Toronto, Canada: When we look at the evolution of the fashion industry, it’s incredibly fascinating to me to see how it has drastically changed. Designers of the past seemed to incorporate facets of sustainability into their model, not purposefully, but because those elements are what represented a well-made product. This stood out to me last weekend at the Christian Dior Exhibition in Toronto. It was held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and presented by Holt Renfrew.
I grew up not knowing much about big designer names, nor having much interest in historical fashion figures, so I was curious to learn about this fashion industry titan behind one of the most successful French fashion houses in the world.
When I arrived, I was mesmerised by the exquisiteness of each garment. Not only were Christian Dior’s designs captivating and incredibly stunning, there was an absurd amount of attention to detail that was reflected in each garment. You could feel his passion in every stitch, and how his work was more than mere fashion creations, but true works of art.
What I didn’t know and found fascinating was that Dior truly shaped fashion post-war. Styles changed from the padded shoulder, boxy, more tubular silhouette to a new fashion trend he helped push – the ultra-feminine silhouette that accented the waistline. It was called “The New Look” and it emerged in 1947, Dior was its pioneer, calling it, “The look of peace… it reflected the times.” The New Look truly symbolized austerity, glamour, and femininity.
Now fashion sustainability wasn’t the point of the exhibit, there were no clear indicators of what made a garment sustainable, but I was all too happy to point out sustainability cues all over the place.
It’s here that I should note that my lens for sustainability may be a bit wider than most due to my teaching at Fashion Takes Action and my ethical upcycled jewelry business Chic Made Consciously. My ability to pick up on sustainability tidbits is a skill honed over the years. Still, I was wonderfully surprised to see fashion designs with a huge emphasis on ethics and sustainability.
So, how exactly did Dior embody elements of sustainability?
Dior’s collections include one-of-a-kind pieces and the attention to detail is remarkable. You come to realize how special each piece is, knowing that only one is in existence. One could argue that haute couture is inevitably like this, custom-made. Unlike mass produced items, bespoke one-off pieces are original and have no other copies. Still, Dior’s fashion is extraordinary and innovative, having used long-forgotten skilled techniques that make each piece so special. His small batches of couture garments represent his commitment to quality and his practice of incredible patience.
Related Post: NGV’s House of Dior: 70 Years of Haute Couture
2. Supply chain recognition
I loved how much Dior respected and acknowledged the craftsmen in his supply chain. It was beautiful to read his comments where he openly acknowledged all the individuals who played roles in making each idea become a reality. In my knowledge of fast fashion, rarely do the workers in the developing world (where most fast fashion is made) get recognized for their contribution. But, where would we be without the people who are responsible for stitching a garment, adding embellishments, hand embroidering and so on?
“I have young people to encourage, and embroiderers whose work is so wonderful I cannot give it up. And the laces, brocades and prints! Behind all of them are artists, workers, industries, whole cities that in some way rely on me. Every worthwhile effort deserves a model in my collection.” – Christian Dior, 1951, found at the exhibition
3. Multi-purpose pieces
The most expensive part of creating a garment in the 19th century was the cost of textiles. So Dior created fashion designs that offered two-piece dresses for multiple occasions, not the usual practice at the time. This was an economical solution, and women were able to conceal their arms during the day and expose them in the evening. It may not be exactly the same, but it does remind me of the modern day #30wears movement within sustainable fashion.
“A wise woman never discards an evening or dinner dress that’s becoming to her, no matter how often she’s worn it.” – Amy Vanderbelt
4. Natural fibres
The most common fibres Dior used in his creations were cotton, wool and silk, all natural. These are more sustainable from a biodegradability aspect then synthetic fabrics (although not always, read this article on eco-friendly fabrics to learn more). Polyester, one of the fashion world’s most widely used synthetic fabric, didn’t become a popular material until the 60s and 70s when it offered a cheaper and lightweight alternative to cotton. The major shift towards its acceptance and subsequent usage happened after WW2. Back then cotton accounted for 81 percent of global fibre production. It has subsequently dropped to only 39 percent (with organic accounting just 1 percent) since cheap synthetic materials have flooded the textile market.
5. Timeless appeal
Lastly, Dior’s commitment to sustainability can be found in his classic, timeless pieces. The antithesis of fast fashion which honors disposability above all. Dior strived for three basic rules when designing: simplicity, good taste and grooming. What I found fascinating was that Dior truly picked up on what women’s needs were, and designed based on what was going on around him, also launching a line of accessory collections when the time was right.
Sustainability in fashion to me is designing with people in mind; simple pieces that are purposefully designed for wearers to enjoy them time and time again. Classic, timeless pieces are like this. They are transeasonal and no matter what year you’re in, they are always ‘in’.
“I had to understand the needs of elegant woman all over the world.” – Christian Dior, 1956, found at the exhibition
I left the exhibit feeling energized from what I’d learned and thrilled to have seen so many aspects of fashion sustainability in an industry icon’s exhibition. Sustainability was a core part of fashion back then, and something I hope fashion starts to value once again. One of my favourite Dior quotes discovered at the exhibition is:
The success of a dress depends on the quality of workmanship, attention to detail and above all, on the beauty of the material.”
And it’s so true. How far we’ve strayed from our sustainable values. How much faith we’ve wrongly given to industrialization and mass production. Fast, cheap, easy and disposable have become the new norm, but as we’ve started to illuminate environmental issues and social injustices, we will increasingly see a return to the functional and valuable aspects of ethics and sustainability in fashion designs, from ready-to-wear fashion or haute couture. With so much talk about sustainability in fashion and closed-loop systems in the business model, and Dior’s exhibition laying a foundation of what’s possible, I am truly optimistic about the future of fashion.
Have you been to a Dior exhibition? And, what do you think about these elements of sustainability?