Daily, as a ritual, I read a book on the train entering and returning from the city. Usually I read a book set in the past, and usually fiction, although this month it is Christian Dior’s autobiography: Dior by Dior.
The train delivers me to one of two jobs. At one, I volunteer to construct Victorian sets for early 20th century plays. I am surrounded with petroleum oil lamps and a costume closet of lace petticoats. With a thrust towards being elsewhere, I try on a pair of above-the-elbow gloves.
“One of the strangest facts about a couturier’s profession – which the uninitiated find the most incomprehensible – is that a fashion is always decidedly out of season. The winter collection is worked upon in the season of lilac and cherry-blossom, the summer collection when the leaves or the first snow is falling. We couturiers are like poets. A little nostalgia is necessary for us. We like to dream of summer in the middle of winter and vice versa.” – Christian Dior
Dior is filled with strategies of being elsewhere. The book details the life of a humble man designing a fashion line, his name becoming synonymous with the industry after his first ever collection called The New Look, designed at the age of forty.
Christian Dior is an old fashioned man. This is known from his opinion about hats, for example. At a time, even 1946, when hats were worn less, Dior refused to show a collection without them. “Personally I consider a woman without a hat is not completely dressed…’How pretty you look today!’ often means no more than: ‘How well your hat suits you!’”
A structural backbone to the fashion collection is described: from the first brainstormed sketches to the final runway showing and later, appointments conducted with department store buyers. The autobiography is a diaristic preservation of decorum. Sacred rules punctuate the book, from how to scent the couture salon before a runway show, to a seating arrangement, to correct proportion of vacation in the country to industriousness in the city, enumerated by threats of throwing this or that dress into the waste paper basket.
Even the dresses live by ceremonious rules.
“I scribble everywhere, in bed, in my bath, at meals, in my car, on foot, in the sun, in electric light, by day, and by night. Bed and bath, where one is not conscious, so to speak, of one’s body, are particularly favourable to inspiration; here one’s spirit is at ease.” – Christian Dior
The decorum of writing struck me recently in a folded image of orange-gloved hands, holding pencil and paper, within a crowded subway car as part of Moyra Davey’s ongoing photographic series called Subway Writers from 2011. The series documents people writing in the subway. From the slight blur and close crop, the image has a covert nature. Photographs also appear within Davey’s oeuvre of readers in transit. Sometimes, her work operates through the sending and receiving of mailed photographs and letters, as well as the reading and displaying of these correspondences.
Moyra Davey, Orange Gloves, 2012, From the Subway Writers, C-print, 12 x 17.5 inches, tape, postage ink
Christian Dior knows best that images have the possibility of bringing lost details into new circulation, a dropped hemline, a padded waist. And until the final showing of a new collection – partially resurrected past – he guards his world against prying eyes.
He writes, “In every direction, there are signs that the new collection is being prepared. This happy world of wool and silk is sternly guarded against intruders. Whenever there is a rumor that a stranger is approaching, veils of white toile are flung over everything, covering the new materials and obscuring the accessories. The busy workroom is transformed in an instant into a peaceful deserted salon.”
At one point in the autobiography, Dior stops short of describing a dress rehearsal and allows a stranger’s perspective. The chosen stranger was a person who had never entered the couture world before. It is to this outsider that Dior submits his white toile and muslin secrecy.
The narrative continues from this outside voice. “When I first reached the landing on the first floor, I lost myself in white muslin. Successfully evading this first barrage of snow, I had to overcome a second, through which I was firmly but courteously rebuffed by a disembodied hand.”
In Davey’s photographs writers and readers are seen existing elsewhere, their head in a book or correspondence. The outsider’s voice is not shared, we are rebuffed. To see a photograph of a letter being written, no matter on what and to whom, reminds me that I would like to write a letter. Whether or not I really have the desire to write, the image provides a homesickness obliquely resonant with its original definition. Nostalgia originated as a purportedly deadly medical condition from the English Civil War, the term with which soldiers were diagnosed when suffering symptoms of endlessly audible echo leftover from the clamorous battle.