the man who loved women

From Eva Peron to Rita Hayworth, the women who wore Dior's dresses chart the story of a great designer. A special gala tomorrow pays tribute to them, reports Julie Street

In the bumster-and-bondage fashion climate of the 1990s, it's difficult to imagine the commotion caused by Christian Dior's first collection, shown in Paris on 12 February, 1947. The swirling skirts, tumbling from hourglass waists almost to the models' ankles, drew gasps of admiration from the audience assembled that morning at 30, Avenue de Montaigne.

It's hard, too, to imagine the outrage Dior's radical New Look caused. Dior quickly became an establishment hate figure, accused of distorting women's bodies. Yet within months, he had won the hearts of the fashion conscious. Weary of the dowdy austerity of the war years, women couldn't get enough of him.

Now a special gala exhibition will pay tribute to those women. The gala is organised alongside the major Dior retropective opening at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first collection. But while the Met's show focuses on Dior as designer, and on the extraordinary architecture of his creations, the star-studded gala tomorrow evening looks at the women who wore his clothes.

"Dior's history was inextricably interwoven with the glamourous women who bought his designs," says Katell Le Bourhis, who organised the gala exhibition with former Dior designer Gianfranco Ferre. "Dior's original idea had been to create clothes for a very select clientele of elegant women. But even he was surprised at the number of famous film stars and society hostesses who began attending the collections shown at the Avenue Montaigne. Dior dressed everyone who was anyone, from Princess Margaret and Eva Peron to Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth. The idea behind this tribute was to represent the entire history of Dior by exhibiting 30 evening dresses loaned by 30 exceptional women."

As guests at the gala tribute dine on bar Granville and veau aux morales (dishes inspired by a book of Dior's personal recipes), they will be surrounded by some of the most famous dresses in the house of Dior's history, designed by Christian Dior, Marc Bohan and Gianfranco Ferre. Exhibits include a stunning silver-sequined tunic dress loaned by Sophia Loren, an opulent Renaissance-style evening dress in red and black taffeta worn by Princess Caroline of Monaco and Diablotine, a famous scarlet number that Dior dreamt up for the world's first supermodel, Victoire Doutreleau. The centrepiece is a night-blue silk velvet gown covered in pearls and silver thread, specially designed for the Duchess of Windsor in 1948.

Madame Le Bourhis and Monsieur Ferre have spent weeks tracking the dresses down from the four corners of the world. "One of the most wonderful reactions we had was from Tina Turner," says Madame Le Bourhis. "She ordered a beautiful organza ballgown covered in artificial silk flowers for her 50th birthday party. People tend to imagine Tina Turner always wears raunchy little mini-skirts offstage, but Tina told me she really enjoyed changing her look that evening. 'God, I love that dress,' she said. 'It makes me feel like a million dollars but I just had so much fun. Men kept coming up to me all night and asking if they could water my flowers!' "

Leslie Caron, the actress who starred in Gigi and An American in Paris, also has fond memories of a special Dior outfit designed by Marc Bohan which she wore when she attended the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey. "It was this amazing white organza jumpsuit covered in silver mesh and studded in rhinestone," she recalls. "The top was rather revealing, supported by just this pair of straps criss-crossing over my back. Bohan told me that if I was feeling nervous on the night I could slip an organza blouse underneath. But in the end I decided to wear the outfit as it was and it caused a great sensation. It was just the kind of thing you dream of - utterly glamorous, very feminine and a sheer pleasure to wear. For me, that sums up the essence of Dior."

One of the most modern dresses in the tribute collection was worn only last month by 17-year-old debutante Christelle Balleyguier Debre. "The dress was designed by Gianfranco Ferre. It's made of layers of gold-colour tulle overlaid with gold lace and covered in thousands of tiny beads and semi-precious stones. It sounds extravagant, but in fact it looks extremely light."

The growth of the pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) industry has led to the demise of many French couture houses, and those that do still exist have had to invent endless new perfumes in order to survive. The future of haute couture depends upon designers' ability to entice a younger generation to buy their clothes. John Galliano's recent move from Givenchy to Dior suggests that this is what the house is planning to do.

At his debut couture collection, to be shown in Paris in January, Galliano will try to reinvent the spirit of Dior for the next millennium. Nobody is expecting protesters to take to the streets (as they did in 1940s America, chanting "Burn Christian Dior!"), but Galliano's task may be even more daunting yet. The fashion world is definitely looking to Dior's dreadlocked wunderkind to come up with a much-needed new New Look.

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