Miss Dior review by Justine Picardie – fashion meets the French Resistance | Biography books

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POstwar’s Europe is eternally fascinating: the pure disjunction between past and present. “I won’t hide that the Beistegui ball is a memory of which I am proud,” wrote Christian Dior of a more than usual lavish party he attended in Venice in 1951. “Europe had had enough to drop bombs and only wanted to throw fireworks… It was reassuring to see that the crude feasts of black merchants were gradually being replaced by the more elegant entertainments of intelligent society. The creator, however, arrived at this gathering dressed as a ghost in a long white dress and a black mask. If the party was wildly outsized, it was a vision of daring minimalism.

But maybe ghosts were in his mind. Until 1949, after all, he had lived with a kind of ghost, in the form of his younger sister, Catherine. Resistant, Catherine had been arrested in July 1944, savagely tortured and deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. When she returned to Paris in May 1945, after escaping a death march, she was so emaciated that her brother did not recognize her; she was too sick to eat the celebratory dinner he had prepared for her. She was a spectral presence – and, to some extent, always would be. So many things would remain unsaid. For the rest of her life, Catherine never spoke of what she had endured: the horrors that “we do not put the name”.

Dior, who had worked for couturier Lucien Lelong during the war, presented his first collection at 30 avenue Montaigne, in Paris, on February 12, 1947 (the “new look”, as Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of American Harper’s Bazaar). Her sister was in the audience, breathing in a heady air of smells, but also of lust: her models wore the soon-to-be-launched Miss Dior, its formula inspired by the jasmine and roses that Catherine adored (she now worked as a florist) . But as her biographer Justine Picardie admits, she would never be more than an “immaterial presence” at home. Later, there will be a dress, also called Miss Dior: a dress covered in hand-sewn petals. Catherine, however, was not in costume. In the photographs, she still looks practical. Her clothes are chosen for their warmth and ease, not to catch the eye.

We think of Paul Thomas Anderson ghost yarn, in which Daniel Day-Lewis plays a fashion designer and Lesley Manville his devoted sister. If Catherine’s role in Dior’s life had been similar, this book would have flowed more easily – and sometimes you can feel the nostalgia for Picardy on this point. This was not the case, however, and although his extreme bravery during the war is beyond doubt, there is not much for Picardy even at this time: no newspapers, no letters, few eyewitness accounts. To bring this part of her life to life, she must rely on the experiences of other resistance fighters, on the work of other historians. Although Catherine testified at the 1952 war crimes trial against those who tortured her – ‘I know what I’m saying,’ she shouted at the judge, when it was suggested she was in pain identified one of them – she remains a shadow. For pages at a time, there is no mention of her at all.

I liked to read Miss Dior, even if Picardy can be a bit crazy; she is always in communion with the spirits. It’s horribly fascinating to me that while Dior was waiting for news of his sister – was she dead or alive? – he was working on the Théâtre de la Mode, an exhibition featuring a series of doll-sized mannequins dressed in couture outfits (a publicity stunt by the Parisian fashion industry that would raise a million francs for war relief). The book is full of things like that: improbable, even bizarre rays of light that make you blink, given the darkness all around. It’s also beautiful; her publisher made her proud. But it comes with so much padding. A long account of the relationship of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, for example, cannot be justified by the fact that the former was a client of Dior (their connection with Catherine is non-existent). Like a dress from a deliberately edgy brand — think JW Anderson, or the wilder shores of Cos — its constituent parts seem to mismatch. The sleeves don’t match the bodice, and there’s a gaping hole where there really shouldn’t be.

Miss Dior: a story of courage and couture by Justine Picardie is published by Faber (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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