From Marlene to Melania, Dior Has Been Shooting for the Stars for 70 Years

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Hollywood takeaways from the epic "Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams" museum exhibition in Paris.

By now, we’re used to seeing a universe of stars wearing Dior — from Rihanna in a dramatic taffeta coat and strapless dress at the Cannes Film Festival, to Charlize Theron in a Dior bra top and mini at the Berlin premiere of Atomic Blonde, to first lady Melania Trump wearing a classic red Dior suit on her recent visit to Paris.

But as an epic new museum exhibition celebrating the fashion house’s 70th anniversary shows, Hollywood has been part of Dior's success since day one.

The exhibition, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” open through January 2018 at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, traces the history of the fashion house both chronologically and thematically, through the seven leading designers who have worked there — Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri — all of whom cultivated their own celebrity fan clubs.

The show is a must-see, taking over two enormous wings and multiple floors of the museum with lush and dramatic displays, including Dior's own 3D flower- and ivy-embroidered gowns favored by Grace Kelly and Eva PeronBohan's prim '60s-era frocks for Elizabeth Taylor; Galliano's haute historical (and sometimes hobo-inspired) pieces, which were the height of fashion in the '90s; Simons' modernist chopped-off ballgowns and trouser suits worn by Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence; and Chiuri's feminist-inflected designs worn by Rihanna and others today.

The displays do a nice job of tracing Dior's personal passions (gardening, theater, exotic travel) through his own work, and that of subsequent designers, too. And they also show how the house has been courting controversy and pushing the envelope of fashion from the beginning, long before Chiuri's headline-grabbing $710 "We Should All Be Feminists" T-shirts.

Upon entering the galleries, the first thing to pique my interest was a historical photograph of women protesting Christian Dior's 1947 New Look. The designer's opening salvo, the New Look collection made a fashion statement about the end of World War II restrictions, featuring skirts (inspired by the shape of a flower) so voluminous that some women deemed them wasteful. The designer's arrival in Chicago in 1947 was even greeted by women with banners exclaiming "Mr. Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor," a photograph reveals.

The exhibition tries to hammer home the meaning and value of handcrafted couture in our time of disposable fashion by placing actual pattern makers, wearing traditional white coats, in a workroom on site to demonstrate for museum-goers what they do and why it costs as much as six figures for a single dress.

The gallery tour concludes with an impressive tableau of gowns worn by Hollywood stars through the years, including Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Portman and many more house muses.

I sat down with the exhibition's co-curator Florence Muller to talk about how Christian Dior seized on the potential of star power from the beginning and was inspired by Hollywood storytelling throughout his career. Here are six takeaways.

1)  Christian Dior was a film costume designer before he was a fashion designer.

"Beginning in his childhood, he loved costume balls," said Muller. "In Granville, the city where he was born, there was a famous carnival, and he loved to dress his friends, his family, he loved to transform himself, too. He did 10 French movies before he even opened his own couture house," she said. "Many of them were about ancient times with historical details; it was training to develop the idea of creating a dream in fashion."

2)  He had celebrity fans already when he opened his couture house.

"When he opened his house in 1947, already Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich were there and ordered many dresses immediately," Muller said, noting that Dior had designed several collections for couturiers Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong before striking out on his own. "His style was perfect for stars."

3)  His fashion was informed by his work in costume design.

With the New Look, "he brought back triumphal femininity, emphasizing the waist and hips with padding, which was a change after the masculine styles of wartime," the curator explained. "It was the kind of thing women were used to doing for the screen in Hollywood. It's not by chance that somebody so familiar with costume design would do this."

4)  He knew how to put on a (runway) show.

"His runway shows were organized in fantastical fashion with quiet and wow moments. He called it the 'Trafalgar phenomenon' [after the Battle of Trafalgar], and often used music and the color red to make a splash," the curator said.

5)  Dior was famous in America, too.

In 1957, he became the first French couturier to be on the cover of Time magazine, Muller explained, and in 1947, he was the first to receive the prestigious Neiman Marcus Fashion Award from the Dallas-based department store and fashion arbiter.

"He came to L.A. and did a tour like a celebrity," she said, noting that the designer traveled to Hollywood after receiving the Neiman Marcus Award. Dior clothing and costumes have been featured in more than 100 movies, including the 1956 film The Ambassador's Daughter, in which Olivia de Havilland takes a turn as a fashion model, a role she trained for with the help of Dior's house models.

Eventually, he was so in demand from filmmakers that he didn't have time to design costumes especially for each film and just provided costumes from his shows, Muller said.

6)  He was picky about who wore his clothes.

Dior was lifelong friends with Marlene Dietrich, and designed her wardrobe in several films, including Stage Fright  (1950) and No Highway in the Sky (1951). Grace Kelly was another important client, whom Bohan tapped to help open the first Baby Dior store in 1967 in Paris. But some celebrities (Muller wouldn't name names) Dior himself turned his nose up at, considering them not big enough stars to wear his star designs.

If you can't make it to Paris, the book Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is available online.