New York Times bestselling author Natasha Lester is known for her engrossing historical novels that include delectable details about the period’s fashion. Her research has taken her from her home in Western Australia to Paris for tours of couture ateliers and the Museum of Art and Design to New York City to see the Dior exhibit at The Met and explore the Garment District. In Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, Natasha met with a fashion conservator to see some vintage Dior dresses up close–and learn more about the profession of preserving these exquisite garments.
Here, Natasha shares the inside details on five of the gorgeous Dior dresses that feature in her newest book, The Paris Secret.
The Venus Dress
“The next day, they went down to the cove. They were both wearing one of Christian’s gowns – Kat in the Soiree de Decembre, long and black, the same violent color as the revelations of yesterday; and Kat’s grandmother in white, the Venus dress, its skirt made of overlapping shells.” —from The Paris Secret
When I did a photo shoot for The Sunday Times back in 2018 with the amazing photographer Stef King, the stylist had two incredible couture gowns flown over from Melbourne for the shoot one of which was long and black and strapless and beautiful. It reminded me of Dior’s Soirée de Décembre gown from 1954, which is also long and black and strapless and beautiful, and has a similarly asymmetrical hem, longer in the back, shorter at the front.
Black was an especially important color in Dior’s palette, which was very unusual back in the late 1940s and 1950s. He said that “the violence of black makes it the most elegant color,” and you can see my tribute to his words in the short quote from The Paris Secret above.
If you’ve read The Paris Secret, you’ll probably see how that fits with the story and maybe why I chose for Kat to wear this dress in that particular scene (no spoilers!)
The Zelie Cocktail Dress
“Kat pulled on another of her grandmother’s delectable dresses: the Zelie cocktail dress from 1954…Kat wanted something that would give her the courage to ask the woman next door the questions she was too afraid to ask her grandmother.” -from The Paris Secret
There’s an absolutely fascinating story behind the Zelie cocktail dress: Nat King Cole’s wife owned the Zelie now held by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.
The conservators there were fascinated by the small but perfect peplum at the back of the dress and wanted to know how it had been constructed. So they took an X-ray of the dress and discovered a series of lead weights sewn into the bottom of the peplum and some seriously heavy duty boning! I know from having looked inside a couple of Dior pieces at the Powerhouse museum that the lead weights were a feature of Dior, but the ones in Zelie are sewn between the lining and the exterior, rather than into little covered pouches like the ones I’ve seen.
There’s so much going on under all that silk in a Dior gown! Not to mention the six petticoats built into the dress to give it that perfect shape. I didn’t know the X-ray story before I chose the dress to go into The Paris Secret, but when I uncovered it, it made me love the dress even more.
The Opera Bouffe
“Kat pulled out more hangers. Each bore something almost as remarkable as the red gown. A dress made from silk rainbows – Kat knew it was called Hellibore – from Galliano’s 1995 collection for Dior. A fabulously fun pink dress, strapless like the red, but with a mass of fabric at the back shaped into a flower-like bustle.” -from The Paris Secret
This would have to be one of the most fun Dior gowns in the wardrobe of 65 dresses Kat finds at the start of The Paris Secret. This is the Opéra Bouffe from 1956, made of pink silk faille with that gorgeous saucy bustle on the back. I don’t know how you would sit down in it, but I think it would be fabulously fun to wear anyway!
I snapped this one at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 2017.
The Tulip Afternoon Dress
“The one she’d chosen to wear today was from the 1953 Tulip line. It was black, with a wonderful bodice designed like a collared shawl that gave the dress a completely unexpected and rather flattering touch. Her hand strayed up to smooth down the collar as she took in the jet-black walls and curved alcoves lined with gold, the moody opulence of the bar.” -from The Paris Secret
Not all the Dior dresses that feature in The Paris Secret are showstopper ballgowns. Some are more subtle but still very beautiful, like this black afternoon dress from the 1953 Tulip line.
I love the cape-like bodice on this dress, so I decided to let Kat wear the dress to the Beaufort Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London when she meets Elliott for the first time.
“She reached out to touch one of the dresses: Le Muguet, a white knee-length dress adorned with hundreds of intricate and perfect lily of the valley flowers. May lilies. Lillies of happiness. Or the lilies that bloomed from Mary’s tears at the foot of the cross.” -from The Paris Secret
Interestingly, this dress has played a part in another of my books, The Paris Seamstress. When I was researching that book, I visited a Parisian atelier where they were making these flowers for a reproduction of this exact Dior gown. So I knew I would have to include this one in The Paris Secret, as it’s very close to my heart.
The dress is made of embroidered organdy, a stiff fabric that holds the shape of the dress perfectly. I loved seeing both the full-size version, and its gorgeous miniature, at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in 2017.
All photos courtesy of Natasha Lester. For more fun fashion facts and photos follow her on Instagram @natashalesterauthor.