The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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Designer of Dreams

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Christian Dior with model Sylvie, circa 1948

Despite being extended until 1st September 2019, tickets for the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams – the largest Dior show ever staged in the UK – have sold out and those lucky enough to attend are still made to queue while they wait for the crowd to abate. So, what is it about the man that has caused the entirety of London to flock to the museum? Spanning from 1947 until the present day, the exhibition explores the history and impact of one of the leading fashion designers and fashion houses of the 20th century. Most importantly, perhaps, the V&A focuses on Dior’s relationship with Britain.

“I adore the English, dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well but also in those flowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.” – Christian Dior, 1957

The exhibition opens with a brief biography of Dior’s life before delving into his extensive wardrobe. Christian Dior was born on 21st January 1905 to a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer and owner of the firm Dior Frères, Maurice Dior (1872-1946) and his wife Madeleine Martin (1879-1931). For the first five years of his life, Christian lived in the seaside town of Granville on the coast of Normandy, France, until the family relocated to Paris. Here, he grew up with his four siblings; an older brother Raymond, and three younger siblings, Jacqueline, Bernard and Ginette, who changed her name to Catherine. Catherine Dior (1917-2008) was Christian’s closest sibling who helped to preserve her brother’s legacy after his death. She was also a member of the Polish intelligence unit based in France during World War II and survived capture, torture and a year in the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

Despite his wish to study art and architecture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Dior’s parents insisted he enrolled at the School of Political Science in Paris, in the hopes that he would become a diplomat. Dior withdrew from the school after three years and completed his military conscription. In 1928, his parents relented and provided money for their son to open an art gallery with his friend Jacques Bonjean (1899-1990). Unfortunately, this business venture was short lived as the Great Depression, the loss of the family business and the death of Dior’s mother, meant the gallery had to close.

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This failure did not put Dior off pursuing an art career and he soon found himself working for the Paris-based fashion designer Robert Piguet (1898-1953). From 1937 until he was called up for military service, Dior worked as a modéliste (in-house designer) and was given the opportunity to design for three Piguet collections. Although the Second World War disrupted his career, these few years with Piguet set him up for the future. “Robert Piguet taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come.”

After leaving the army in 1942, Dior began working for the fashion house of Lucien Lelong (1889-1958) as one of the primary designers. Although the fashion house aimed to preserve the French fashion industry, Dior spent the remainder of the war designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators.

When the war was over, Dior received a job offer from Marcel Boussac (1889-1908), the richest man in France, to design for the Paris couture house Philippe et Gaston. Dior, however, had dreams of opening his own fashion house and turned the offer down. On 8th December 1946, with financial help from Boussac, Dior founded his fashion house, presenting his first collection on 12th February the following year at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris.

“I have never seen such a crowd at a dress-show. Both showrooms were crowded and smart women were sitting all the way up the stairs, where they could only get a short glimpse of the manequins as they passed.”
– Betty Kenward, Tatler and Bystander, 1947

Originally named Corelle (which means circlet of flower patterns in English), the line was renamed New Look after the editor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow (1887-1961) declared, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!” This new look was more extravagant than the clothing worn during the war years, which had been restricted by rations on fabric. The skirts were also much longer, which initially received criticism from women who had grown used to showing their legs.

Dior introduced boned, bustier bodices and wasp-waisted corsets, combined with petticoats to make the skirts flare out, giving the women’s bodies more shape. One of the most famous designs from the collection, the Bar suit, was inspired by the bar at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. It comprised a sculpted jacket and a pleated, full skirt, which quickly became the emblem for the New Look.

“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body.”
– Christian Dior, 1957

In his lifetime, Dior designed and launched 22 collections, which comprised more than 150 different looks. Each line had a title that reflected the type of style Dior had been inspired by or invented, for example, Zig-Zag, Verticale, Sinueuse, Tulipe and Flèche (arrow). Each one complemented the curves of the female figure and the movement of the human body. Each season was hotly debated in the fashion media, however, Dior’s designs continued to awe and inspire the public.

