Lady Christian Smith and her Love of Dior

By Clarissa Gambuzza
As several Christian Dior pieces owned by Lady Christian Smith are offered in the upcoming Recollections of Places Past, Property from the Estate of Sir John and Lady Smith sale in London on 9 July, we look at Dior's arrival in London, the changing shape of female silhouette and the revolutionary designer's enduring legacy.

C hristian Dior (1905-1957) is recognised as one of the most celebrated designers of the twentieth century, and is credited with brilliantly reinventing French style. Dior introduced abundant and luxurious designs that changed the course of fashion, and he famously called this innovative approach his ‘New Look’.

Although his name was made in Paris, it was not long until his creations were sought after in other major cities of the world, and Christian Dior Ltd. London was founded in 1952, an outlet for his pioneering designs and fabrics and a new stage for an explosion of colour in post-war Britain.

The toast of London society soon became frequent clients, and his position as the 'master' of the female silhouette was secured. To wear a Dior gown was mark of inherent style, effortless glamour and exquisite craftsmanship – marrying the traditional techniques of the Parisian Couture ateliers, with a brave new vision of fashion for the modern woman. It was this approach that captivated Lady Christian Smith, and she acquired several pieces by the designer including the red chiné silk evening gown offered in the sale.

Installation view of Christian Dior Designer of Dreams at the V&A, London, 2019. © Adrien Dirand.

Certainly, the retrospective of work by the designer at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London is a testament to this, with garments that span the life of the house, from Christian Dior's own early works, through to the Yves Saint Laurent years and the eventual evolution of the brand under John Galliano and its current Creative Director, Kim Jones.

Yves Saint Laurent in London, 11 November 1958, preparing for the following day's Dior Autumn collection show to an audience including Princess Margaret, at Blenheim Palace. Getty Images.

The young Yves Saint Laurent was personally chosen by Christian Dior to work alongside him, and to be his successor after his death. Of working with Dior, Saint-Laurent explained: “He taught me the basis of my art. Whatever was to happen next, I never forgot the years I spent at his side”.

He became the artistic director of Dior in 1957 at the age of 21, and continued to produce magnificent creations inspired by the late designer, developing his own personal style and presenting his first collection in 1958, to rave reviews.

“Yves Saint Laurent is young, but he is an immense talent. In my last collection, I consider him to be the father of thirty-four out of the 180 designs. I think the time has come to reveal it to the press. My prestige won’t suffer from it.” — Christian Dior.

This charcoal coloured wool suit is a classic representation of one of Christian Dior’s most successful creations, much copied and lauded and as wearable today as it was when it was made. Composed of a fabulously preserved dress and matching jacket and acquired by Lady Smith herself from Harrods and then altered to fit, the suit perfectly represents her exquisite taste and Dior’s superlative tailoring.

“You can wear black at any time. You can wear it at any age. You may wear it for almost any occasion; a 'little black frock' is essential to a woman's wardrobe.”
— Christian Dior

This bell-shaped evening coat was one of Christian Dior’s innovations at the time and its elegant form remains iconic today.

The incredible quality of the silk makes for a glowing metallic colour and prefect for evening wear. It illustrates not only the superb technical skill of its maker but the fact that the atelier was using the very best quality fabrics in the production of the garments.

“In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable.”
— Christian Dior

Yves Saint Laurent’s beautiful and elaborate dress is a hallmark of Dior’s fashion engineering. Nature was Christian Dior’s passion and he often decorated his garments using stunning motifs from his own garden. This evening gown epitomises this passion and presents us with a gorgeous dress overflowing with vibrant red chrysanthemum flowers, the colour of which he was incredibly fond of: "Bright reds — scarlet, pillar-box red, crimson or cherry — are very cheerful and youthful. There is certainly a red for everyone.”

The narrow waistline enhanced by a stylised bow, the A-line shape and multiple layers of luxuriant fabric create a dress of real theatre. The intricate sultry red flowers make this piece stand out, while its rich layering and distinguishable components turn it into a masterpiece of the couturier’s art.

Flowers were more than just a decoration to Dior. His most innovative ideas were inspired by rich gardens and the natural world. Not only is this visible in the use of various types of exuberant flowers in his textile designs as in the present gown, but also in the forms of his creations, where he would often look at foliate shapes, such as the petals of an inverted flower as a source of inspiration.

“After women, flowers are the most lovely thing God has given to the world.”
— Christian Dior

This fascination with form was a fundamental part of his ‘New Look’. Dior’s salons were decorated with delightful flower arrangements and his own garden was a constant source for his creativity, much as Monet’s Giverny. This dress illustrates marvellously all of the above.

Intriguingly the words ‘Maureen – Boheme II’ appears in the bodice. Probably the name of the ‘mannequin’ who modelled the gown at possibly the fashion show which Lady Smith attended. Presumably a show that was decorated with an abundance of flowers combining Dior’s greatest passions — fashion and nature

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