Justine Picardie on writing Miss Dior, A Story of Courage and Couture
One book seemingly destined to make a brilliant future TV series is Miss Dior, A Story of Courage and Couture, the dark yet beautiful tale of Catherine Dior, baby sister of Christian Dior and a brave member of the French Resistance, who survived being tortured in Paris and a year in the Nazi camps before returning to inspire her brother’s iconic perfume Miss Dior and live on to her nineties growing roses, still used in Dior scents.
A handsomely illustrated, thought-provoking 404 pages, it is as much a political comment on the past century, as a love story between two unique siblings, one of whom went on to become the second most famous Frenchman of the 20th century. A family name that represents the very essence of French fashion and style, elegantly captured by its author Justine Picardie, the former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar UK. With images of their bucolic youth as the children of the provincial rich at the Rhumbs, the cliffside mansion in Normandy that is today also a Dior Museum, to happy post-war days at La Colle Noire, Monsieur Dior’s Provencal chateau.
The book comes after Chanel, Her Legend and Her Life, Picardie’s best-selling life of an equally legendary Paris couturier. Both books are crammed with unexpected revelations, and stories of individuals whose characters were forged in the crucible of the Occupation. When some behaved with great nobility and sacrifice and others with none at all.
Picardie eventually discussed Catherine’s extraordinary life with Maria Grazia Chiuri, the sister's story inspiring the contemporary Dior couturier to create the Spring 2020 collection, revamping Dior from the Femme Fleur to the Femme Jardinière.
Miss Dior, A Story of Courage and Couture was launched just last week with book signings in Paris and at La Colle Noire, along with the opening of the exhibition Miss Dior, 12 Female Artists, where each produced homages to the scent, inspired as much by the notion of beauty as the tale of Catherine’s gritty survival. Which is where we caught up with Picardie, among the rose trellises and olive trees planted by Christian Dior, with sweeping views over multiple ridges to the town of Callian. Catherine lived the final four decades of her life there, outlasting her brother by a half century.
FashionNetwork.com: What inspired you to write this book?
Justine Picardie: Well, after my Chanel biography came out, I received an invitation to look at the Dior archives with a view to doing a biography of Christian Dior. The archives are extraordinary and what struck me was the beauty of the couture gowns and the illustrations. So, at that point what I thought an exhibition would be amazing, and actually I did the initial introductions to Dior in the V&A and that turned into that exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. But at that point I couldn't feel the shape of a book, until I began talking to one of the archivist one summer morning, about five years ago. And suddenly I knew a little bit about Catherine, but I know it sounds crazy, but it was as if suddenly she was sort of there as a character and I just knew in order to write about Christian I also had to write about Catherine.
FNW: In your book, you talk about going into Dior’s library here and getting this premonition about what you might do next?
JP: Yes, in his study, at a large desk that looks over the hills towards Callian, the village where he and Catherine had lived with their father in the 1930s, and later during the war. Just Christian, Catherine, their father Maurice and their former governess Ma (Marthe Lefebvre) a very isolated little farmhouse surrounded by rose meadows.
FNW: Did they seclude themselves there during the war and Vichy period?
JP: In the 1930s Christian and Catherine had lived together both in Paris and then at this little farm called Les Naÿssè. During the war they also lived in Provence, and then went back to Paris in final months of the German occupation. So, the relationship between the two of them is really so interesting - a brother and sister are close enough to live together as well as being very close friends. That fascinated me because in the archives there are these pictures of Catherine as a young woman living in the late '30s with Christian in Paris and she’s modeling his first early designs before he’s Christian Dior. I mean he’s Christian Dior but he’s a freelance designer. She was probably about 20 then, as she was born in August 1917, 12 years after Christian. At that stage Dior is doing some freelance work for Robert Piguet, contributing fashion illustrations to everybody from Harper's Bazaar to French newspapers and magazines. So, he's just in his very early stages as a designer. Christian doesn’t start working for Lelong until 1942 so these would have been just his own designs.
FNW: A key question in the book is how could all of this beauty come out of the cruelty of the occupation and the betrayal of the Vichy era? How do you answer that?
JP: Well, I think the greatest act of defiance is, after a period of trauma and darkness, to still believe in beauty and hope and freedom. That's what we are going through now to a lesser degree. Obviously the Covid pandemic has not claimed nearly as many lives as the Second World War but we have lived through the first great period of disruption since that war. And here we are today, you and me, in this very beautiful place, still believing that there can be such a thing as beauty. What interested me is obviously the trauma of the Second World War in which the Dior family is directly scarred. That Christian’s sister came to live with him again in Paris after she came back from the German concentration camps. That is when you see the beginnings of his real ambition both as a couturier. And that's when he also created Miss Dior, in tribute to her. As you know, the New Look is in some ways nostalgic. It looks back to La Belle Epoque before WWI so what is revolutionary after the horror and trauma and suffering of the Second World War is that he can still believe in this very romantic idea of beauty.
