By Patricia Woeber
In his dictionary of style, the iconic French fashion designer Christian Dior said, "After women, flowers are the most lovely things God has given the world," and he followed up his belief by incorporating floral themes into his fashions, which he felt enhanced a woman's beauty.
Dior grew up in Villa Les Rhumbs, a 19th-century Belle Epoque home — salmon-colored with decorative metal grillwork — which is surrounded by a spacious garden influenced by English landscaped parks. The property sits above the sea in Granville, a city on Normandy's coast not far from Mont-Saint-Michel.
As a child, Dior helped his mother design and tend her garden, and this interest aroused a passion for floral motifs that continued through the years as his became one of the most famous fashion houses in Paris. Florals had long been a tradition, but Dior's imagination took the genre to new heights.
The Villa Les Rhumbs is now the Christian Dior Museum, the only "Musee de France" dedicated to a fashion designer. Three floors exhibit haute-couture garments —a selection of dresses, gowns, outfits and hats created by Dior and his successors, Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Raf Simons.
Dior cherished the Impressionists' images of the region's sun, sky, wind, sea and cliffs. He adopted all these elements as the underlying inspirations for his fabric patterns and colors.
The element of motion featured in Dior's designs as it had in the paintings of the artists. In Edgar Degas' "Before the Performance," for example, the ballet dancers warm up backstage in costumes that glow in yellow and flow as if weightless even as they depict the exhausting discipline of ballet.
In response, the House of Dior fashioned a dress with the same yellow, styled like a tutu of tulle fabric with touches of bright red above the waist and multicolored flowers that seem to grow out of the skirt. This garment, designed by John Galliano, was named "Margot" in honor of Margot Fonteyn, the prima ballerina with whom Rudolf Nureyev partnered for many years.
In "The Ball," people danced while chandeliers glittered above. In response, the House of Dior produced "Soiree brillante," a gown in gray tulle embroidered with silver threads and sequins. "The Millinery" captures a woman admiring a large picture hat, an image that led Dior to design his 1948 collection with similar wide-brimmed hats.
Dior translated Claude Monet's "The Artist's Garden at Giverny" with its diagonal swath of purple irises in areas of shade and sun into a dress covered with purple and touches of green and adorned with chiffon petals. Monet also loved to paint water scenes, an interest that began in the years he stayed with his aunt in Le Havre on the estuary of the Seine River.
The billowing fabric in Monet's "Women in the Garden" fascinated Dior and may have led, in part, to his 1947 "New Look." This innovative style also celebrated the end of the restrictions imposed during World War II. Dior used fabric as generously as Monet painted it — gathered in at the waist then flared to below the calf to give an innovative silhouette. Berthe Morisot's "Tulips" motivated the curved form of the flower for the silhouette of several dresses with flowing pink and green tulip-shaped fabric pieces attached to a black organza garment.
Years earlier Dior had interpreted pointillist Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte" with bustles on the back of gowns, and the fabric of Marion Cotillard's spectacular gown worn in 2008 was covered in pointillist dots. More recently, designer Raf Simon's 2012 collection evoked the pointillism of Seurat and Paul Signac.
In Simons' 2013, collection, more than one evening garment showcased ideas from Monet's brilliant red poppies. Other memorable evening gowns were embroidered with chiffon petals in designs and colors from Renoir's palette. Renoir's vase with blowsy pink roses was translated for the collection into a dress with three massive pink organdie roses at the waist. And from Camille Pissarro's white blossoms on trees Dior borrowed the sublime beauty of white floral patterns.
Through the years, the designs and aesthetic qualities that originated with the Impressionists fed Dior's vision, which grew into a popular cultural phenomenon seen around the world when stars such as Grace Kelly wore his creations. As Princess Grace, she was photographed in 1956 in Bal de Printemps, a coat covered in multicolored embroidered flowers. Five years later, Elizabeth Taylor accepted an Academy Award in Marc Bohan's white gown with embroidered green flowers flowing down one side. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's famous images and the luminescent quality of the palette seen in his bar scenes may have inspired "Absinthe," the eye-popping yellow gown that Nicole Kidman wore at the 1996 Oscars.
WHEN YOU GO
The Villa Rhumbs exhibition is part of the Normandie Impressionniste Festival running through September, which celebrates Impressionism in Normandy. The museums in Le Havre, Rouen and Caen are showing paintings related to water themes: www.normandie-impressionniste.eu/node/30.
For help with planning a la carte and group trips in Paris and France any time of the year: www.francetravelspot.com.
For general information: www.normandy-tourism.org or www.franceguide.com
For more information about the influence of Impressionist painters on the creations of Dior, "Dior Impressions: The Inspiration and Influence of Impressionism at the House of Dior" has been published by Rizzoli. Due out in September, it is already available in the museum's gift store.
Patricia Woeber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.