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Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture (from the acclaimed author of Coco Chanel)

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Just along the path, I find a maze made out of privet hedges, and remember that one of the curators in the Dior archives told me that Catherine, in old age, had described this to him as an important feature of the garden in her childhood. I am tall enough to be able to see over the hedges, but a little girl, running through the green labyrinth, would have to know it very well to find her way out. I know my own way, comes a whisper in my head, though I cannot be sure whether it is mine, or a memory of my lost sister’s voice, when we played together in the secret gardens of our own childhood. The juxtaposition of terrible shadows and dazzling light is one of the great strengths of this book . . . [Miss Dior] is a very personal, very passionate book.” —Artemis Cooper, Times Literary Supplement At first, as I began to explore Catherine’s history, and realized that she was more or less invisible to Christian’s acolytes, I felt angry on her behalf. And then I wondered how Catherine had navigated the arena of Parisian fashion, with its brittle etiquette, guarded cliques, and whispered gossip. Was she received with respect when she came to see her brother’s couture collections at Avenue Montaigne, amidst the chattering swarm of journalists, editors, celebrities, and socialites? Did they even recognize her as Christian’s sister, or appreciate her association with Miss Dior?

Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture - Goodreads Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture - Goodreads

Catherine outlived her brother by five decades, and died in June 2008, not far from La Colle Noire, at her home in the neighbouring village of Callian. Here she too cultivated roses, both for her own pleasure and to be distilled as an essence for Dior’s perfume manufacturers in nearby Grasse. She had been a loyal and loving sister throughout her brother’s life, and continued to be so after his death, honouring his legacy in many ways, including her consistent support for the Christian Dior museum that was eventually established in Granville. In the course of researching this book, I have been fortunate to meet Liliane’s son, Nicolas Crespelle, who was the much-loved godchild of Catherine Dior. We met in Paris for tea one day, at a café in the same street as the Dior archives, and he appeared to me as quintessentially Parisian as his mother did to Gitta: distinguished-looking, urbane and unruffled, despite having arrived by bicycle. Nicolas was very generous in sharing what he knew, while also emphasising how much had been kept secret from the post-war generation. He was born in February 1947, in the same week as the launch of the New Look collection, and his sister Anne in 1945. ‘No one told us about the war,’ said Nicolas. ‘Catherine only talked to me about it on one occasion, when she said she had been in a camp in Germany.’ All he knew about his mother’s role, at least while she was still alive, was that she had ridden a bicycle during the war; but whenever she started to talk about why she had spent so much time on these cycling expeditions, his father would say that it ‘wasn’t interesting’.

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I think my mother was in love with one of the Polish guys in F2. He died during the war, she was left alone, and then my parents met.’ Nicolas wondered if his father was jealous of Lili’s love affair with another member of the Resistance before they met, or whether it was simply that people of his parents’ generation avoided discussing the German Occupation of France. Nevertheless, he could see the powerful bond that existed between his mother and Catherine, which led to Catherine being chosen as his godmother. The two former resistants continued to spend much time together, for though Nicolas and his sister went to school in Paris, his parents had a holiday home in Provence, in a village close to Catherine’s home in Callian. ‘Catherine and my mother trusted each other completely,’ said Nicolas. Their attachment was based on their shared wartime experience in F2, and because Catherine’s own silence had been responsible for saving Lili’s life. Inventive and captivating, and shaped by Picardie’s own journey, Miss Dior examines the legacy of Christian Dior, the secrets of postwar France, and the unbreakable bond between two remarkable siblings. Most important, it shines overdue recognition on a previously overlooked life, one that epitomized courage and also embodied the astonishing capacity of the human spirit to remain undimmed, even in the darkest circumstances. Christian’s surviving writing also provides a sense of the emotional resonance and powerful influence of the landscape. The young trees that were planted, as he described them in his memoir, ‘grew up, as I did, against the wind and the tides. This is no figure of speech, since the garden hung right over the sea, which could be seen through the railings, and lay exposed to all the turbulence of the weather, as if in prophecy of the troubles of my own life … the walls which encompassed the garden were not enough, any more than the precautions encompassing my childhood were enough, to shield us from storms.’

Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture - Goodreads

In a further sign of the remarkable silence that reigned for so long in France on the subject of the war, Jacques and Lotka’s baby daughter Aude – who was adopted after their death by her father’s brother and sister-in-law – was told nothing about her real parents’ identity and their heroic service in the Resistance. It was only a chance encounter, when she was twenty-three, that finally led to her discovering the truth. It wasn’t until thirty-five years later that Lili told Gitta more about the terrifying circumstances: ‘She had carried four messages, three to individuals in the morning and one to a group meeting that afternoon; eight people had been arrested that day, two in the morning and the six others that afternoon, just as Lili had turned into the streets on her bicycle. All would be executed, mostly hanged after being tortured. “A bad day,” she remembered. Were there many like that? She shrugged, “Ah oui . . .”’ Both Jacques and Lotka were kept in solitary confinement, and repeatedly interrogated and tortured at Montluc prison in Lyons, which was run by the notorious SS officer Klaus Barbie. On 19 August – four days after the Allies had landed on the Mediterranean coast – they were executed by a firing squad, part of a group of twenty-four resistants murdered there during the final atrocities of the Occupation. A few days later, the Germans abandoned Montluc, and Lyons was liberated on 3 September 1944.Though 12 years his junior Catherine (1917-2008) was close to Dior in temperament and shared particularly his devotion to flowers. As children, growing up in the grand Villa les Rhumbs near Mont-Saint-Michel, he and she were allowed to create flower beds in the shapes of a tiger and butterfly.

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