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When Dietrich Wore Dior

Screen Chic commemorates the couturier’s birthday by highlighting his number-one fan in Hollywood.

Marlene Dietrich filming a scene from 1950’s “Stage Fright,” wearing a gown by Christian Dior — director Alfred Hitchcock can be seen in the background on the left.

Christian Dior was born on this day in 1905, and it’s notable that among all the fashion designers who contributed to cinema during the 20th century, the famed couturier stands alone as one who already had been designing film costumes for years before founding his label and opening his iconic Paris atelier at 30 Avenue Montaigne in December 1946. It’s been speculated that Dior’s early film experience only enhanced his talents, but in his 1957 autobiography, Dior by Dior, he dismissed this idea:

“In my opinion, the art of the costumier is essentially different from that of the couturier,” he wrote. “When Marcel Herrand asked me to design the costumes for Sheridan’s School for Scandal in 1939, I was working anonymously at Piguet. These were the first costumes to which I put my name. Later I designed costumes for several films or ballets, but never with any particular pleasure. Designing for the theatre needs a quality of improvisation, or sacrifice of craftsmanship to the effect, which is alien to my temperament.”

Dietrich in a Dior-designed suit for “Stage Fright.”

Yet Dior’s flair for dramatic lines and details surely is key to the reason Hollywood stars flocked to his first collection, the famed New Look clothes he debuted in February 1947, and chief among those women was Marlene Dietrich. Introduced to Dior by mutual friend Jean Cocteau, Dietrich quickly became both a loyal friend and fan, the latter partly because she believed that, even at 46, she looked youthful and sexy in the designer's curve-enhancing silhouettes.

Indeed, by the late 1940s Dietrich was beyond the “goddess” years of early films like 1930’s The Blue Angel or 1932 Blonde Venus, but that’s precisely the word Alfred Hitchcock applied to her in 1949 when he told Jack Warner he wanted her as Charlotte Inwood in his next project, 1950’s Stage Fright. Charlotte is a famous West End actress who may or may not have been involved in the murder of her husband, a role that allowed Dietrich to dig deep into her glamorous, diva ways, thus making the part seem tailor-made for her. (Tallulah Bankhead actually had been Hitchcock’s first choice, as he knew her from Lifeboat in 1944, but by 1949 Warner didn’t believe Bankhead equaled bankable. Dietrich, however, was a different matter.)

As they negotiated her contract, Dietrich was adamant on one point: Christian Dior would design her costumes; hesitation from Hitchcock and Warner spawned the now-famous phrase, “No Dior, no Dietrich!” Warner ultimately relented — but not before demanding a 25-percent discount from the House of Dior for all the couture designs he would provide. Her terms met, Dietrich sailed off to Paris and 30 Avenue Montaigne. Her arrival and initial meeting at the atelier were captured by the newsreel cameras:

Dietrich’s costume for “The Laziest Gal in Town.”

The British Pathé film above shows Dietrich viewing a trio of gowns from Dior’s Spring/Summer 1949 Trompe l’Oeil collection, and it’s clear one of those designs was adapted, almost identically, for Dietrich to wear in Stage Fright (seen in the photo at the top of this story). Other gowns, a floral-bedecked garden-party dress, and a dramatic feathered jacket, worn when Charlotte Inwood performs “The Laziest Gal in Town,” were also among the designs Dietrich and Dior conjured in his atelier; she sent swatches and sketches to London, where Stage Fright was being filmed, for Hitchcock’s approval. Dietrich also wears two looks that already had become staples of her wardrobe, a Dior suit with its padded, waist-cinching Bar Jacket, and a chiffon dress she owned in several colors and similar styles (when her good friend Edith Piaf married Jacques Pills in 1952, Dietrich served as matron of honor and had Dior copy one of these designs for the legendary singer to wear as her wedding dress). In addition to the Dior clothes for Stage Fright, there were also the coordinating hats, bags, silk stockings, and lingerie; unsurprisingly, Dietrich also stipulated in her contract that she would keep all of her costumes.

Dietrich in Dior in the garden-party scene in “Stage Fright."

Stage Fright was Dior’s first official Hollywood credit, though far from his last. He would work with Dietrich on her next project, 1951’s No Highway in the Sky, co-starring James Stewart and directed by Henry Koster, while he also designed the chic black satin gown and bolero she wore when presenting the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1951 Academy Awards. Amazingly by today’s standards, Dior gets a mention by the event’s announcer:

Christian Dior and Olivia de Havilland behind the scenes for 1956’s “The Ambassador’s Daughter."

Dietrich wouldn’t been seen in Dior again before the couturier’s untimely death in 1957 of a heart attack, though she would continue to favor the house until her own death in 1992. And she was connected to her favorite designer one more time, after his death, when she made a cameo appearance in 1964’s Paris When It Sizzles, which stars Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. Dietrich is seen exiting a white Rolls-Royce, dressed head-to-toe in white Dior, and saunters into the Avenue Montaigne boutique. “The producer and the director thought it would be amusing to see me descend from a car and enter Christian Dior’s well-known fashion salon,” she wrote in her 1989 autobiography, Marlene. “I obliged them, of course, but when I see this film on a list of my films I get angry. This is a fraud and, above all, very humiliating for the leading performers in the film.

Dior remained in high demand with other actresses following Stage Fright, crafting pieces for Ava Gardner to wear in the 1957 shipwreck film The Little Hut, while in 1956’s The Ambassador’s Daughter, starring Olivia de Havilland and directed by Norma Krasna, Dior enjoys multiple mentions and moments of branding, including filming both inside and outside his Avenue Montaigne boutique. Gowns and dresses by Dior are seen in abundance throughout the film; the wedding gown seen here, however, is only briefly spotted at the end of the film.

Jennifer Jones, wearing Dior in 1955’s “Stazione Termini."

Between Stage Fright and The Ambassador’s Daughter, Christian Dior would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design — but the nomination is puzzling, as he receives the nod for 1953’s Stazione Termini, starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift, and directed by Vittorio De Sica. A joint production between De Sica and David O. Selznick, who was married to Jones at the time, Stazione Termini was a troubled film not well-received by the critics, and without De Sica’s knowledge or approval, Selznick recut the film down to a 72-minute version and christened it with a more suggestive title, Indiscretion of an American Wife (The Criterion Collection offers both versions on one DVD with other features). Why is Dior’s Oscar nomination a question? Because Jones wears just one costume, the belted Dior suit seen here, throughout most of the film, which is largely told in real time.

Then again, if Judi Dench can win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for eight minutes of screen time in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, while Gloria Grahame was recognized in the same category with a win for nine-and-a-half minutes in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, should Dior’s nomination be questioned because it’s based on one costume? Perhaps, if he had won, but the Academy Award that year went to another film that actually was able to surpass Dior's work with an iconic style statement of its own: Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn and directed by Billy Wilder. Then again, costume designer Edith Head picked up the trophy for Sabrina but neglected to thank Hubert de Givenchy, roundly agreed to be the designer behind the Paris fashions Hepburn wears in the film; perhaps Head was all too aware that couturiers like Dior and Givenchy were becoming increasingly important to silver-screen style.

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