Christian Dior Fall 2019 Couture

Behind the scenes at Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri is doing some deep thinking about clothes—not just in regards to how they appear and what we like and dislike about them, but why. This became a subject of fascination for her after reading Bernard Rudofsky, the Austrian-American writer and contemporary of Christian Dior, who penned the 1947 essay “Are Clothes Modern?” which accompanied the MoMA exhibition of the same name. Rudofsky posited that many conventions—long considered inseparable from dress and therefore never questioned—are, in fact, useless, unbeautiful, and even harmful. He used pointy-toed shoes that misshape the foot as an example, and he designed a group of laced flat sandals as a sort of riposte. They inspired the sock shoes on Chiuri’s runway today.

Woman-friendly is a somewhat pejorative term in fashion—or rather, it has been. It suggests that ease comes at the expense of beauty and allure. In some way, Chiuri set out to prop up or redeem the concept with her Fall 2019 haute couture collection.

She used architecture, which was Rudofsky’s subject, as a foundation. Clothes, Chiuri suggested at a preview, are our first home: We live in them. They should be a comfort—hence those shoes. But this is the couture we’re talking about, so there was nothing meager about any of it, even if she chose to work almost exclusively in black. In fact, Chiuri could’ve done the collection all in white and the effect would’ve been nearly the same. By erasing color as a consideration, she made construction and silhouette, texture and detail her focus.

Like Rudofsky, Chiuri believes in efficiency of design. She made the point with the peplos (ancient Greek for T-shirt dress) that opened the show, and the many more luxuriously simple pieces that followed, like a black chenille caftan and matching coat, and a black silk-velvet peplos. But that’s not to say she neglected Dior’s famous architecture. It’s only that her Bar silhouettes were effortless and modern, constructed without resorting to old-fashioned padding. Keeping with that notion of enchanting weightlessness, veiling became one of her primary conceits after she discovered a binder of old swatches in the house’s extensive archives. But Chiuri went far beyond head veils by Stephen Jones, styling fine mesh tops under the bodices of evening dresses and layering mesh skirts of different consistencies to create a diaphanous effect. Her point: The body is the thing, though the results were elegant and discreet, not vulgar.

Chiuri commissioned Penny Slinger, a London-born American artist of the 1960s who practiced a sort of feminist surrealism, to design the set. Slinger was more or less elided from art history books (not unlike Hilma Af Klint generations before her, who had a similar interest in goddess energy). But the spotlight has recently found Slinger; she’s the subject of a new documentary film, and an exhibition of her work recently opened in London. At Dior’s Avenue Montaigne headquarters, which will soon undergo renovations, Slinger’s photographs of the natural elements decorate the walls, and a tree of life spirals up the central staircase, which was also decorated with one of her caryatids.

The caryatids of Ancient Greece and more modern Paris architecture are a perfect metaphor for this collection, functioning as they do as both decorative elements and integral structures. This was Chiuri’s most confident couture outing to date, and also her most exquisite.