashmere onto its back. “You see her little line of stitching here?” (The fashion and textiles team affectionately refer to their charges as “she” and “he”.) “At first we couldn’t work it out; why is it there? Then …” (She beams.) “You see? It’s to keep that pleat stable and sitting perfectly. There’s another little detail like that on her sleeve too, to keep it neat on the wristbone. You see? The attention to detail!” We pause a tick to admire the finger-long line of tiny hand stitches by nameless petite mains far away in Dior’s Paris atelier. No other tailor or seamstress on a budget or a deadline would waste time on so trivial a detail. But this is couture. Haute, no less. And that pleat is flawlessly flat; the coat’s panels will swing together, neat and graceful as an old-time theatre curtain.

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So that’s couture; part art, part craft skill, part cunning engineering but, Cosgrove adds with a proof-sheaf of X-ray graphics she’s retrieved from her desk, it can be part hardware too. “This is the little peplum at the back of Mrs Nat King Cole,” she says, gesturing at the real thing on a mannequin nearby; an exquisite, 1954 black silk faille Dior haute couture cocktail dress ordered for the famous singer’s missus and now in the NGV’s permanent collection. “This is the boning and these are the lead weights – seven of them – through the back of the bodice. They made the peplum sit perfectly.” You can clearly see them in the ghostly X-ray outline.

x-radiograpgh, Christian Dior, Paris (fashion house) Zelie, cocktail dress 1954 H line, autumn-winter 1954–55, silk National Gallery of Victoria,

x-radiograpgh, Christian Dior, Paris (fashion house)
Zelie, cocktail dress 1954 H line, autumn-winter 1954–55, silk
National Gallery of Victoria,

This is extraordinary. The technology for fashion X-ray is only about a decade old, triggered by experiments in hospitals and galleries, and still evolving. “The exposures are quite different to what they do with paintings,” says Cosgrove. “You need longer exposures, at lower energy.” The films also have to be done in sections, then patched together.

But, the pictures. Mrs King Cole’s impossibly chic, six-petticoat cocktail frock is revealed like a Da Vinci canvas; revelation over ghostly revelation. “We could always feel the weights in the peplum and the boning in the bodice but we didn’t really know what we had until they were X-rayed,” Cosgrove says. “We’ve also been able to determine the fibre of some padding by X-raying dolls, for instance, and the structure of some fabrics.”

Could we X-ray the Bar Coat? No need, say Somerville and Cosgrove, disappointingly. We live in pedantically documented times and 100 years from now our descendants who visit the NGV fashion and textiles collection will know precisely what we know now.

That the coat is cut, for example, in a deliciously vivid red twill-weave cashmere cloth (“Iconic Dior Red,” Somerville points out) with the barest blur of nap casting a light lustre over its surface. Its slippery inner shell is fine silk satin. Dior red, naturally. And fastened into the waistline of this silk lining is another secret silk skirtlet, fattened with featherweight wadding to emphasise the hips. A narrow band of Petersham tape is also fixed into the silk, with tiny silk-covered press-studs to ensure the coat’s cashmere shell will be properly anchored to its wearer’s true waist.

The coat’s bodice is shaped by narrowing panels, discreet back darts and the skeletal ribs and cups concealed behind its silken lining. Near invisible workings. Its lapels are curved and satisfyingly fleshy. “These small stab stitches you can just see; they keep the wadding in place,” says Cosgrove, pointing out hundreds of tiny, neatly spaced barely visible dimples. “A tailoring technique.”

Haute couture

The waistline is deeply kinked and wide-cuffed side pockets, puffed out with that hush-hush padded skirtlet concealed in the lining, swell the coat’s hips a handspan beyond any natural body line. And finally, a gored panel-pleated skirt drops smoothly into a knee-grazing hemline while, nearby, a three-finger wide hoop of polished rose-gold-plated steel engraved inside with “Christian Dior”  waits to ultimately define her tiny waistline.

The Bar Coat – “she” – is destined to star in the NGV exhibition’s “atelier” room – one of seven huge galleries exhibiting 140 complete ensembles arranged by historic and aesthetic themes and blips on The House of Dior’s 70-year timeline. The atelier room is devoted to the arts of haute couture, with original toiles, drawings and photographs arranged to track “her” journey from Simons’ notion, to petite mains’ creation.

In certain circles, remember, that atelier room with its revelations and rare shot at an up-close and personal encounter with Dior Haute Couture number 36887, equates to an AFL final, or a near-religious experience. Best book.  JBB

The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture is at NGV International, August 27-November 4.