Christian Dior changed the way women dress; new Glenbow exhibit tells the story

The Glenbow Museum has a new fashion exhibition. This exhibition, which opened Sunday, looks at the world of Christian Dior from 1947 to 1957.

Most of the dresses on display were purchased in Canada, worn in Canada

Alexandra Palmer is the curator of the Christian Dior exhibit, which is now on at the Glenbow Museum in downtown Calgary. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Striking silhouettes are the hallmark of Christian Dior's style, synonymous with our idea of elegance.

A new retrospective at the Glenbow Museum walks us through the story of Dior from 1947 to 1957 through a mostly Canadian collection of the designer's work.

Calgary stylist Leah Van Loon says Dior, who was known for his approach of dressing women as flowers, was also a business man. As his name stretched around the world, he made sure he had control over his brand. 

"He knew how to sell things to people  — hats, shoes, even the fragrance," she said. "From head to toe, you were a Dior woman."

Most of the dresses on display were purchased in Canada, worn in Canada, and donated to the museum by Canadian women. They are from a permanent collection at the Royal Ontario Museum. 

"When you think about haute couture, these were all dresses that were made very specifically, very personally, for some person. So each of these has lived a life with these women as well," Van Loon said. "They've been altered, they've been shortened, they've been slightly changed to accommodate the rest of these women's lives.

"This wasn't really a piece that was worn once and put away; it, hopefully, was worn over and over again, especially the day suits."

Dior was known for revolutionizing the shape of women's clothing after the war.

"He designed this new silhouette that took up masses of material with very wide skirts, long, nearly to the ankles," Alexandra Palmer, the curator of the Christian Dior exhibit, told the Homestretch. "So there were yards and yards and yards of material in a skirt, and people hadn't had material during the war.

Striking silhouettes from the Christian Dior exhibit on at the Glenbow Muesum. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"He had these very soft shoulders and this new way of moving that people had never seen before. If you think of Lauren Bacall as fabulous big shoulder pads … that was out. And so it really was putting women into this feminine silhouette that was astonishing, and what it signified was the end of the war — 'This is a different era, let's move forward'  — and people loved it."

There were many, however, who protested against putting women back into corsets after the war.

"Women who'd worked in munitions factories and done a lot really good work getting forward, and being paid, had to go back into the house to make room for the returning men," she said. "They didn't want to wear long skirts. They didn't want to spend the money."

Elegant silhouettes and elaborate use of fabric detailing are the hallmark of a Dior design. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

But it wasn't long before Dior's cinched-in waists, rounded shoulders and voluminous skirts became known as the new look.

Walking through the exhibit, Palmer points to the elaborate use of fabric and the detailed embroidery and beading, as well as the striking silhouettes.

"You know you can't have Oscars without some of this coming through — it's still red carpet stuff," she said. "It's still this idea of elegance we have."

With files from The Homestretch and The Calgary Eyeopener