Homage to the fashion dolls of the 14th century? Dior’s couture collection during a pandemic is sized-down, dreamy, and nymphs-of-the-woods unreal
As expected, Dior’s presentation of its autumn/winter 2020 haute couture collection comes in the form of a film. The fashion film, not a new medium, has always been supplementary in the communication of themes of collections, not the main means in which ideas are conveyed. During a time when social distancing is not only encouraged, but mandated in some places, fashion shows are mostly cancelled. An audience is no longer expected. Yet, the story of fashion has to be told. And tell Dior does. The film is otherworldly and the clothes are created in miniature on a doll—diminutive dressmaker forms, in fact—and then transported in a doll house to its potential clients—in the woods.
In the 14th century, when fashion was the domain of the royal courts, dolls, not little tailor dummies, were once exchanged among the ladies of aristocratic households. This was before the advent of the fashion magazine. These dolls were dressed in the latest styles; they showed what the latest trends were in France, and were sent across Europe. According to Marianne Thesander in The Feminine Ideal, “the earliest fashion dolls date from the late fourteenth century when Isabella of Bavaria sent fully equipped dolls to the Queen of England to demonstrate the fashions at the court of Burgundy.”
Dior’s film, Le Mythe Dior (The Dior Myth), by the Italian director Matteo Garrone, is less about history than mythology. The couture dresses in miniature (they aren’t tiny as all of them are taller than the seamstresses’ forearm) are fitted on the mannequins and sent to prospective customers, in this case, nymphs. The setting is some idyllic unknown woods, with a verdant sumptuousness that nymphs deserve to dwell in. Nymphs are from ancient Greek folklore and they are thought to personify nature, and were represented by lovely maidens. The film depicts what appears to be the Naiads, freshwater nymphs; the Meliae, tree nymphs; and others of a mysterious divine retinue, including the odd, not particularly lustful satyr.
The dresses are transported in a trunk that depicts a building, one that bears an uncanny resemblance to the maison-as-dress shown in Dior’s haute couture autumn/winter collection last year. This trunk is carried by two porters who also serve as salesmen who, talented as they are, could take measurements of the nymphs—in one case of a woman who lives in a conch, in the nude. If she doesn’t need clothes then, why suddenly the desire for haute couture? The nymphs very quickly get the dresses they chose, and the rest of the film shows the delight of the nymphs wearing them, one frolicking in, strangely, a bamboo forest! We were expecting Zhang Ziyi’s Yu Jiaolong character in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to fly among the trees!
There are ten gowns in the trunk. It isn’t clear how Dior will sell an entire couture collection of a reported 37 looks (the last, numbered 77) based on ten red-carpet dresses. These featured frocks seem at odds with the present mood, when large public gatherings are disallowed and when all award ceremonies have, as far as we’re aware, been cancelled or postponed. Even weddings are given the pause. It isn’t certain who Dior thinks might need to be attired in this manner now, or in the next six months. Grecian dresses, poufy gowns, and tiered confections may be pretty to the evening wear seeker, but unless she’s collecting, there is scant reason to buy them presently.
If fashion is about dreams, perhaps Dior is creating one. It encourages the couture wearer to look into groves and grottoes, marshes and riverbanks to see nymphs transform from wearing their near-naked non-fashions to gowns with a post-war, ready-to-live-again sense of excess. A woman can be as ethereally beautiful as a nymph. And then you realise that the porters (or are they bellboys?) look like they are of the present era, and the dresses for a Trump-era prom. The magic is no more.
Screen grabs: Le Mythe Dior