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Dior's Rebel Spirit

Maria Grazia Chiuri showed clothes that managed to bridge the gap between the house codes and one of the more arcane expressions of British street style, 1960s English teddy girls, drawing together strands of Dior's past, present and future.
By
  • Tim Blanks

PARIS, France — Maria Grazia Chiuri and I were standing in front of her moodboard — a feast of independent thinking, from feminist philosopher Robin Morgan to Yves Saint Laurent's justification for his scandalous street couture for Dior in 1960 to Ken Russell's stark black and white photos of English teddy girls from the same period — and it seemed appropriate to ask her if she, too, was a rebel. "Just a little bit," she said, with her hearty laugh. "I do what I really like to do."

And how! That’s why Chiuri opened her new show for Dior with a reading in Italian by Tomaso Binga, the Roman artist whose feminist alphabet was writ large on the walls of the show venue, the usual massive tent in the backyard of the Musée Rodin. Tomaso is a woman. She took a man’s name to poke fun at male privilege in the art world. That same gender dominance was, says my translator, the target of her reading. Chiuri’s message t-shirt for the season borrowed Robin Morgan’s book title SISTERHOOD IS GLOBAL. And teddy girls? Well, their tomboy spirit was infused through the whole collection.

To a proto-girl-power soundtrack of Chrissie Hynde, Amy Winehouse and Colourbox's fabulous, vampy "The Moon is Blue," Chiuri showed clothes that somehow managed to bridge the gap between the Dior finery currently on display in the "Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and one of the more arcane expressions of British street style. Teddy boys are well-known precursors to mods, punks et al. Their female counterparts have been less documented. Chiuri's hatter Stephen Jones brought her photos he'd found that soon-to-be-notorious-filmmaker Ken Russell took in the late 50s, and she was entranced. It was the same time that Yves Saint Laurent was falling under the spell of the blousons noirs in Paris, the girls in love with their own versions of leather-jacketed Brando and Dean. Yves recut their biker jackets in black crocodile and put them in his couture collection for Dior. "The first collection in which I tried hard for poetic expression in my clothes," he said. Cue instant outrage at his introducing street chic to the closeted world of the couture! Off to the army with Yves.

How could Chiuri resist that potent stew of sex, style and rebellion? Except that what she'd learned from the V&A show was the power of the house codes at Dior, stronger than any individual designer. In this collection, it was fascinating to see her re-working the bar jacket, the corset, the full skirt, the Vichy check, the toile de Jouy, finding a curious compatibility with her own fascinations. Dior's Vichy, for example, effortlessly mirrored the buffalo plaid of the teddy girls in an anorak or a donkey jacket. Here were the scandalous leather jackets of Saint Laurent, Brando and Dean, but Chiuri also found a sheeny technical cotton to duplicate the same impact (even shinier vinyl worked too). Toile de Jouy was reconfigured with a palm tree motif, a suggestion of the Americana that swept European pop culture in the 50s. It was tempting to see the teddy girls' full skirts as a rejection of wartime austerity in the same vein as Dior's New Look. So let's be tempted. Chiuri certainly was, with her unlikely but somehow logical connection between Parisian couture and English streetkids.

Her collection was as dark — and at times as dour — as the images she was inspired by. But Chiuri’s fearless seriousness has become the calling card of her ready-to-wear at Dior. There is no room for fragility in her femininity. Tulle? No thanks. She’ll take a technical mesh. Eveningwear? Let’s wrap a skirt round a bodysuit, then you’ll get more use out of it. And let’s talk about the hats. Every single model in a sporty bucket hat (the French call them bobs). The leopard-print one was veiled. Stephen Jones pointed out that it was Dior’s muse Mitzah Bricart who introduced leopard to the house in 1947. And so it was that Maria Grazia Chiuri drew together strands of Dior past, present and future.

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