The deep velvety smell of a complex blend of roses from across the world, elevated by a zesty bright pink peppercorn and citrus, a fresh tinge of bergamot leafs – the olfactory experience of Miss Dior’s nose has hypnotized fragrance fanatics since its release in 1947. For over 60 years, Miss Dior has become one of the world’s most-recognized smells for its exquisite true rose scent, or “the scent of love” as Christian Dior called it.
So, is there a real “Miss Dior”? The house has undoubtedly collected a cabinet of influential women that have provided inspiration for Dior throughout its history: Elizabeth Taylor, Mitzah Bricard, Marlene Dietrich, to name a few. However the name of the storied fragrance belongs to arguably Dior’s ultimate muse – his sister Catherine Dior.
Although Catherine averted from a public life and a starring role at the house, her legacy as a fighter of the French resistance and Holocaust survivor during World War II is enough to inspire any great work of art, such as Miss Dior and the house of Dior as whole. While Catherine held presence at Dior until her death in 2008, much of her resilient life’s story that is the core inspiration for one of the most prominent fashion houses in history has gone untold publicly, until now.
Former Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar UK and Town & Country UK Justine Picardie has opened up the doors to Dior’s private archive to share Catherine’s heroic life story to the world for the first time in her new book Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture. “She knew in herself that she was mysterious,” said Picardie in an interview following a talk at the Brooklyn Museum’s “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibition. “She was such a modest woman and had so much dignity, I don’t think she would have defined herself as the role of a muse”
Born into the affluent Dior family in 1917, Catherine was the youngest of five children and despite a 12 year age difference, she gravitated towards her brother Christian due to aligned interests of art and music. “They were obviously very close siblings, but they were also very good friends,” explained Picardie. The two siblings had a particular love for gardening and would both take inspiration later in life from their days playing in their mother Madeline’s sprawling English-style garden at their coastal home in Granville dubbed Villa Les Rhumbs.
At the start of World War II in 1939, the Dior family saw immense tragedy in their family which ultimately brought Catherine and Christian closer than ever before. “Because of what the family had gone through: the death of their mother and septicemia, their brother developing schizophrenia, their father losing all his money and going bankrupt,” said Picardie. “I think they shared a lot in that era, there was trauma. I think there was a protectiveness on his part towards her.”
With the Hitler rising to power in the late 1930s, Catherine and Christian moved to Paris together where they lived in a shared apartment and worked as a shopgirl selling flowers and a fashion illustrator respectively. While living and working in Paris, Catherine met Hervé des Charbonneries, a married French man with three children who introduced her to the resistance party.
After becoming an integral member of the resistance using the code name Caro, Catherine was arrested in 1944 just two years before her brother erected his eponymous house. She was tortured by the Gestapo for keeping information on her comrades. Catherine was then transferred to a German-run French prison where she was subsequently sent to Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp before being taken to worse camps such as Torgau, Abteroda, and later escaped Markkleeberg concentration camp in 1945 at only 28 years old.
“One of the things that I found very moving in archives was a letter that Christian wrote to his father in April 1945, and it was when was the first hint he had received that Catherine might still be alive,” said Picardie. “He said– ‘we must be brave and we must hope that she still has the strength to keep going and to survive.’” In developing her research for Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture, Picardie spoke with the last remaining survivors of Ravensbrück concentration camp who knew Catherine. “I think too often we, it’s hard for us to hear those stories, so we prefer not to hear them,” she said. “To speak with somebody that has beared witness to and endured the worst that humanity can do, to listen to those stories is really important and realizing this is still recent history.” Of the women she spoke to, one stood out to Picardie in particular. “This woman who I spoke to, she told me Catherine could still love life, all the more, having been in a death camp. That gave me such a profound understanding of the depth and beauty of the human spirit.”
After extensive research and writing her book, it’s evident that Catherine’s lively spirit comes through in Picardie when she speaks of her life. “What I felt was that Katherine was very alive as I wrote about her. The act of writing, you’re trying to make them come alive for a reason,” she said.
To Dior, his sister was the ultimate representation of profound beauty in resilience. The ultra-feminine bar jacket Dior designed following the war was the first fashion piece to put the house of Dior on the map and is remembered today as a cultural reset in fashion dubbed “the new look” for women. The bar jacket was a symbol in women’s fashion of regaining a sense of beauty in the cultural and economic boom of a post-World War II environment.
In the same way that Dior fell in love with the budding flowers that died in the winter and rebirthed in the spring housed in his mother’s garden, perhaps Dior’s greatest inspiration of all was the beauty of his sister’s own regeneration. A reflection of our own rebirth in these modern trying times, in Picardie’s Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture she carefully traces Catherine’s courageous story as the heart of Dior inspiring one of the greatest fashion houses of all time.
Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture is available now online and in stores.END
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