FNW: Indeed, some critics interpret the New Look as a conservative restoration.
JP: Yes, and that is one of the things that I explore. There are people that say that the New Look represents something very regressive. That Chanel freed women, first of all with that little black dress and then with the simple, loose, no-corset cardigans and jackets. While Christian Dior represents something regressive. But having researched Catherine’s story and his relationship with Catherine, I don't agree with that. What I think is that in the New Look there is a lot of padding around the shoulders, around the hips, around the bust. When women like Catherine returned from the camps they were unrecognizable, emaciated, so I think that Christian’s designs represent a kind of protection as well as a gentle padding. Dior always said he approached his clothes like they were a building, they were architecture, so he's providing a kind of sense of protection and safety and a softness.
FNW: How actively involved was Catherine in the Resistance?
JP: We tend to think of the French resistance as a single unified network. In fact, it was very fragmented. Her first act of resistance was very simple actually - to go from Callian to Cannes in search of a radio to listen to the band's BBC broadcasts of General De Gaulle. That was an act of resistance because simply to listen to De Gaulle at that point was to risk imprisonment. So, Catherine goes to find a radio in Cannes and the man that's supplying her with the radio she meets and falls in love with. He’s called Hervé des Charbonneries and he’s 12 years older than her, interestingly the same age as her brother. And both Christian and Hervé had studied politics at the same university in Paris, Sciences Po.
So, Hervé recruits her to his resistance network, which was called F2. They also fell in love and began a life-long partnership. They never married but they remained together until he died in 1989. F2 was a Franco-Polish network that was providing intelligence to British intelligence in London. One of the first resistance groups was set up after the fall of France in 1940 by a couple of Polish officers left behind enemy lines. They hadn't been able to evacuate along with other Poles at Dunkirk. Hervé was one of the earliest recruits, and they built a network right across France - operating from the North all the way to Cannes, and along the Mediterranean coastline. Unlike the Maquis who were more attacking, they gathered intelligence which was sent back to the Allies and British intelligence.
FNW: What were Catherine’s politics?
JP: She was a great De Gaulle supporter. She hated Marshall Pétain and Pierre Laval and the Vichy regime who were fascists who dismantled French democracy in a matter of hours and who had enacted their own ferociously antisemitic legislation before the Germans told them to. She believed in people’s right to vote, to control their own political system. What De Gaulle called a certain idea of France. France had a noble democracy and it had been taken away from them.
FNW: Did she ever live her in La Colle Noire?
JP: Yes, but after Christian died in 1957. One of the reasons he bought this chateau in 1950 was because it was very close to where Catherine lived. After their father had died in 1946, he left the farmhouse and the land to Catherine. Of course, their father had lost nearly all his money in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. He went bankrupt. So, La Rhumbs, their mansion in Granville, ended up in the hands of the town council. And they ended up living in this little farmhouse at the end of the '20s. Christian had a successful Paris art gallery, but it also went bankrupt as a consequence of the Depression. Christian managed to get a little bit of money from selling the last of his paintings. He represented Dalí and he had to sell a Dalí for a mere 250 dollars. So, with this little bit of money, they came to Provence and lived in this tiny little farmhouse. They grew their own vegetables, but the primary crop around there is roses for the perfume industry. So Christian and Catherine go south, but Christian learns to draw there and as soon as he is able, he returns to Paris in about 1936 and Catherine goes with him. And that's when they lived together and when he begins to earn a living as a fashion illustrator.
FNW: Do you think of Catherine as a feminist?
JP: Yes… I do. It’s funny that I needed a pause, as I do think of her as a feminist absolutely. She never married Hervé, she remained Catherine Dior; she ran her own business. First the flower business which she set up when she returned in 1945 and then her own rose-growing business. When Christian died, she inherited half of everything, but that included a lot of his personal tax debts! So, she did live in La Colle Noire for a while, but less than a year. There just wasn’t enough money to maintain the chateau so they had to sell it.
FNW: Dior wouldn't have been the first fashion designer to live beyond his means.
JP: Exactly, as you well know.
FNW: In the end though, despite a complicated life; a family going bust; her own brother leaving lots of debt; the awful experiences in the war. It is funny she didn’t become bitter or disappointed. No?
JP: Well, she certainly was not the kind of person who would care about money. Her primary belief was freedom. Having survived Ravensbrück, first of al, to survive you would have had to have a combination of luck and extraordinary resilience. When she returned, she lived her life well; committed her life to flowers; she was a remarkable rose grower, a remarkable botanist and gardener. She grew her roses and her jasmine, and her garden in Les Naÿssès was beautiful. I stayed there while I was writing the book. It's a very simple place but it's extraordinarily beautiful, like a Provence paradise. Even when Christian was alive, she was growing roses. She became one of the most respected rose growers in the region and her roses are still used for Dior perfume, I discovered!
And it’s amazing to recall that when Christian Dior launched the New Look, he had one liter of Miss Dior sprayed around the inside of his maison on Avenue Montaigne - coming up the staircase, in the salon, along the corridors just as guest arrived.
FNW: How would Catherine react to knowing there’s a feminist designer in Dior today?
JP: I think that sometimes there's such a synchronicity, isn’t there, between the past and the present? And it feels that way at the moment. When I started researching the story of Catherine it coincided with Maria Grazia arriving at Dior. She and I already knew each other from Valentino and were friends. Yes, today there is a very strong woman at the head of Dior who also believes that feminism and fashion can go hand in hand. I think the figure of Catherine appears in every single collection Christian would design - something specially made for Catherine.
FNW: Are you wearing Miss Dior today?
JP: I couldn’t write this book without wearing Miss Dior, the original. And as I did more research on Catherine, I talked to Maria Grazia about her. She was really interested and that the Spring 2020 collection she did came after I talked to her about being here and going to Les Naÿssès which was the farmhouse. And she wanted to come back with me and talk her through Catherine’s life. So, Spring 2020 collection emerges and then the bag that she did, called 'Caro'. That was Catherine’s code name in the French resistance. So, there’s a subtle sort of tribute. And I think in all of Maria Grazia’s collections I can see subtle tributes that honor Catherine.
FNW: Many people first began speaking of Catherine when (Dior CEO) Sidney Toledano made the runway speech in March 2011, after Galliano was fired for his drunken antisemitic outburst. And Sidney referred to Christian picking her up from Gare de L’Est. What did you find out about her experiences in Ravensbrück?
JP: A lot. I went to Ravensbrück twice to research and go through the records. I also traced that she was sent to three subcamps, slave labor camps. Ravensbrück was a concentration camp for women. She was in a group of French women who were deported there in August 1944 just days before the liberation.
FNW: How was she arrested?
JP: By the Gestapo’s collaborators, French Gestapiste, who arrested and blindfolded her in Place de Trocadero in Paris and took her to 180 Rue de la Pompe. She was then tortured over two different days, and she didn’t give away a single name of any of her collaborators in the Resistance. She protected Christian who she had been living with in Paris at the time, and her best friend Lilian (Dietlin) who was in the same resistance network. She was astonishingly brave and at the end of her torture she was taken to a prison in Paris, then taken back to be tortured again. She still gave nothing away and then she was moved to an internment camp on the outskirts of Paris before being brought back into Paris and deported on those terrible trains.
FNW: What condition was she in when she returned?
JP: When Christian went to the station to meet her, he didn’t recognize her, and the family hadn’t known if she was alive or dead. That is where you see Christian’s belief in clairvoyance really begins. Because he goes to see a clairvoyant, Madame Delahaye, who does a tarot card reading for him and says, 'Your sister is alive and she will return'. That is really to me the beginning of what people have subsequently called his superstition. I think it's not a particularly useful word. It’s magical thinking, perhaps.
FNW: You talked about the influence she had on Dior and more recently on Maria Grazia that’s very clear. What do you hope people will think and remember after they’ve read your book?
JP: That beauty and freedom are at the heart of Dior. That resilience is part of what forged the brand - a very important message for me to discover as a writer but also as a woman. To know that we can go through periods of challenge, of disruption, of trauma and emerge with our resilience even stronger than before. But also, that you can still believe in beauty after darkness is ever more miraculous. I think that's something as one gets older you realize; you cherish those moments of happiness. You cherish the lightness when you understand what darkness is. And Cocteau said of Dior at his memorial service, before he was buried in Callian in a little cemetery near the house: 'The prince of light who also understood darkness'. That's so true with Dior and the reason he understood darkness was because he had lived through the period of his family’s own trauma and personal suffering. His mother died of septicemia; his eldest brother suffered from shell-shock after the First World War and never fully recovered, his other brother developed schizophrenia and never recovered, and then his beloved younger sister was tortured and deported. Dior understood darkness, but that’s what makes the great couturier, isn’t it? One that understands darkness and light.
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