The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Dior runway had thought-provoking feminist commentary again. But the clothes? Meh.

Christian Dior’s fall-winter 2019 collection. (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

PARIS — The sidewalks are cordoned off with metal barricades, and impatient police officers, waving along the lookie-loos, are making a good-faith effort to keep the line of black cars moving on the narrow street in front of the Musee Rodin. It’s Tuesday afternoon — so gloriously sunny that this city looks as if it’s positively preening — and a significant percentage of the ladies Instagramming their way through the museum’s courtyard and toward a temporarily constructed rectangular tent are wearing sheer tulle dance skirts, carrying handbags shaped like horse saddles and balancing on heels emblazoned with J’adior. In other words, this postcard-perfect day marks the formal kickoff to the fall 2019 runway season here, and the throngs have arrived for the Christian Dior show. They have come to be delighted; they’ve come for the irresistible looks; they have come to make selfie face with a runway full of models in the background.

Instead, they watched a fashion show that read like an overly ambitious syllabus for a women’s studies seminar — for further reading, see “Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium” (2003) — along with some lovely sportswear and several examples of inviting evening dresses. The show was a reminder of the complex relationship women have with their clothes and with their bodies. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior reminded one that the value of a garment is not measured solely in fabric and labor, but also prestige, tradition, artistry and magic.

Dior has a fashion legacy that is unmatched. But the clothes are missing the magic. It’s that impossible-to-define “something” that draws people to fashion, not just for its beauty or sex appeal, but also for its ability to define a cultural moment — to sum things up in a single, blissful, irresistible stroke.

Everyone knows Dior even if they don’t know Chiuri, its designer. Perhaps they know the label has been around since before World War II and that its founder popularized the New Look, which was an hourglass silhouette with a full luxurious skirt that celebrated the end of the war and the end of war rations. Maybe they know it from those elaborate perfume commercials in which Charlize Theron emerges naked from a pool of water or Natalie Portman portrays a runway bride while Sia sings in the background about swinging “from the chandelier.” Or maybe they just recall the name from all those red carpet interviews with Theron or Jennifer Lawrence: Who are you wearing? Dior.

Dior is an old house working hard to stave off wrinkles and gray hair. And part of Chiuri’s mission since taking over as creative director in 2016 has been to translate the language of Dior to a younger audience with disposable income and an itch to indulge. To that end, she has aimed to make Dior more than a purveyor of goods but a house with a mission and a cultural stance. Feminism is the thread that has connected each of Chiuri’s collections. She loves slogan T-shirts. The first read: We Should All Be Feminists. Previous shows have been inspired by or at least informed by the feminist writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and art historian Linda Nochlin. Chiuri also has referenced the work of female artists, dancers and activists. Fall 2019 is no exception.

Dior slaps a slogan on a T-shirt and tries to pass it off as feminism

Chiuri collaborated with the Italian artist Bianca Pucciarelli Menna, who adopted the masculine nom de plume Tomaso Binga in the 1960s to make headway in a male-dominated art world. Her body of work includes nude self-portraits in which her poses mimic letters of the alphabet. The entry to Chiuri’s show tent was adorned with prints of Menna’s plump body spelling out “Dior.” Inside, the walls were covered with more prints, and then Menna herself opened the show with a few lines of poetry, and the soundtrack was packed with the music of Chrissie Hynde and Amy Winehouse.

Chiuri created a multilayered cake of feminist guideposts and feminine cultural touchstones. What does any of it have to do with fashion? Getting dressed is, for everyone, a form of personal expression. Embracing fashion — with all of its eccentricities and indulgences — is a particular form of feminine creative expression. It can be a powerful, destabilizing political statement.

The female body has been turned into an exegesis on morality, family values and the sanctity of life. And whether one likes it or not, the act of dressing that body is culturally, socially and personally significant.

At Dior, the female body is a canvas, a blank slate awaiting a creative gesture. And Chiuri has the nerve — or perhaps the foolhardiness — to position herself in the midst of the fraught dialogue between women and clothes.

No wonder she sent nearly 100 looks down her runway. It’s hard to be eloquent and succinct about such an unwieldy subject. For fall, Chiuri offers more slogan T-shirts: “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” taken from the name of a feminist anthology edited by Robin Morgan in 1970, and “Sisterhood Is Global,” which was the name of its 1984 follow-up.

She also offers denim dresses, lumberjack plaid work jackets, denim painter pants and cropped jackets, anoraks, jeans, full skirts, slim skirts, bucket hats with netting and shopping totes that blare “Christian Dior.” Chiuri’s message is interesting, and one could while away an entire cocktail party weighing it for intellectual heft, clarity, sincerity and overall raison d’etre.

But beyond the philosophy, what about the clothes? They are well conceived and beautifully made. They are wearable and relatable. But a pair of corduroy pants are unlikely to make anyone’s heart flutter. They are not likely to lure a woman into the treacherous waters of super-duper expensive fashion desire.

In the process of giving intellectual meaning and resonance to the clothing choices that women make, Chiuri has given women less fashion in which to delight. Dior has the capacity to create clothes that are jaw-droppingly stunning. There were hints of the atelier’s skill on the runway, such as with a butterfly embroidered skirt. But mostly, the clothes were utilitarian. Chiuri is betting that customers will want a Dior anorak because perhaps it is a bit more luxuriously cut than one from, say, an outdoor sportswear store and because it comes with all that Dior fashion history and because it is now freighted with feminist … something.

Chiuri opens the runway season here with a reminder of fashion’s importance in the cultural conversation. She offers up a satisfying array of intellectual threads on which to tug. But the reason the streets are clogged with cars and the gawkers are straining against the barricades and tourists have turned into paparazzi is not because of the slogans, poetry, music and nude self-portraits. The fans are not here for the reading list or the lecture. They come for the magic. Too often, Chiuri forgets that.