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Of the more than 200 dressed mannequins featured in the V&A’s forthcoming “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibition, there is one look – an immaculately tailored navy blue wool suit – on display for the first time. It holds a particularly charming story.

The suit consists of a long-sleeved bodice, buttoned down the back with a large white circular collar, all tucked into a tiny 19-inch waisted pencil skirt, with a beautiful curved split at the front.

Both the suit and the 19-inch waist belonged to a spirited young Englishwoman, Jean Dawnay, who overcame a challenging childhood to have a series of adventures and unusual jobs and who would ultimately marry a prince. Abandoning her art school studies in order to assist the war effort, Dawnay worked at a parachute factory and as an air-stewardess before deciding to become a model in her early twenties. Having successfully conquered the British fashion scene she set her sights on Paris and on her first approach in late 1949 was immediately offered work by three of the leading fashion houses.

To model for a Paris couture house was an exclusive job, with each designer having their own select group of models. Each garment shown by the model would be made to her exact body measurements and the model would receive a commission if the garment sold well. Despite being the company offering the lowest salary, Dawnay chose to work for Christian Dior. The designer had launched his haute couture house to great acclaim just two years earlier, in 1947, and had quickly become the leading name in Paris fashion.

As there was already a model at the house named Jane, the designer christened his new recruit Caroline. Dior, an Anglophile, recalled in his autobiography that he hired her for her “essential Englishness”.

Francis Marshall’s sketch of Dawnay in the suit in Dior’s Paris showrooms © V&A

Dawnay began her job at Dior in January 1950. She would return to London in the spring of that year to model in its first London show, at the Savoy hotel on 25 April. Open to the public for the price of a 5 Guinea ticket, all proceeds went to the establishment of a Costume Museum (which would later become the Bath Fashion Museum) and a total of 1,600 people packed into the Savoy ballroom in three sessions to see the collection.

The following day, shrouded in secrecy, the models were driven to the French embassy in Kensington to show the collection in private to a royal audience of four – the then Queen Elizabeth, her daughter Princess Margaret, Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent and her sister Princess Olga of Greece. The clothes shown by the models came from Dior’s Spring/Summer 1950 collection titled “Ligne Verticale” (vertical line).

Dawnay had been excited when Dior told her she would be wearing a suit which he had designed with her in mind. She was less pleased to discover that this navy suit with white collar was titled “Nonette” or “little nun” – not exactly her vision of the cosmopolitan young woman living the high life in Paris.

Jean Dawnay would later detail her time at Dior in her memoir, Model Girl. While Nonette is now in the V&A’s collection, having been donated, along with several other pieces, by Dawnay’s daughter in 2016.

And in the V&A collections we have discovered rare documentary evidence of the suit’s past. The first items were two loose leaves tucked away in the back of a sketchbook with a series of pencil drawings by the fashion illustrator Francis Marshall. Attending the Paris shows for Vogue and the Daily Mail, among other, Marshall had been present when Dawnay first wore the suit in the Paris showroom and had sketched her in real time, capturing the angle of her body as she moved through the showroom. The second find was an image of Dawnay by photographer John French, taken on 25 April 1950 to record Dior’s first London show. Standing outside the Savoy, wearing the suit, Dawnay challenges the camera with an authoritative gaze, one hand raised against a pillar, the other firmly on her hip, her face lit up by the reflection from the large white circular collar.

It is wonderful to be able to bring these disparate records together to give a window into Dawnay’s life and to highlight the story of Nonette. 

‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams’, supported by Swarovski, with further support from American Express at the V&A until 14 July 2019. vam.ac.uk

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