One look from Dior’s Autumn-Winter collection, which was presented in July, comprises a top and trousers in blue taffeta. Its individual elements present a synthesis of references and blur the boundaries between casual and formal wear: while the trousers evoke twentieth-century industrial workwear, the top’s cut and embroidered motifs recall both men’s court dress tailoring and women’s bodices of the eighteenth century. The ensemble forms part of Flight a la Française, one of the collection’s eight themes, where, as artistic director Raf Simons explained, “the flight suit meets the traditional dress; bodices and embroidery transposed at times, zippers and silk taffeta utilised.” Like his description, the overall collection reads as a sketch of the designer’s creative process, a collation of transhistorical stylistic and technical sources. And as I viewed the collection I got the impression of being carried across history, never remaining in any one place or time.
Simons’ first collection for Dior in 2012 featured several references to Christian Dior’s 1940s and 1950s creations, such as the Bar jacket. His tendency to look backwards is a logical means of establishing continuity between his work and the historic fashion house. As in politics, the field of fashion has shown recurrently how comfort is found in historicism and restoration. And in one way, Simons was charged with restoring the house after John Galliano’s dismissal in February 2011. As Mark Holgate remarked of Simons’ first collection: “Dior, an esteemed component of the French cultural establishment, and therefore of national pride, is relying on the belief that Simons will be the designer to rejuvenate its sense of beauty, and—a factor not to be underestimated—declare its standing in the world.”
These workings are not unlike Christian Dior’s own brand of historicism when he opened the house in the late 1940s, at a moment when France sought to re-attain its place in fashion and politics, both left shaken after the Second World War. As Alexandra Palmer has written, “Dior designed a contrived and reproducible vision of a new elite French woman that drew on hybrid aristocratic European roots. The Dior woman recalled the nobility of eighteenth-century France, the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque.” Yet Dior’s Bar Suit, with its clear reference to the structured silhouettes of previous centuries and apparent departure from the immediate past, must have appeared very new to contemporary audiences. Such examples illustrate perfectly Walter Benjamin’s observation that “[f]ashion has an eye for what is up-to-date, wherever it moves in the jungle of what was. It is the tiger’s leap into that which has gone before.”
Likewise, Simons clearly explicated his trans-directional leaping last July: “I was very interested in the process of finding something extremely modern through something very historical; particularly through a juxtaposition of different themes.” The resulting collection presented allusions to various types of garments, such as the courtly justacorps, and silhouettes from the eighteenth century, 1910s, 1920s, and 1950s. These were not random selections however, and Simons went beyond “historical inspiration” to question “how the foundations of one era are based on another, how the future is based on the past.” Simons’ leaping was more like time travel, and he sought to infuse the present with the past, and vice versa. This dialectical vision extended to the various processes used, and Simons created new techniques, such as the “resin punctuated fringe” that replaced beadwork on his version of a 1920s dress. And he continued to rethink Dior’s designs, themselves linked to earlier periods. Simons’ “form language” challenges traditional linear timelines of fashion creation, a major departure from the days when silhouettes progressed strictly from one season to the next. Most fascinating, he has exposed his creative practice, which seeks to question the mechanisms of the fashion system.
‘Across Time’ (2014) DiorMag, 7 July, http://www.dior.com/magazine/tw_ct/News/Across-Time
Benjamin, W. (1940) ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, note XIV, http://seansturm.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/benjamin-theses-on-the-philosophy-of-history.pdf
Holgate, M. (2012) ‘Monsieur Simons: Raf Simons at Dior’, Vogue, 14 November. http://www.vogue.com/magazine/article/monsieur-simons-raf-simons-at-dior/#
Palmer, A. (2009) Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise (1947-57), London, V&A, p. 32.