The clouds were uncharacteristically dark, scudding above the hillocks and lowering over the grey stone roof. Only the lilies and jasmine, the lush green leaves, and the deep pink roses confirmed that this solid building was in the “Midi” – the South of France.
But even with the fitful sunlight, Christian Dior was happy. Here was the old country house he had brought back to life. It was far from the Normandy coast where he had been born and raised in his family’s home in Granville. But Le Château de la Colle Noire, as his new country house was named, was a refuge for the designer. In the whirlwind of success, international fame, visits to America, and the ceaseless treadmill of fashion shows, he craved peace and calm.
Who knew on that morning in 1957, sixty years ago, when Tony Armstrong Jones was sent by Vogue to capture Dior in the peace of his house and the glory of his garden, that the young photographer’s images would become a memorial? The designer died suddenly of a heart attack later that year.
The lens man went on to marry Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, and achieved worldwide fame as the photographer Lord Snowdon, remaining active until his death in January this year. But the recent discovery of the rest of the Dior pictures in the Snowdon studio tells us a good deal about the budding British photographer and how he captured the famous French designer in black and white. There is a sweetness and calm, but also an impish enthusiasm from Dior, caught as the camera clicked over the house and its grounds.
“I must tell you how delighted I am with the photographs you did for us in the South of France,” wrote Vogue Editor Audrey Withers in a letter to her young protégé in February 1957. “I think the Dior set is a real achievement, for although such a charming person, he is genuinely shy – and camera shy – and I can imagine that it took you all your tact to break this down.”
Already the art of capturing personality in his camera, rather than just a figure in a landscape, showed the skills of the young photographer. In the stillness of the rocks and the wild wind whirling from Grasse – the world capital of fragrance – we can see Dior’s changing expressions. Snowdon himself, looking back more than half a century later, admitted that he could not remember in detail this brief encounter with the fashion designer of such fame and glory.
“It was one of my first stories for Vogue,” he said, shortly before he died. “Mrs Withers initially wanted the photograph to convert all the genius and achievements of Monsieur Dior with a simple white backdrop!”
“Dior used to visit my studio in the Pimlico Road, but it was decided to take the pictures at his home in the South of France,” continued Snowdon, who stayed the night at La Colle Noire, having lunch and dinner with Dior and his friends.
The young photographer caught the spirit of the couturier among the ancient stones. In his tailored suit, sprightly bow tie, and V-necked cashmere sweater, the portly Dior, just 52 when he died, comes across as a bon vivant with a penchant for classic beauty. Standing half-hidden behind a classical statue of a stone figure in carved drapery (that might have been one of Dior’s couture creations), the designer gives in to his shyness. Yet caught off-guard, his elegant way of smoking a cigarette, his pride in his plants, and his mischievous smile suggest a man who might be exhausted by the vagaries of fashion – but not tired of life.
I have always been interested in Christian’s early years – especially that dilettante period before his bourgeois father’s company went bust in the early 1930s, when the young man opened an art gallery with his friends (even though his mother had set her heart on one of her sons becoming a diplomat).
Being addicted myself to the whimsical work and distinctive drawings of the fashion illustrator Christian Bérard, I wanted to re-envisage his friend Christian Dior as part of a louche artistic colony in Paris between the two world wars. Although much has been written about the designer’s adoration of his mother and a fashion vision built on the past, there was glamour to his “New Look”. It captured an urge to return to femininity after those tough war years and Dior, like all great fashion designers, captured a moment.
Even without referencing his arty friends, I never saw Dior’s vision as sugary, marshmallow sweetness when it came to women. Those models in their shapely, body-conscious “Bar” jackets, with sweeping lengths of skirt, raised the enraged the public because the designer sensed a female urge to abandon mannish, war-time uniforms and fabric rationing. But I see those looks as an expression of strong women making their own choices.
Today’s Artistic Director at Dior, Marie Grazia Chiuri, is the first female designer to have been passed the flame at the maison. She proved from her debut show that she wanted to subsume Christian’s character – his respect for women and his superstitious fascination with Tarot cards – into her collection. Significantly, she started with fencing and jousting as inspiration, saying, “Honestly, with this sport you don’t consider gender because the uniforms are the same for men and women.”
Maria Grazia went on to take a more forceful line about the need to respect the heritage, but to move the house forward, sending out a white slogan T-shirt with the words “Dio(r)evolution” and another with “We Should All Be Feminists”, from the essay by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“Dior stands for femininity – but not the idea that it is still steeped in the 1950s,” Maria Grazia said as she showed me the mood boards and fabric samples from her collection.
“Femininity is not something that ended in the 1950s – it can be modern and contemporary,” she said. “I did the T-shirt with the idea of a Dior revolution and evolution,” she explained.
How can this seventh designer to take the reins at Dior, following John Galliano and Raf Simons as recent famous fashion figures in the role, fit past with present and make sense of the heritage? A fine example of her vision was a super-light, semi-transparent chiffon dress with playing cards embroidered in tiny but dense detail.
Frances Von Hofmannsthal (Snowdon’s youngest daughter) took photographer Jack Davison and model Jane Moseley, who could rub noses with the stately stone statues, to pose in the Dior landscape in the light-as-a-breeze dresses with embroidered Tarot motifs.
“I found it very exciting that Dior was obsessed by signs,” Maria Grazia told me.
I remembered a picture by another famous photographer – Louise Dahl-Wolfe – who had captured a younger Christian Dior in checked waistcoat and open-necked, short-sleeved shirt, playing with his cards, alone in the garden.
The glory of his garden was essential to everything that Christian Dior created – especially the fragrances.
“Miss Dior was born of those Provençal evenings, alive with fireflies, where young jasmine plays a descant to the melody of the night and the land,” the couturier said in 1954.
While François Demachy, Dior’s Perfumer-Creator, says of the Miss Dior fragrance: “Grasse, jasmine, and the May rose provide exceptional olfactory results. In terms of powers and subtlety, no other flower can assume their role.”
The distinctive scent of the South of France was the reason that the House of Dior decided to buy back the Château de la Colle Noire in the new millennium, at that time abandoned with a Sleeping Beauty briar of trees choking the architecture. It was brought back to life and inaugurated in May 2016.
Nobility is not a word often used to define fashion. But there was something of that elevated spirit in Christian Dior’s home, now restored to its original 18th-century rural solidity. The furnishings Dior chose were grand: 18th-century elegance in a Louis Quinze lacquered bed; or Directoire and Empire style in the bathroom with its marble bath and copper basin. Let’s call the Christian Dior vision of his restored country home “neo-Provençal”.
There are two things that cannot be conveyed in photographs – both old and new – of la Colle Noire. The first is that scent of summer flowers bathed in a particular Mediterranean sunlight. The other is an underlying tough spirit to the garden that Dior’s sister Catherine helped Christian to create.
The designer’s sibling, 12 years his junior, has rarely been present in the Christian Dior story. Yet she was a genuine heroine, having worked for the French Resistance throughout the war, ending up in Ravensbrück – the German concentration camp. She was released in 1945, starved and exhausted, just two years before her brother “Tian” – her nickname for Dior – launched the “New Look”.
She retreated to the family home near Grasse, the location being the reason that Christian had bought the Château de la Colle Noire. Catherine's recovery was through flowers, which were her passion, her therapy, and ultimately her life’s career as she worked as a flower trader and was gardening well into her 70s. She died in 2008 at age 91.
So little is known about Catherine and her relationship with her brother. But she is the original Miss Dior.
I always knew that there was a backbone of steel behind the lush New Look and the fragrance lingering in the air.
This article was originally published in the third, Spring 2017 issue of Luncheon magazine.