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Who Was Miss Dior?

Who Was Miss Dior?

Who Was Miss Dior The Brave Life of Catherine Dior Title

Miss Dior – one of the most iconic perfumes ever created. And since the Dior pret-à-porter show for FW 2024, everyone seems to be talking about Miss Dior. Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s creative director, sent the models on the runway with graffiti-style “Miss Dior” graphics on skirts, jackets and bags. According to the brand, it was a blown-up version of an archival Christian Dior logo for the opening of the Miss Dior boutique in 1967. Back then, Marc Bohan, the then creative director, ventured into pret-à-porter (it was the first time that an haute couture maison made such a move) with a boutique addressing the new market demands in the 1960s. Dior was in financial difficulty and Bohan realized that lower priced ready-to-wear garments were heavily in demand by women who became more empowered and entered the workforce needed more practical clothes than haute couture.[1] 

Who Was Miss Dior FW 2024 Runway
The “Miss Dior”-graphic in Chiuri’s FW 2024 collection for Dior caused a lot of controversy; Picture Source: Official Website Dior.

Whether we like Chiuri’s interpretation and collection is a different story. Let’s focus on something else more important here: “Miss Dior” stands for something bigger than just a boutique or a perfume. Actually, it stands for SOMEBODY bigger than this: Christian Dior’s younger sister Catherine who was not only his favourite sister (despite the age gap of 12 years) and muse – he named his infamous Miss Dior perfume after her. But she was also a member of the French Résistance during World War II. It is interesting that her brother became one of the most famous and celebrated Frenchmen. His sister, despite her impressive story lived in his shadows. I discovered her because of Justine Picardie’s book “Miss Dior” which I highly recommend. (As a side note, this is non-sponsored article, I am just sharing my personal opinion here.)[2] 

You can also watch my video here:

The Dior Family and the Time Before World War II

Christian Dior was born in 1905 as the second son of the family. His sister Catherine was born as the last of five siblings in 1917 named Ginette Marie Catherine Dior. It was their brother Bernard who called her Catherine first. Like her brother Christian, Catherine loved roses. After the war, she spent a lot of time in the garden of her house in Callian, near her late brother’s estate La Colle Noire in the French Provence, and also had them turned into essences in nearby Grasse.[3] 

Who Was Miss Dior Family Portrait with Catherine Dior
Dior Family Portrait with Catherine in the Middle in the Chair; Picture Source: ource: Collection Musée Christian Dior, Granville/Les Collections du Réseau des Musée de Normandie.

From the early beginnings, Catherine always supported the Dior Museum in Granville – a sign of how much she must have loved her childhood in Normandy and her dedication to preserving her brother’s legacy. Moreover, when it came to the plants in the garden of the museum, she supported the museum with a lot of feedback. Catherine and Christian inherited this passion for flowers, especially roses from their mother Madeleine; they also shared a passion for the arts and music.[4]

Madeleine Dior passed away in 1931, when Catherine was only 13 years old. The family went through a very difficult phase – not only did they lose their mother or wife but also were they going through financial troubles – even the beloved childhood home went for sale and ended up in the hands of the municipality of Granville when no buyer could be found. The family relocated to Provence and Christian had to part with his dream of becoming an arts dealer and taught himself fashion illustration.[5]

Catherine and Christian moved to Paris in 1936. Like many other artists and creatives, they stayed at a hotel – which meant that they did not have to pay taxes. With the help of Christian, Catherine found a job as a sales assistant in a boutique for hats and gloves. Some of the rare “documents” of their time in Paris, are pictures of Catherine posing in Christian’s designs in 1937. Christian found a job at Robert Piguet and moved into an apartment at the rue Royale where Catherine had her own room. Picardie assumes that Catherine must have been aware of her brother’s homosexuality. Christian later said about this period that this was the time when he started to feel settled in Paris.[6]

German Occupation, Resistance and World War II

1939 was a turning point for Europe, and also France. Christian was not immediately drafted to the front, but he had to work in central France for a military unit in farming. Catherine, like so many employees in the fashion industry, lost her job and had to move to Provence. Life in Paris had almost come to a standstill. In June 1940, France signed the armistice with Germany – Christian called it a “debacle”. He was able to return to the so-called Free Zone which had not yet been occupied by the Nazis. In the summer of the same year, Christian managed to reunite with his family in Provence – a region which was not yet occupied. At the same time, the Vichy-regime under Maréshal Pétain was established. The French economy worsened steadily and in 1941, Christian reluctantly decided to return to Paris to look for work as an illustrator. Soon, Catherine met a person who would change her life entirely: Hervé des Charbonneries, a member of the French Résistance.[7]

Catherine met Hervé when she wanted to buy an illegal radio receiver to listen to the BBC-broadcasts of the speeches by General Charles de Gaulle who lived in exile. This was a risky move: If caught, listening to “enemy propaganda” was sanctioned with imprisonment. Hervé knew why she needed a radio receiver, as he worked for an organization of the Résistance called F2. It is important to note that the Résistance was a heterogenous group of many units with different ideologies.[8]

The relationship between the married Hervé and Catherine moved fast, she rented an apartment in Cannes to be closer to him and the F2 which she joined under the code name “Caro”. Her task was to gather information about the movement of German troops. She went on long bike tours to meet with informants. Also, her best friend Liliane Dietlin was a member of the F2 and just like Catherine she kept her involvement in the Résistance a secret, until her death. Even Catherine’s godson, Liliane’s son Nicolas Crespelle mentioned to Justine Picardie that that generation did not talk about the war. Catherine only mentioned once to him that she was in a camp in Germany, When his mother was still alive, the only information he had about the time was that she rode the bike a lot.[9]

Who Was Miss Dior Catherine Dior 1940
Catherine Dior in 1940; Picture Source: Official Website Galerie Dior/Collection Christian Dior Parfums.

It is documented that Catherine was not only gathering information for Hervé and the F2, she also hid troublesome documents from the Gestapo during a raid and handed them over to a leading person within the F2. This involvement became increasingly dangerous, especially when the Germans also expanded their territory to Vichy-France. There was a high risk of denunciations – which was very common amongst the French during the time.[10]

In 1944, Catherine had to flee Southern France and found refuge at Christian’s apartment at the Rue Royale in Paris. He had found a job with Lucien Lelong who, unlike many other couturiers, still ran his Maison and also headed the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Lelong’s role during the war is seen as controversial. The Germans were very much interested in the French fashion industry and planned to move it to Berlin. The high society of Paris was dominated by the Germans who, together with the Vichy-representatives, also became major clients of Parisian fashion houses. Dior watched this in agony and even commented during a runway show of the maison Lelong: “All these women will be shot dead in Lelong’s garments”[11].[12]

It is difficult to determine Christian’s views today, but his actions (even though subtle or unknown) indicate that he may have also supported the Résistance in a way: Not only let his sister stay at his apartment, members of the Résistance frequently met there – a big risk. In Dior’s social circle, it was more “fashionable” to collaborate than to join the Résistance. Catherine kept working for Gilbert Foury and Stan Lasocki from the F2 – it is likely that Christian knew that she needed protection while not knowing the full extent of her involvement with the F2.[13]

At the same time, the Gestapo managed to infiltrate the F2 with a French informant called Madeleine Marchand who was roughly the same age as Catherine. At the beginning of July 1944, members of the F2 group were arrested and tortured, among them Catherine Dior. Despite the brutal interrogations, she protected other members of her group and Christian – as none of them was arrested. She also had gotten rid of any compromising documents. Catherine was moved from one prison to another and ended up in the German concentration camp Ravensbrück in August 1944, in September of the same year, she was transferred to an outer branch of the camp at Torgau, a month later she was sent to a branch of the Buchenwald camp called Abteroda. (I am sparing you the details about her interrogations and the period at the camps – you can read up on this in detail in Picardie’s book.)[14] 

Who Was Miss Dior Card Catherine Dior
The distant expression in pictures after her return to France hints at the hardships Catherine endured; Picture Source: Official Website Galerie Dior.