Dior’s first fashion show in Britain took place at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1950, which was so popular he began touring the country, showing his collection at various grand locations, including Blenheim Palace. Many of these events were held in aid of charity and attracted huge crowds of guests. The funds raised from his first show went towards creating the Museum of Costume (now the Fashion Museum, Bath). Another show raised money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

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Princess Margaret on her 21st birthday

Only four years after opening his own fashion house, Christian Dior received his most prestigious commission. “Does Your Highness feel like a gold person or a silver one?” is what Dior asked Princess Margaret (1930-2002), the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) when asked to design a dress for Margaret to wear on her 21st birthday. As immortalised in the photograph by Cecil Beaton (1904-80), Princess Margaret opted for gold, which was the colour used for the golden straw embroidery and sequins that embellished the skirt of the dress.

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The dress, which is worn by a pale-faced mannequin at the V&A’s exhibition, was an adaptation of one of Dior’s recent designs Matinée poétique. The asymmetric shoulder line, buttoned bodice and full skirt were made to suit small-waisted women, such as the princess.

If Dior was not already an international sensation, he was known worldwide after designing what would become Princess Margaret’s favourite dress. The following year, he began producing ready-to-wear versions of his haute couture garments to be sold at prestigious department stores, such as Harrods in London and Kendal Milne in Manchester. To do this successfully, Dior established the business C. D. Models, which was renamed Christian Dior London Ltd in 1954. Through this company, Dior established licensing deals with a range of British manufacturers, allowing him to use certain fabrics, such as Ascher and the Cumberland Mills.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Princess Margaret was not the only famous person Dior designed for, although she was probably the most important. When the novelist Emma Tennant (1937-2017) became a debutant, she ordered a red strapless gown. Nancy Mitford (1904-73), the author of Love in a Cold Climate, ordered the Daisy wool ensemble to wear when she had her portrait painted by Mogens Tvede (1897-1977). Prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) ordered a number of Dior dresses, including her wedding dress, and Dior also designed a muslin embroidered wedding dress for a nineteen-year-old Jane Stoddart.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dior experimented with a huge range of styles, however, he continually returned to historic periods in his designs, particularly the Belle Époque from the late 1800s. He particularly liked the tight-waisted styles and elegant silks worn by people such as the French Empress Eugénie (1826-1920), the wife of Napoleon III (1808-1873). Dior was also inspired by the neo-classical architecture of buildings such as Marie-Antoinette’s Estate, Petit Trianon, and his own premises on Avenue Montaigne.

The V&A carefully replicated Dior’s favoured architectural style to create an 18th-century scene in which to display these historical dresses. The outfits would not look out of place in the royal court at Versailles despite being made during the twentieth and twenty-first century. Although Dior is no longer alive, his fashion house continues to draw on his original ideas and preferences.

Dior also took inspiration from places he had visited around the world. In the 1920s, as a young man, he travelled to London, Athens, Leningrad, Istanbul and the Balearic Islands. Some of his first designs were based on the architecture and fashion he saw on his trips. As his fame grew, Dior’s fashion house expanded to other countries, spanning from the Americas to Japan, which gave him several more styles to play with. The V&A focuses on five of the countries that inspired Dior: China, Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico.

“After women, flowers are the most divine of creations.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

Growing up in Normandy and Paris, Dior was always fascinated by plants and gardens. His mother was proud of the family garden and the young Christian enjoyed studying all the flowers. It was only natural that flowers would become a stimulus for his designs. The shapes of the dresses in his New Look collection were influenced by the shape of an inverted flower, however, they were not what people would call “flowery”.

Dresses in his later collections had stronger floral themes, often involving embroidery and colour to make the shapes of petals. If the dress was not decorated with flowers, it resembled a flower itself. After Dior’s death, the successive designers at House of Dior continued to return to Dior’s garden theme.

Clothing was not the only thing that Christian Dior focused on. Even before he had set up his fashion business, Dior was determined to launch a perfume. In 1947, he and his childhood friend Serge Heftler-Louiche released their first scent Miss Dior, named after his youngest sister. It is said that while Dior was thinking of potential names for the perfume, Catherine walked into the room and his colleague announced: “Ah, here’s Miss Dior!”

“Perfume is the finishing touch to any dress.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

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Miss Dior flacons

Miss Dior was released in several different formats: travel sets, vaporisers, and a variety of shaped flacons, including one in the shape of a dog. Dior did not stop there, however, and released more perfumes, such as, Diorissimo, which is scented with lily-of-the-valley. In more recent years, The House of Dior has issued Eau Sauvage, Poison and J’adore.

Sadly, Christian Dior died from a heart attack on 24th October 1957 at the age of 52 while on holiday in Montecatini, Italy. His death being totally unexpected has led to a number of rumours about the cause of the heart attack. Some claim the attack was brought on after choking on a fishbone, whereas the Time’s obituary stated he died while playing a game of cards. Another source spreads the rumour that the heart attack was caused by a strenuous sexual encounter. To this day, the true circumstances remain undisclosed.

Despite dying at the height of his career, his fashion house did not suffer. The running of the company fell to Dior’s apprentice Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008), who would eventually go on to found his own fashion label. Over the years there have been a number of other worthy designers who have kept the House of Dior at the top of the fashion leaderboard.

As part of the exhibition, the V&A explores the works of the six creative directors that have led the House of Dior since 1957. Each designer brought new ideas to the table whilst also retaining the renowned visions of Christian Dior.

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Yves Saint Laurent working for Christian Dior, 1950s

Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent was appointed creative director at the House of Dior when he was only twenty-one years old. Before Dior’s death, he had worked as the designer’s assistant, however, his new role meant he could design his own line of clothes. His first collection in 1958 was a great success, which was followed in 1960 with the Silhouette de demain (Silhouette of tomorrow) line. Saint Laurent introduced the concept of skirts worn over trousers and geometric style cuts. Unlike Dior, who emphasised thin waistlines, Saint Laurent’s waists were elongated and were matched with turtle necks, hats and coats. His time as creative director, however, was short-lived, being called up for national army service in 1960.

Following Saint Laurent was Marc Bohan (b.1926) who was the House of Dior’s longest serving creative director from 1960 until 1989. Bohan had worked for a number of other fashion houses, such as Piguet where Dior had worked earlier in his career, before joining the House of Dior in 1958. As creative director, one of his most successful collections was the Slim Look, which was considered to be “a complete triumph” according to the New York Times. The Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) was so taken with the design, she ordered twelve dresses.

Bohan’s aim was to design dresses that women loved to wear. He famously remarked, “N’oubliez pas la femme,” which means, “Don’t forget the woman.” He stuck to this ethos throughout his time at the House of Dior, believing that it was important to make a woman feel good and comfortable in what she wore as well as be aesthetically pleasing. Bohan eventually left the company to become the director of the London house of Norman Hartnell.

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Dior by Gianfranco Ferré

Despite being a leading fashion designer in Milan with his own fashion line, the next creative director Gianfranco Ferré (1944-2007) joined the House of Dior in 1989. Ferré was very proud to be chosen to work for Dior and helped to breathe new life into Parisian haute couture. Although he experimented with fine fabrics and embellishments, he tried to retain some of the original features of Christian Dior’s designs, such as the tight waits and full skirts. His first collection at Dior, Ascot-Cecil Beaton, won him the Dé d’Or (Gold Thimble) award.

Gibraltar-born John Galliano (b.1960) was the next person to take the reins as creative director. During his 15-year stint, Galliano pushed the boundaries of haute couture, creating eclectic designs based on extensive research throughout the world. Rather than merely creating clothes for women to wear, Galliano designed imaginative sets for fashion shows, which transported the audience to other worlds complete with imaginary characters that complimented his extraordinary designs.

Galliano brought the House of Dior into the twenty-first century, mixing in elements of subversive social themes with fashion. Simultaneously, John Galliano was the head of his own eponymous fashion company, which he left in 2011 at the same time he left Dior. He is currently the creative director of Paris-based fashion house Maison Margiela.

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Christian Dior by Raf Simons (b.1968), wool coat, Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 2012

Raf Simons (b.1968), a graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, joined the House of Dior as the next creative director in 2012. In stark contrast to his predecessor Galliano, Simons was a minimalist, focusing on the cut and line of his garments. His aim was to produce modern, practical clothes for contemporary women. He was obsessed with detail and gave ateliers precise instructions about tailoring. His clothes attracted a younger, newer generation to the works of Dior and the House received many more clients.

