Paris Haute Couture Week is usually a glitz-filled extravaganza that feels like a combination of a party at Jay Gatsby’s and the red carpet of the Academy Awards. Everyone from celebrities, influencers, socialites, journalists, and fashion heavyweights descend on French capitol vying for ultra-coveted invitations to the main event: the haute couture fashion shows. Haute couture translates to “high sewing”, with garments created by hand from the highest quality and most expensive fabrics, produced by expert craftspeople that employ time consuming, detailed, and hand executed techniques. This year’s couture week is understandably, very different than the traditional model of the fashion shows we have been used to. Designers have adapted to the guidelines of the pandemic while staying true to their vision, and have in turn, brought Couture Week 2020 to us by way of digital shows and public outdoor displays.
When I first watched the digital Christian Dior Fall 2020 Couture show, I was absolutely astounded by everything I saw. Through Maria Grazia Chiuri’s vision, who has been the creative director of the couturier since 2016 and the first woman to lead the label in its nearly 70-year history, audiences were transported to a fairytale wooded-world filled with mermaids, nymphs, satyrs, and of course, haute couture French fashion. The art direction was brilliant, and its influence from art history is undeniable.
Titled Le Mythe Dior, the show begins with scenes from the atelier creating doll-sized dresses and fitting them to mannequins. The location cuts to a mythical forrest, with two male couriers carrying a large trunk of the miniature dresses and unveiling them to the fanciful protagonists we meet along the way, then modeling the garments at the end. Watch the digital show below:
I mean, jaw dropping right?! Now let’s get into the art history of it all. As I watched, I instantly recognized so many references to storied paintings I have learned about or seen over the years. Two paintings in particular I have a special connection to, because I included them in my graduate school thesis, which was on the 19th century British artist, John William Waterhouse.
The first art-historical reference I identified were the seven redheaded beauties frolicking in the river:
screenshots from Vouge.com
These women come from Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse. The story behind the painting comes from Ovid‘s writings, and goes that, while accompanying Jason on the Argo seeking the Golden Fleece, Hylas was sent to find fresh water and found a pond occupied by Naiads. They lured Hylas into the water and he disappeared. This scene has appeared in countless paintings over the years, but the Waterhouse painting is certainly the most famous. While Hylas himself is absent in the Dior presentation, the inspiration is apparent when you see the comparison to the painting.
The solitary man in the next scene in Narcissus, the young beauty who fell in love with his own refection.
The scene in the Dior show, I would say, is a direct reference to the Waterhouse painting. The story of Echo and Narcissus is a classically tragic one of unfulfilled love. Echo, cursed by Hera with the ability to only repeat what she heard, fell in love with Narcissus, but since he was in love with his own refection could not return her affection. She was so upset by her rejection that she withdrew from life and wasted away until only her whisper remained. Narcissus continued to stare at his reflection until he died. While Echo is absent in the Dior show, and Narcussis does not choose a garment, it’s interesting that his character was chosen to be represented, since his presence doesn’t really “add” to the story line, and doesn’t have a female companion that chooses a gown to display to the audience.
Moving on from Waterhouse, I recognized the tree-like man and woman to be Apollo and Daphne. There are many works that tell this story, including one by Waterhouse, but none more famous than Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble sculpture.
The mythological story goes that, after Apollo mocked the love-god Eros, and in retaliation he shot out two arrows: one of gold and one of lead. The gold one to Apollo to inject a passionate love for the river nymph Daphne, and the lead arrow to Daphne, instilling aversions and hatred for Apollo. He followed her everywhere, and when he was just about to catch up to her, she was transformed into a laurel tree. The version of the story in Dior’s show has a happier ending, as we see the two lovers kissing, and both take on a half human/half tree form.
There were three characters that I couldn’t recognize however: the woman in the shell, the woman as the statue, and the woman with the satyr. Also, is the mermaid anyone more than just a mermaid? If anyone reading this has a hunch please let me know in the comments!!
The show comes to a close by presenting the protagonists in their chosen dresses and continuing their fanciful activities. Even though only six dresses were highlighted in the show, you can see the full collection a read a great article from Vouge.com. I am infinitely appreciative of how the Dior team was able to reimagine these mythological themes, that have been reinterpreted and presented in countless ways over the last 2,000+ years, into something updated and enchanting for a modern audience to enjoy!
screenshots from YouTube.com