Catherine herself avoided to talk about this time with anyone. The only thing her friends and family knew about was that she was freed by Soviet troops and that she escaped the Todesmarsch on 21 April 1945 in Dresden. Being freed by the Soviets did not necessarily mean everything was over. Even though there is no clear data about the number, many girls and women were raped by the Soviets after being “freed” by them – yet another topic which was rarely spoken about. When Catherine escaped to Dresden, the city was also heavily attacked.[15]

Catherine’s Return to France

All this time, Christian never forgot his sister and kept trying to get information about her whereabouts. Only in April 1945 did he receive information about her imprisonment at a camp and that she was on the list for the Todesmarsch. A month later, Catherine returned to Paris where Christian waited for her at the train station – he almost did not recognize her. It was not easy to come back to France, the country Catherine fought for during the Résistance. It lay in ruins. Ironically, the women returning from the camps with their shaved heads were sometimes mistaken for women who had relationships with the Germans during the occupation, as these were publicly humiliated, their heads shaven and sometimes tortured or even killed. In the meantime, Christian Dior had secured the backing of Marcel Boussac, a businessman dealing in textiles and he famously consulted a fortuneteller and he opened his house in 1947.[16]

Catherine received multiple awards for her courage. Nevertheless, they could not make up for the trauma. Two pictures which were taken right after her return show her with distant expressions. When she returned, she was only 27 years old. At first, Catherine stayed at the family home in Southern France, when she was better, she moved to Paris together with Hervé where they opened a flower shop. Like so many, she never talked about what happened, what she had endured and how she felt about it.[17]

Who Was Miss Dior Perfume
Miss Dior was the first perfume launched by Dior Parfums and named after Catherine; Picture Source: Official Website Dior

Already before Dior opened his own house, the hype around him was enormous. Serge Heftler-Louiche, a childhood friend from Granville, offered to found a perfume company with Christian. Their first perfume was developed by an experienced perfumer called Paul Vacher who used jasmine and roses – Christian’s and Catherine’s favourite flowers. Mizza Bricard is said to have influenced the name: Christian was contemplating the name and when Catherine entered the room, Bricard exclaimed – That’s it – Miss Dior!” Who was Bricard? Some say Dior’s assistant, some say his muse, some say advisor. She was kind of a femme fatale and probably the total opposite of Catherine. These two very different women strongly influenced Miss Dior which also included lilies of the valley which Dior regarded as a lucky charm and often embroidered his bridal gowns with them.[18]

According to Justine Picardie, there are no records if Catherine attended Christian’s fashion shows. She was the only family member who could experience Christian’s success and was also a big supporter of his career. It is very likely that Catherine never accompanied her brother to his shows in Germany as she never returned there, she did not want to hear German and she also refused to buy products form German companies such as BMW or Siemens who exploited Catherine and thousands of other inmates during the Reich.[19]

Who Was Miss Dior Dress 1949
“Miss Dior”-dress from the 1949 collection; Picture Source: Official Website Galerie Dior.

In Dior’s 1949 collection, there was one evening gown called Miss Dior – embroidered with countless flowers. Picardie wonders in her book, if Dior had Catherine in mind when he designed it. It is unlikely that Catherine ever wore the dress. At the time, she and Hervé already led a relatively quiet life. They had moved out of Christian’s apartment into their own place and in summer, the couple spent their time in Provence where Catherine had inherited the family farm after their father passed away. In their garden and on the fields the jasmine and roses were planted for the Dior perfumes. She did wear Christian’s designs but it does not seem that she did it to seek attention or fame. It is also unclear how she felt amidst Christian’s fashion universe after having endured the hardships of the camp. Nevertheless, she always supported her brother who bought an estate at La Colle Noire in Provence, near Catherine’s farm.[20]