After Simons left to work on his own brand in 2016, the House of Dior employed its first female creative director: Maria Grazia Chiuri (b.1964). Her first ready-to-wear collection of t-shirts featuring slogans, such as “We Should All Be Feminists,” caused debates amongst the fashion world. Chiuri believes the role of a designer has changed in the past decade; rather than only creating pretty dresses, the designer is responsible for allowing the public to have a voice.

“I strive to be attentive and open to the world, and to create fashion that resembles the women of today.”
– Maria Grazia Chiuri

Although Chiuri draws on the designs from across the history of the House of Dior, she aims to put the needs of contemporary women first, focusing on both feminity and feminism. She has been inspired by many women of the past, such as the author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who are the faces of early feminism.

“The ballgown is your dream, and it must make you a dream.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

The exhibition ends with The Dior Ball, which shows off dozens of evening dresses and ballgowns produced by the House of Dior over the years. Christian Dior loved designing clothes for balls and parties because he could be as imaginative as he wished without the restraint of the practicalities of everyday-wear. The gowns took finery and excess to the extreme, which has been replicated by the successive creative directors.

Set out on revolving platforms in a room with changing lights and enchanting music, walking into the final room of the exhibition is like stepping into a fairytale. Many of these stunning dresses have graced the red carpets at film events over the past seventy years and it looks like stars will be continuing to chose Christian Dior for numerous years to come.

The V&A has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to see 200-or-so of Dior dresses up close, which, unless you can afford to buy one, is as close as you are ever likely to get – that is if you have managed to secure a ticket. Extra tickets for Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will be released monthly, for the month ahead. Very limited tickets are available to purchase daily at 10am from the Grand Entrance on a first-come-first-served basis.


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Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

For the first time ever, the possessions of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo have left Mexico and arrived at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to help tell her powerful, yet tragic story, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Beginning with an introduction to her family and ending with an impressive collection of clothing, Kahlo’s personal belongings, which were not discovered until 2004, reveal how she assembled her personal identity and coped with her many hardships.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on 6th July 1907 and would grow up to become a painter of surrealism and folk art based on her strong opinions about identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Unfortunately, life was not going to be easy for Kahlo, particularly where her health was concerned.

Kahlo’s parents were the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941) and Matilde Calderón y González (1876–1932) of indigenous descent. Although she had three sisters and two step-sisters, it appears that Frida was the favourite. Whilst her siblings went to a convent school, her father insisted she was enrolled into a German school. The reason for her father’s favouritism was on account of her disabilities as a result of Polio, which she contracted when she was six years old. As a result, her right leg was much shorter and thinner than the left.

Unfortunately, children were no better than they are today and bullied Frida about her defects. Isolated from her peers, her father took it upon himself to teach her about literature, nature, and philosophy, which set her in good stead for her political future with the Communist party. Guillermo also taught his daughter about photography, thus introducing Frida into the world of art and composition.

Frida Kahlo’s childhood took place during a time when women were not given equal opportunities and were regarded as weaker and lesser than men. Therefore, Kahlo’s determination to go to school to train to be a doctor shows her strength of character. Unfortunately, this dream of hers was never to be fulfilled. On 17th September 1925, whilst on her way home from school, Kahlo suffered near-fatal injuries after the bus she was travelling on collided with a street car. Lucky to survive, unlike many of the other passengers, Kahlo suffered fractured ribs, leg and collarbone and an iron handrail impaled through her pelvis.

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Plaster corset painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo

Kahlo suffered from pain and illness for the rest of her life as a result of the crash, however, it opened up an entirely new career path for her. During her recovery, Kahlo spent the majority of time in bed, her back held up by uncomfortable plaster corsets, some of which can be seen in the exhibition. Lying on her back with a specially crafted table over her legs, Kahlo stared at herself in a mirror positioned above her bed and began to paint her self-portrait.

Self-portraits make up the majority of Kahlo’s paintings, using them as a means of exploring her identity and existence. Although she never painted the terrible traffic collision, Kahlo expressed her feelings and pain through her artwork. Many of these are made up of several surreal elements, commenting on different aspects of her life.

The V&A does not display many of her paintings, however, except for a still life at the beginning of the exhibition, the few that are shown are self-portraits. These are spread throughout the gallery in order to expand upon the personal objects and periods of her life.

Frida Kahlo can be recognised by her black hair and a striking monobrow, as well as the fine black hairs between her nose and lips – an element many female artists would choose to omit when painting their self-portrait. Although she utilised make-up and carefully styled her hair, Kahlo was not one to be oppressed by female stereotypes. Her strong facial hair was a part of her and she wore it with pride and never let it bother her, even when some young American boys heckled her in the street, asking where the circus was.

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Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo

A few of the cosmetics and medications Kahlo frequently used are in display cases along with her sewing box, hairbrush and jewellery. Visitors can also see remnants of paint tubes and brushes personally used by Kahlo shortly before her death in 1954.

These belongings open a window into Kahlo’s life, which the symbolism in her paintings does not quite achieve. Whilst her self-portraits are a visual description of her appearance and cultural identity, the personal items reveal the true woman behind the paintbrush.

Kahlo typically included Mexican components in her paintings as well as the occasional post-colonialism reference. The colours, style of clothing and atmosphere are the type she experienced growing up in Mexico, which she endeavoured to hold onto despite the rise in Americanisation. Kahlo often painted exotic plants native to the country in the backgrounds and foregrounds of her portraits and sometimes included likenesses of her pets, which were also endemic to Mexico, for instance, spider monkeys.

Whenever Kahlo was unwell, her paintings reflected the pain and frustration she was feeling. Kahlo represented herself as wounded and broken, or like a child, depending on how the circumstances affected her mentality. Toward the end of her life, expressing the pain she was in became a common theme for Kahlo.

In The Broken Column (1944), Kahlo paints herself in the nude, her stomach and torso split apart to reveal a broken column that could topple at any moment. Her arms and face are attacked by nails, which, although draw no blood, express the pain and distress she was under at the time. The metaphor of the broken column alludes to the state her spine was in by the 1940s. Her back had worsened to the point that she could no longer sit or stand for any length of time due to the pain and lack of strength in the bones. Despite undergoing several operations throughout her life, nothing had cured her spinal problems and she was soon due to undergo an operation to fuse a bone graft and a steel support to her spine in order to straighten it. Regrettably, this procedure was also unsuccessful.

Despite this, Frida remained mentally strong, as emphasised by her stoic facial expression in the painting and upright posture. The tears on her face represent how she is feeling inside, but the vacuous facial features do not give any of that away. Her eyes look straight ahead at the audience as though she is conveying her spiritual triumph through a glance, challenging herself and others to accept the situation as it is and learn to endure and live with it.

Whilst Kahlo was recovering from the bus crash, other people her age were finishing school and attending university. Although she had missed out on her chance to attend herself, once she was released from bed rest in 1927, she regained contact with her friends and joined them in their involvement with student politics. This quickly led to joining the Mexican Communist Party where Kahlo was introduced to many notable people, including the most successful Mexican painter at the time, Diego Rivera (1886-1957). As well as her politics, Rivera was interested in her artwork stating, “it was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”

Despite the age gap, Rivera and Kahlo became a couple and were later married in 1929. Kahlo’s parents regarded the match as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove,” however, Kahlo’s father was pleased she had married a rich man who could support her expensive medical treatment. The pair moved to the state of Morelos where Rivera, as a mural painter, had been given a commission. Unfortunately, this meant Kahlo was exposed to the fighting of the Mexican civil war. It is believed this sparked her preference of traditional peasant clothing and Mexican style art, now that she was more aware of the importance of Mexican identity and history.

Rivera had to move around a lot depending on who commisioned him for a mural. In 1930, Kahlo went with him to San Francisco in the United States where she was introduced to a number of American painters. Whilst the trip was by no means horrible, Kahlo was unimpressed by American life, which she regarded as boring, and made her even more determined to express her own heritage in her artwork.

One of the paintings she produced at this time emphasises her longing for her home country. Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America (1932) shows the artist standing on an imaginary boundary stone between her country and the country in which she was currently residing. She paints herself in traditional clothing, holding a Mexican flag, indicating her loyalty to her country.

Facing towards Mexico, a handful of crops grow in the foreground, symbolising Mexico’s agricultural history, however, the background is the type of scene Kahlo saw whilst in America. Tall buildings obscure the sky and chimney stacks pollute the air with smoke. On the left, a pre-Columbian building lies partially ruined and being struck by lightning, suggesting that America has destroyed the indigenous origins of the country.

