Sunday, 9 June 2019

Dior at the V&A - the toiles

My recent day trip to London was a long and busy day. Going to Swinging London at the Fashion and Textile Museum was only part of it; the main reason for the visit was to see Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A.

The view from the entrance queue

It did not disappoint. There was so much to see that I can't cram it all into one post (don't worry, I'll spare you most of the almost 300 photographs that I took!), so I'll start with what was my favourite room.

Part of the 'Ateliers' section of the exhibition

As another lady there observed to me, this was where you could tell who among the visitors were dressmakers. The people who had just come to look at beautiful clothes (and there's nothing wrong with that) either gave it a cursory once-over, or just said, "Eh?" and walked straight through. However those with practical experience of putting garments together stood there and gawped in slack-jawed wonderment for a while, before starting to examine pieces in detail.

The display extends round all four walls

All of the garments in the room are toiles: prototype garments made in plain cotton to test out a design before it is made up in costly couture fabric. My toiles, if I make them, tend to be fashioned from old bedlinen or fabric bought at 70% off in sales (and believe me, the pattern usually gives a good clue as to why it didn't sell well!), so seeing all of these in plain elegant white fabric was quite a revelation.

The effect is stunning

Something I read for Masters research* suggested that until recently couture houses did not keep any of the clothes they created, just the sketches and press releases. The earliest of the toiles on display here date from John Galliano's spring/summer 2007 collection, which made me wonder if Dior had only started the process of retaining the toiles from then. So even though the coat dress on the left in the picture below looks very 1950s, both it and the dress beside it are from autumn/winter 2018.

Toiles from 2007, 2009, 2015 and 2018

Going far further back than the 1950s, I loved the way that the bodice in the centre of this group echoes the styles of the 1660s, namely this dress.

Actually it dates from spring/summer 2009

The mannequins are stacked up to three high, but the mirrored ceiling makes the display look taller. It also gives a glimpse of some details which cannot be seen from ground level, such as the neckline of this dress.

Look 22 toile, spring/summer 2009

Even the buttons are beautifully covered.

Look 12 toile, spring/summer 2010

Details such as buttonholes are marked on, even if they are purely decorative.

Look 24 toile, spring/summer 2010

Different weights of fabric are used, to match the type of garment and the couture fabric it will be made from; ranging from soft and sheer to crisp and highly structured.

l - look 17, spring/summer 2010, r - look 15, autumn/winter 2009

Even the belt and buckle are cut from cotton

Where the piece is to be embellished with beading and/or embroidery, the design is either printed out and pinned in place, or drawn directly onto the fabric.

Look 7 toile, spring/summer 2007

Sometimes it is possible to match the toile to a garment on display elsewhere in the exhibition.

Look 9, spring/summer 2007

Look 1, spring/summer 2007

Some of the toiles are very plain indeed. The final example is not an exact match, although the toile and the dress are from the same collection. It does however demonstrate how an apparently simple dress shape may be a setting for a particularly luxurious fabric or embellishment.

Look 60 toile and look 34 dress, autumn/winter 2018

The silk dress is made using a technique called velours au sable, which creates localised areas of velvet on the fabric. It is displayed in my second-favourite section of the exhibition, 'The Garden'. But that is a topic for another post.

* - Palmer, A. (2005). Vintage whores and vintage virgins: Second hand fashion in the twenty-first century. In Palmer, A. & Clark, H. (Eds.), Old clothes, new looks: Second hand fashion (pp. 197-214). Oxford, United Kingdom: Berg.


  1. You would find me in that room, too.

    1. Thank you Lynn. I think that I would find a lot of the people I know in there.