Faber & Faber, 2021
Following her acclaimed biography of Coco Chanel in 2010, writer and former Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Justine Picardie visited the Dior archive in Paris and subsequently Christian Dior’s childhood home in Normandy with a view to writing his biography. But the house on the cliff top in Normandy held the ghosts not only of Christian but of Catherine, his younger sister by twelve years – an extraordinary woman whose story is little known. Intrigued, Picardie chose Catherine as her subject instead.
I’m always interested in biographies of forgotten women of history, but in this case, Catherine left so little record of her life that the result is a biography whose subject is largely absent, consistently overshadowed by the parallel but rarely intersecting life of her brother. We’re told that Catherine and Christian were close, but their stories interact infrequently besides sharing homes in Provence and Paris at various times in their adult lives.
From a young age, Christian fostered a keen interest in art and design, fuelling an ambition which couldn’t have been further from joining the family fertiliser business. But his father was sympathetic, backing Christian and a friend to start an art gallery – though unfortunately this didn’t do well and when his father lost everything in the Great Depression and the family relocated to Provence, Christian started to earn his keep by selling fashion illustrations.
This ultimately led to a career with the atelier of Lucien Lelong, during which Christian helped champion the couture industry through the Nazi occupation of Paris. Then, after the war, he received backing to start his own fashion house, launching his debut collection in 1947 with the famous “New Look.”
Catherine, on the other hand, showed little or no interest in the glamorous world of fashion. Instead, she was a key figure in the French Resistance during the war, working tirelessly for the cause and putting herself at enormous risk, resulting in her arrest and deportation to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, before returning to Paris following liberation, her life irrevocably scarred.
Christian met her from the train, shocked to find her too emaciated to eat the welcome meal he had prepared. Subsequently, she was reunited with her former partner, with whom she went on to establish and run a flower business.
Picardie’s extensive account of life at Ravensbrück is informative and harrowing, but is pieced together from accounts left by Catherine’s fellow inmates, not from Catherine herself. Similarly, Picardie’s gift for bringing history to life meant that I learned an enormous amount about the French Resistance and the extent of collaboration with the Nazis, the landscape against which Catherine operated - but Catherine herself remains largely unknowable.
Christian’s story, and the very particular wartime backdrop in which he flourished, is intriguing. I have an interest in the relationship between fashion and politics (see blogs on Audrey Withers and Mary Quant), and it seems that occupied Paris is grounds for an alternative perspective.
The couture industry thrived under the Nazi occupation, successfully resisting attempts to move it to Berlin on the grounds that the idea of fashion embodied French culture – something that by most accounts they were out to destroy.
Indeed, the Germans actively supported the industry, and many French society figures invited Nazi officers to their soirees. The extent of collaboration in Parisian society is an eye-opener in this book, with French support for the “Aryanisation” of the fashion industry not uncommon – including eradicating Jewish-owned fashion houses.
With the new Nazi clients as well as the wealthy wives of black marketeers, revenue for the industry rose from 67 million francs in 1941 to an astonishing 463 million francs in 1943. There are surely few industries which can boast this increase during wartime – and this one is entirely unexpected.
In 1945, an exhibition to promote Parisian fashion industry, Theatre de la Mode, went on international tour as if war wasn’t raging internationally.
And a comment about Diana Cooper – who was married to British Ambassador Duff Cooper – puts the priorities amongst fashionable society into perspective: she was apparently “less forgiving about people who bored her than those who had collaborated with the Germans.”
Here we see fashion as an expression of a victorious elite and as such, probably the only element of French culture to which the Nazis showed deference.
This certainly sits in sharp contrast to the “utility fashion” expounded by the wartime editor of British Vogue, Audrey Withers (see Julie Summers’ excellent biography) in collaboration with the British government, which strived to make pared-down clothes made from cheap materials fashionable, serving the dual purpose of facilitating rationing and making fashionistas feel that they were helping the war effort.
To what extent Christian Dior tolerated the Nazi occupation remains opaque - there’s no evidence that his learning of Catherine’s plight at Ravensbrück changed his thinking about what was on his doorstep. But he was certainly keen on extravagance, as he famously demonstrated with his first collection under his own name in 1947.
What became known as the ration-defying New Look came to define post-war fashion for those who could afford it (very few) – but it went down badly with many, attracting negative press and street protests in the US when Christian travelled there to promote his collection.
The objections were two-fold: first, that the collection was tone-deaf in an era of austerity and second, that its corseted, restrictive aesthetic returned women to an era when they were seen as decorative objects. As Coco Chanel put it, “Dior doesn’t dress women - he upholsters them.”
A quote from Dior’s own memoir helps us to understand his position: “The maintenance of the tradition of fashion is in the nature of an act of faith … In a century which attempts to tear the heart out of every mystery, fashion guards its secret well, and is the best possible proof that there is still magic abroad.”
Fashion does ostensibly offer escape, but I prefer to think of it as either an exaggeration of or a reaction against the prevailing sentiment at any given time: it’s inextricably linked with expression of either ambition or dissent.
And what of Catherine? I’m not sure that she thought that there was still magic abroad after her experiences. The recently relaunched perfume Miss Dior was named after Catherine – but apparently only because she happened to walk into the room at the moment when Christian was searching for a name, which feels like a bit of a let-down in the context of this book.
And to top everything - Catherine inherited 40 million francs of unpaid government taxes on Christian’s early death at the age of 52, which meant that she was landed with the job of selling everything he had owned. Her feelings about this remain undocumented.