In 1952, the trial against the Gestapo headquarters in the rue de la Pompe where Catherine and many others had been tortured, took place in Paris. While many of the accused were absent (many Nazi officers had managed to escape), Catherine was interviewed before the trial and also served as a witness at the trial itself. When she was asked to identify the men who tortured her, one of them Théodore Leclercq, his lawyer claimed that she must be wrong and mistake Leclercq for two other people. Catherine lost her temper – very rare for her – and emphasized that she knew what she was saying. She addressed the judge and said what happened at the Gestapo headquarters cost many people’s lives and now there were people in the courtroom defending those “bastards”. It is interesting that none of the media picked up on it. The scene was described in the French newspaper Le Monde but despite Catherine’s famous last name, no other media outlet covered it – which is surprising, because, her brother was already world famous. During this month-long trial, the eight French accused were found guilty and sentenced to death, others were imprisoned, some accused were never to be found.[21]

Who Was Miss Dior Catherine Dior Among Flowers
Like her brother Christian, Catherine loved flowers; Picture Source: Official Website Galerie Dior.

After Christian’s sudden death in 1957, Catherine gave up her flower business in Paris and relocated permanently to Southern France. Hervé’s three children and Catherine’s godson Nicolas visited them regularly. Furthermore, she was in charge of taking care of her brother’s estate, including selling his property La Colle Noire in Southern France. Despite the property changing hands frequently, she managed to preserve the original interiors. In 2013, the property was acquired by Parfums Christian Dior which belongs to the French conglomerate LVMH. Many memorabilia of Christian were brought to La Colle Noire and the house was renovated with a lot of attention to detail. Today, the history of the region but also of the Dior family and Catherine in particular is still part of the area – opposite of the house is a memorial stone for a fighter of the Résistance; when Catherine was imprisoned in Paris, the Germans also searched the villages of the region and imprisoned 15 members of the Résistance.[22]

Catherine outlived many people close to her – her brother Christian, her partner Hervé, her friend Liliane. Hervé’s grandchildren described that she always smelled of Miss Dior. Until her death, she was committed to preserving her brother’s legacy, she catalogued the furniture and other things from his home and was an honorary president at the Musée Christian Dior. She passed away on 17 June 2008 and worked in her beloved garden until her very last day.[23]


Special thanks to Mme. Pauline Robin, Musée Christian Dior Granville.


Footnotes

[1] The Museum at FIT 2024, Vogue 2024.

[2] Picardie 2022, p. 9; 14; 39.

[3] ibid, 9; 14; 20.

[4] ibid, p. 18-20;39.

[5] ibid, p. 35-38.

[6] ibid, p. 40-42.

[7] ibid, p. 44-53.

[8] ibid, p. 55-64.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid., p. 66-67

[11] ibid., p. 76

[12] ibid., p. 69-76

[13] ibid., 86-125; 155; 175.

[14-15] ibid.

[16] ibid, 177-189; 227-228.

[17] ibid, 189-192.

[18] ibid, 236-245.

[19] ibid, 259; 279.

[20] ibid, 297-299, 353.

[21] ibid, 335-338.

[22] ibid, 353-375.

[23] ibid, 378.


Sources

Galerie Dior, Miss Dior, last accessed on 27 March 2024.

Justine Picardie, Miss Dior, Eine Geschichte von Courage und Couture, Berlin, 2022

The Museum at FIT, Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968, Miss Dior, last accessed on 27 March 2024.

Vogue, Fashion Shows, Fall 2024 Ready to Wear, Christian Dior, last accessed on 27 March 2024.

Picture Sources

See Also
Iconic Bags and the Women Who Inspired Them

Title image: Dress: Official Website Galerie Dior, Perfume: Official Website Dior, Catherine Dior in 1940: Official Website Galerie Dior/Collection Christian Dior Parfums, Paris.

All other picture sources as indicated in the pictures above.


Disclaimer

This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above. All information as of the date of publishing/updating.


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