Christian Dior created one of the most iconic silhouettes in the world. His collection—dubbed the New Look—with those soft shoulders, nipped-in waist, long, full skirts, was so influential that he changed fashion overnight. Gone were the utilitarian, plain outfits worn out of necessity during the Second World War due to severe clothes rationing, replaced by ultra-feminine clothes.

Everyone from Princess Margaret to society matrons and Hollywood actresses, including Ava Gardner and bought into the craze. For her 21st birthday photo shoot with Cecil Beaton, Princess Margaret wore a billowing white Dior ballgown that she deemed “my favourite dress of all.” In return, the French couturier called her “a real fair-tale princess, delicate, graceful, exquisite.”

Showcasing Christian Dior

Now, 70 years after he launched his New Look in Paris, and 60 years after his sudden death, museums around the world are showcasing his classic creations. The latest opens on Nov. 25 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The ROM’s Christian Dior is a perfect jewel of a show. Its 100-odd objects, including 38 outfits as well as sketches, accessories and extraordinarily detailed embroidery samples, are more than enough to interest the merely curious, while detailed enough to satiate the obsessed. Some will simply ogle the designs while others will devour the myriad pieces of information, many contained on tablets strategically located throughout the space.

Dipping into the ROM’s collection of Christian Dior clothes

Drawing largely from the ROM’s extensive fashion and textile collection—with more than 55,000 pieces, it’s the third-largest in the world, behind only the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum—much of its Dior holdings, on display for the first time as a cohesive exhibit, were worn, and then donated by the elite of Canadian society, those with names such as Eaton, Laidlaw and Gardiner.

When she was young, Louise Levitt went to Christian Dior fashion shows at Holt Renfrew, then owned by her grandfather, Alvin Walker, who had bought the licence to sell the couturier’s creations in Canada. (For his contribution to the French fashion industry, Walker was made chevalier of the Legion d’honneur in 1963.) The models would “weave through clients, seated at small tables,” she recalls. Dresses once worn by Levitt’s grandmother as well as her mother are featured in the ROM show.

The demand was immense. By the time of his first couture show in Paris in 1947, society was reverting to its pre-war chauvinism. Women were being forced out of their wartime occupations and back into kitchens. They needed clothes to match their role in society. And Dior was the man to sell them everything they craved: dresses, coats, evening gowns, shoes, handbags, jewellery, hats and even perfume.

If they wanted to wear Dior head-to-toe, then he sold them coordinated outfits. Many were instant classics. Indeed, though some of the silhouettes are a bit dated, and the embroidery and detailing so exquisite one can barely imagine them being produced today, many of the clothes could be worn today.

“He catered to your lifestyle perfectly,” explains Alexandra Palmer, the exhibition’s curator. And that meant creating clothes for all ages. His mannequins weren’t sample size four but instead models whose measurements represented all the different sizes of his clients, Palmer explains. That combination of fantasy and practicality may explain why the fascination of all things Christian Dior continues to this day.

Christian Dior, Nov. 25, 2017 to March 18, 2018 at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto