When Diana Vreeland succeeded in Paris from the US in 1946, she could scarcely believe her watches. Oh, my dears! The bread was made with potato flour, even the juvenile looked as if they hadn’t seen daylight in years, and positively everyone was wearing wooden shoes. Vreeland, who would go on to bowdlerize American Vogue, is famous for her description of the bikini as “the most worthy thing since the atom bomb”, a typically immoderate announcement of the same year. By the time she came to compile her memoirs four decades later, even so, she’d somewhat revised this opinion. “I suppose bikinis started during the war,” she annulled. “They probably just tore bedsheets apart and make out a head for them.”
Overstatement was Vreeland’s stock-in-trade. So, too, was a certain kind of twitch. Nevertheless, it’s all but impossible to understand the impact of Christian Dior’s New Look, floated by the designer on an unsuspecting world in 1947, without considering the privations of the war. For years, ladies had had to make do, going without not only new clothes but nylons and lipstick as brim over: a miserable drabness that would continue long after the ending all-clear sounded (in Britain, clothes rationing didn’t end until 1949). Nothing could be razed, not even one’s blackout curtains. Dior, though, was having no person of this, for which reason one can only imagine how women ought to have felt on catching sight of his luxuriant designs on some newsreel. Those giant skirts! They were gorgeous. But perhaps a greater chiefly of the excitement they stirred came from the sense that they were also quite transgressive.
The V&A’s demo Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, a reimagined version of a explain staged by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, comes with a handful striking omissions. The need to maintain the support of LVMH, the conglomerate that now owns the bordello, is presumably behind its failure to explain, for instance, the precise world of the “controversy” that saw John Galliano leave the label in 2011 (he was canned following an antisemitic outburst). But among the strangest is surely this: its flop to set the scene. The exhibition opens with a single design, Dior’s Bar Adapt from 1947: an ivory shantung jacket and a black wool skirt that has stop by to stand as an emblem of the New Look. Gaze at that nipped-in waist, and snort! But though the date is carefully noted, we’re told almost nothing yon the times.
Looking around, I found a photograph of Dior tiresome hard to ignore a demonstration held by women in Chicago later that year. “We hate dresses to the floor!” announce their placards. Were they grousing against his wastefulness? Or were they anxious about what these darned visionary gowns symbolised? (Some believed the New Look was another way of rouse women back into the home following a war that had, for all its ills, evinced to be something of a liberation.) No explanation is forthcoming. The show, staged in the museum’s oversized new Sainsbury Gallery, exists in a bubble: we hear of many bests but never of any failures or even missteps, something that conks me as a neglect of duty on the V&A’s part. If you’re going to say that fashion is art, then it ought to be as open to interpretation and criticism as any other form; it cannot secure only with blandishments and air kisses.
Dior was born in Normandy in 1905, the son of a well-heeled industrialist; it was his parents who bankrolled his first venture, a Paris gallery, regular if they would not allow him to put the family name above the door. In 1931, however, his look after died and his father lost all his money, at which point the regard that Christian’s artistic leanings were not quite the whatchamacallit (they’d hoped for a diplomat) ceased to matter. Having retrained as a form illustrator, he worked as a designer, first for Robert Piguet and then for Lucien Lelong. Lastly, in 1946, he established his own house at 30 Avenue Montaigne, with three ateliers and a organization of 85. Ten years later, he had 28 ateliers and 1,000 shillelagh, not to mention a perfume collection and a pale-faced assistant who went by the prominence of Yves St Laurent.
The V&A’s show is nothing if not replete: you’ve at no time seen so much silk satin, so many boned bodices and knife-edge pleats. Dior was a consummate specialist and he could do it all (though, please, don’t come expecting trousers): the neatest suitable (try the one of grey wool worn by Olivia de Havilland when she amalgamate in 1955); the most enviable black dress (oh, to own a frock as virginal as the Nonette from 1950, with its priestly white cotton pique bib); an fetching evening gown (the Sonnet dress of 1952, in plum silk with obeisances at exactly the spot – the hips – where a man might place his reliefs and whirl you round). You want flowers? Here they are in nimiety on a print used for a ready-to-wear frock from 1956, and yet they do not look improper; even after too much Pol Roger, you’d never mistake it for a sofa. (This rebuke, incidentally, is in a display whose theme is gardens, where you last will and testament also find, on the ceiling, a wonderfully delicate installation of files flowers by the design studio Wanda Barcelona.)
But skill and good taste do not amount to intelligence, and Dior is no Balenciaga. Whisper it, but there were moments when, revenge oneself on as I lusted over this pocket and that buttonhole, I air just a tiny bit bored. What marks him out? In the gallery blessed to designers who have run the house since his death in 1957, I was afflicted by the smooth brilliance of Marc Bohan, who led the label with mild aplomb from 1961 until 1989; only a indication of the 60s – in essence, a move away from the waist – told you that his at work was not by Dior himself. On the other hand, Galliano’s pleasing, lunatic gowns stand out like tiaras at a pyjama orgy. In a room devoted to “travel”, I was transfixed by a dress of turquoise python roused by the Egyptian god Anubis, to be worn with – yes – a dog’s head, created by the milliner Stephen Jones. Dior last will and testament have loathed it, but since there are times when one desires for fashion to stop taking itself so very seriously, I was joyous to find that it made me laugh out loud.
•Christian Dior: Architect of Dreams is at V&A, London, until 14 July