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Opening Pandora's Box: Dior Rediscovers Fashion Dolls

In a continuation of the trend for digitisation, this season’s Paris Haute Couture shows took place online in an effort to overcome the limitations of the current pandemic. While the outbreak of Coronavirus has had devastating effects on the fashion industry, the impetus to conceptualise new ways to present fashion is a fortuitous silver lining.

In recent months, the traditional fashion show calendar has been widely slated by fashion designers and critics alike as unnecessary, stale and wasteful. The July shows were a breath of fresh air by comparison. One collection which stood out in particular was Dior’s cinematic offering, directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone.

Maria Grazia Chiuri took a retrospective approach, drawing inspiration from the 1945 Theatre de la Mode, a French travelling exhibition of fashion dolls dressed in scaled-down versions of designer clothing that circulated Europe. In the short film, two bell-boys traverse a fairytale woodland, carrying with them a dollhouse-style trunk packed with mannequins dressed in tiny versions of Dior’s exquisite gowns, at just 40% the original size. Along their journey, the miniature designs are presented to various mythical creatures, who gaze longingly at the selection before being measured for their favourite.

Although the film is predominately a fantastical creation drawing on mythology and folklore, the origin of the storyline is rooted in the history of haute couture. Prior to the 19th century, fashion would have been presented exactly as Garrone’s bell-boys demonstrated; small dolls lavishly dressed in the latest French styles were shipped around the world to drum up international demand for French couture.

This form of fashion presentation preceded fashion shows and magazines as the principal manner to display and promote clothing. Fashion dolls, also known as ‘Poupées de Mode or Pandora dolls, were once the only way that reliable information about new fashions could be disseminated globally. In fact, some dress historians posit that they were one of the most important fashion objects of the 18th century for this reason.

The dolls were much more effective communicators of the intricacies of design than word of mouth, and as female mobility remained limited, seeing the Pandora’s outfits in a local shop window was the closest thing to shopping in Paris. The opportunity to gaze upon these beautifully made dolls created sufficient excitement that American dressmakers could charge shoppers just to enter their stores. This level of anticipation is something that’s sadly lacking in today’s technologically-advanced society, in which images of new collections are instantaneously uploaded online as soon as they appear on the catwalk.

The global pandemic has triggered a complete reappraisal of the fashion industry, with deep-seated flaws in contemporary practices exposed to the harsh light of day. Many of the seemingly new ideas that have emerged are a return to the past, a tactic often played when fashion is in crisis. Dior’s decision to revert to a traditional form of fashion presentation is one such historicism. Couture houses are calling for an industry-wide deceleration, a new appreciation of fashion as a craft, and a decentralisation that will allow designers the creative freedom to do things differently. While modern technology will prove vital in the ‘new normal’, everything these brands are seeking can be found in the past, if one knows where to look.

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