Roses of the Resistance: Justine Picardie on Catherine Dior

Roses of the Resistance: Justine Picardie on Catherine Dior

S otheby’s is teaming up with Monnaie de Paris and Dior for the sale of a unique, exquisitely made gold coin that pays homage to the Miss Dior perfume. Designed by Joaquin Jimenez, general minter of Monnaie de Paris, it features the shape of the first fragrance bottle that Christian Dior created in 1947 and is embossed with a bouquet of roses. Weighing 2 kg (4.4 lbs) and estimated at €200,000–300,000, it is the first coin that the French Mint is presenting at auction.

MONNAIE DE PARIS DIOR GOLD COIN. ESTIMATE: €200,000–300,000

Justine Picardie, author of Miss Dior – an historical book about Christian Dior’s younger sister, Catherine, the siblings’ relationship, the German occupation of France during the Second World War and Dior’s first collection – has traced the symbolism behind the iconic scent.

“The fragrance was famously described by Christian Dior as the scent of love and, for me, it represents his love for his sister, a love of freedom and a belief in beauty as a manifestation of civilization that can still prevail after the ugliness of war,” Picardie says.

Justine Picardie, author of Miss Dior, A Story of Courage and Couture ©Oliver Holms

Picardie, former editor of British Harper’s Bazaar, became intrigued by Catherine’s life after being invited to look into Dior’s archives following the publication of her previous book, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life. “I was talking to one of the archivists at La Colle Noire, Christian Dior’s home in Provence, and he mentioned that Catherine had lived nearby and grown roses, which were a key ingredient for Miss Dior, and that she’d been in the French Resistance, which I thought was extraordinary,” Picardie recalls.

Catherine Dior

Picardie extensively researched Christian and Catherine’s childhood at Villa Les Rhumbs in Granville, Normandy, and how Catherine worked for the Resistance under the code name ‘Caro’. After being involved in the Resistance’s activities in the south of France, in 1944 Catherine fled to her brother’s Parisian apartment on Rue Royale to seek refuge. However, that summer she was arrested by the Gestapo on Place du Trocadéro and deported to the women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück, in northern Germany, and later sent to the slave-labour site Torgau.

“What was truly remarkable for me in the Ravensbrück archives was discovering how these women would secretly draw or embroider tiny roses as a symbol of resistance to being dehumanised by the Nazi regime,” says Picardie, who visited Ravensbrück twice.

“There’s a rose garden in Ravensbrück that was planted by survivors who returned there after the end of the war and planted roses in memory of their sisters, mothers, daughters and friends who had died there. These roses, called Résurrection roses, still grow there on what had been a mass grave.”

Flowers played an important role in Catherine’s life. Upon returning to Paris and moving into Christian’s apartment with her lover Hervé des Charbonneries in 1945, she gained a licence to trade in cut flowers and became a flower dealer at Les Halles market. According to Picardie, the couple sold “fresh flowers grown in Provence to florists in Paris”.

Catherine and Hervé des Charbonneries after the war. Photo: Courtesy Collection Christian Dior Parfums, Paris

Despite never being a fashion muse for her brother, Catherine became associated with the Miss Dior fragrance that was launched in 1947, the same year as the Dior couture brand’s debut ‘New Look’ collection. Picardie recounts how Christian was pondering what name to give his first perfume, whose ingredients include Lily of the Valley, when Catherine walked into the room and his muse Mitzah Bricard exclaimed: “Tiens! Voilà Miss Dior!”

After her brother’s death in 1957, Catherine closed her business in Paris and moved to Les Naÿssès, the Provencal farmhouse that she had inherited from her father in the Var. There, she cultivated roses and jasmine until nearly the end of her life at the age of 90. She also played a pivotal role in maintaining Dior’s creative legacy.

Catherine Dior harvesting May roses at Les Nayssès estate in Callian.

“When Christian Dior died, he left Catherine in charge of his heritage and legacy and called her his moral heir in his will,” Picardie says. “She kept everything he designed for her and all his drawings. And she was responsible for the establishment of the first Christian Dior museum, the Musée Christian Dior Granville, in what had been their family home.”

Catherine’s resilience and independence continue to provide inspiration for the Dior brand today. Maria Grazia Chiuri, Christian Dior’s first female artistic director, named the ‘Caro’ handbag after Catherine’s Resistance code name. She also paid tribute to her in the spring/summer 2020 collection presented at Longchamp racecourse, where a botanical garden was created with 170 trees.

“I loved Maria Grazia’s show that was inspired by Catherine and the idea of a woman-gardener,” Picardie remarks. “Maria Grazia has put feminism at the heart of her vision for Dior and that seems to be really true to the spirit of Catherine.”

Indeed, the evocative story of Miss Dior carries the weight of historical significance beyond its weight in gold.

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