GRANVILLE, France – Going back to where it all began, a new exhibit in the childhood home of legendary designer Christian Dior in Normandy sheds new light on the house's huge contribution to the silver screen.
The setting also provides rare insight into how a young Dior, who liked to spend time in the garden, became inspired by the Granville landscape and decided to dedicate his life to fashion.
The exhibit features a rare collection: three floors with 50 glittering gowns, worn by actresses including Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth, both on and off the screen from 1942 to the present day.
"It's not something that many people know. For Christian Dior, it was his first job: it all started with cinema costume and dressing up. By the time of his first fashion show in 1947, he'd already done eight films. Now over a 100," Christian Dior museum co-curator Barbara Jeauffroy-Mairet said.
Opening the exhibit is a mannequin in a black "flower stem" dress from Dior's first collection in 1947. It's one that Hayworth bought from what was then her up-and-coming designer friend on the cusp of fame. Standing against a huge photo of Hayworth reclining in an intimate setting with Dior — it's visual proof that from the outset, cinema stars swarmed around the house.
"Hayworth was there at that famous first show on the front row. Actresses couldn't wait to be linked to the house. Dior was, simply, the desired style ... And to this day," ''Stars in Dior" curator Florence Mullen said. True enough: the exhibit testifies to the house's staying power, ending 65 years later with the black tulle bustier worn by French actress Marion Cotillard's at the 2009 Academy Awards.
"It was the theater, the decor in cinema — that's what drove his passion from the beginning: the theatricality in fashion," said Jeauffroy-Mairet.
If fashion nowadays seems theatrical, this was nothing when compared with the catwalk in Dior's lifetime, as archive footage in the exhibit testifies. A projection shows a platinum blond Jayne Mansfield watching a Dior haute couture show demurely from the front row. Without batting an eyelid, Mansfield is passed by one catwalk model dancing down it balletically, and even doing a pirouette.
"Yes, models would dance. In Dior's time, they were taught how to do their job — their posture and walk — through ballet and classical dancing," Mullen said.
The collaborations were, at times, bittersweet: In one room filled with press cuttings, a provocative yet vulnerable Marilyn Monroe poses in a black, backless Dior dress for a photo. It's said to be the last shoot before her tragic death in 1962.
Another actress deeply linked to the house was fashion icon Marlene Dietrich — who loved Christian Dior so much she moved just down the road on Avenue Montaigne.
Telegrams between the couturier and the German-American actress reveal the intimacy of their relationship. In one of the exhibit's highlights, Dietrich's famous dalliances with androgyny are demonstrated by her men's clothing bills that are on display. One receipt for four men's sweaters clocks up an extravagant 19,000 francs (the equivalent of $4,000 today).
But beyond the clothes, the exhibit gives documentary insight into the fickleness of cinema's often capricious leading ladies.
Dietrich once refused to star in Alfred Hitchcock film "Stage Fright" unless her friend made the costumes — on display in the exhibit.
"She said simply, 'No Dior, No Dietrich'! Such was the bond between her and his fashion," Mullen said.
Beyond the exhibit, the museum and surrounding gardens hold many clues as to what drove Dior artistically — both in his theatricality and the aesthetic codes.
Dior, born in 1905, spent a happy childhood living in this three-story house, known as "Les Rhumbs," nestled on the breathtaking Normandy coastline.
A series of personal blows swiftly plunged Dior into the experience of adulthood: his beloved mother died unexpectedly in 1931, and the Wall Street Crash forced the family to sell the house not long after. In later life, it seems he channeled these previous happy memories into his career.
"My life, my style owes everything to the house, the setting, the architecture," he once said.
The annual Granville flower carnival — which still runs today — saw the young boy create floral costumes that he, with great pride, would give his family to wear.
It most probably sowed the seeds of his later creative work.
In another way, the richly colored garden, with scented roses and swathes of Lily of the Valley, shaped the young boy's obsession with floral colors and shapes.
"In this house, you can see all the codes in Dior's fashion," Dior Archive head Soizic Pfaff said.
"The signature color of Dior couture is pale pink — the color the house had been painted. Embroidered Lily of the Valley is another Dior code, taken straight from this garden. You also see the rose and the rose colors from the garden he loved appearing in the clothes. It's all there."
Sadly, Dior, who died in 1957, would never live to see the house — which was turned into a museum in 1987 — brought back to the style he knew.
"Stars in Dior" opens Saturday at the Christian Dior Museum in Granville, Normandy, and runs through Sept. 23. A companion book "Stars in Dior" will be available in France and Britain on May 23, and in other countries including the U.S. in September.