Kahlo’s marriage was not much of a happy one. A number of times, Kahlo fell pregnant but feeling unable to carry and care for a baby, had the pregnancies terminated. Later, she decided she would like to try to carry a baby to full term, however, in her weakened state, her body was unable to cope and resulted in miscarriages. Whilst the loss of an unborn baby can be hard upon a couple, it was Rivera’s womanising ways that caused the most strain. After he had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, she moved out and began affairs of her own, with both men and with women. This included Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) who was living in Kahlo’s house after seeking asylum in Mexico. Eventually, Kahlo and Rivera were granted a divorce in 1939, however, they remained on friendly terms.

The Two Fridas (1939) was painted shortly after the couple’s divorce. In this self-portrait, Kahlo has painted herself twice; on the right is Frida wearing traditional costume and on the left, she wears modern clothing. Both Frida’s are holding hands and their hearts, which are visible on top of their chests, are joined together by a single artery.

Kahlo admitted that the painting represents her broken heart and loneliness after her separation from her husband. Torn between her traditional Mexican values and the modern developments occurring throughout the country, she felt lost and unable to determine her own identity. Without Rivera, Kahlo had lost a little bit of herself.

Sadly, for Kahlo, divorce was soon to be the least of her worries. As previously mentioned, Kahlo’s spine was rapidly deteriorating during the 1940s, however, to make matters worse, in 1953 her right leg, already disfigured from Polio, developed gangrene and had to be amputated below the knee. She had a prosthetic leg made so that she could still move about, albeit slowly and in pain. The V&A displays her prosthetic wearing one of her bright red leather boots. Co-curator Circe Henestrosa declared, “this is my favourite object in the exhibition. It is really modern, and it symbolises her whole attitude. Far from letting herself be defined as an invalid, she intervened as a rebel act. She was comfortable uncovering her disabilities.”

On the night of 12th July 1954, Kahlo was in bed suffering from severe pain and a high fever. Having anticipated her death days before, Kahlo had produced a sketch of the Angel of Death annotated with the words, “I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return — Frida.” When Kahlo’s nurse came to check on her at 6am the next morning, she was dead.

According to Wikipedia, the Tate Modern has listed Kahlo as “one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century”, and art historian Elizabeth Bakewell concurs that Kahlo was “one of Mexico’s most important twentieth-century figures”. Kahlo’s fame has increased posthumously both as an artist and an unconventional personality. She is admired by feminists and people of the LGBT community on account of her bisexuality.

The V&A exhibition culminates with an extraordinary selection of Kahlo’s clothing, which was discovered in 2004 locked away in her personal bathroom of her house-cum-museum. All the outfits are full of bright colours and displayed on shop dummies created to look like Frida Kahlo, complete with her traditional braided hairstyle.

The style of dress is called Tehuana and comprises of several pieces. The blouses, or Huipile, were typical in Mexico and Central American countries and were usually made by hand. The embroidery is intricately beautiful and must have taken days or even weeks to produce; no doubt these items are one of a kind.

The skirts are floor length and equally delicately decorated. The material would have been perfect for Kahlo to cover up her disfigured leg and, later, the prosthetic leg. The skirt and Huipile were combined with various shawls or rezbos, which were wrapped around the shoulders. Although this was the traditional garb of Mexican peasants, the colours were fit for the elite.

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
-Frida Kahlo

The V&A has done a wonderful job, as always, with Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Rather than concentrating on her artwork, the museum looks at her entire life from birth to death. With only a limited selection of paintings available, visitors learn more about Kahlo as a person rather than a painter. They discover her passionate determination, her background, the future she paved for herself and, most importantly, the way she wished to be seen by the world.

Most people who visit the exhibition will likely have already heard of and know a little about Frida Kahlo. This is a great benefit because the museum does not elaborate much on certain events of her life. Another downside, as overheard whilst walking around the exhibition, is some of the information about certain paintings or photographs is far too low and small to read for many people, resulting in crowds bending over to get a closer look. Whilst there are booklets with large print available, there are not enough for everyone, especially as the tickets are usually sold out by mid-morning.

The V&A will be showing Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up until Sunday 4th November 2018. Tickets cost £15 and can be booked online, which is strongly advisable to limit disappointment.