The legend of Christian Dior usually begins with the New Look, his debut collection in February 1947 that turned him into a global phenomenon, thanks to his romantic vision of fashion and femininity. Seldom is there any reference to his sister Catherine, the woman he loved most in the world, and the original inspiration for his first perfume, Miss Dior, which was launched in the same year, and continues to be a phenomenally successful best-seller today.
Yet Catherine’s life was threaded through his, and her wartime courage as a dedicated member of the French Resistance convinced me as a writer that she should be celebrated in her own right, rather than relegated to an incidental footnote in his biography. I was also intrigued as to how Christian’s beguiling concept of beauty had emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, while his sister was still bearing the scars of her hard-fought battle for freedom.
Catherine was 12 years younger than Christian – he was born in 1905, she in 1917 – but they were the closest of five siblings, with a shared passion from their childhood for gardening, art and music. They had grown up in the prosperous bourgeois surroundings of the family home in Granville, on the coast of Normandy, where their father had inherited a successful fertiliser business. However, this privileged way of life was destroyed when their father lost his fortune in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, and their mother died of septicaemia in 1931, when Christian was 26 and Catherine 14.
Christian saw it as his responsibility to look after Catherine, and in 1936 they began living together in Paris, where he earned a living as a freelance fashion illustrator, and she worked in a maison de mode, selling hats, gloves and other accessories. Catherine also appears to have been a model for her brother’s early designs; youthful photographs show her wearing a chic black dress and decorative necklace, her dark eyes facing the camera with a characteristically direct gaze, her hair coiffed and eyebrows arched.
Yet there was nothing of the simpering mannequin about Catherine, and her relationship with Christian was based on a profound friendship, mutual respect and understanding of each other. Thus they discovered the pleasures of bohemian life in Paris in the late ’30s. “Paris had rarely seemed more scintillating,” wrote Christian in his memoir. “We flitted from ball to ball … Fearing the inevitable cataclysm, we were determined to go down in a burst of splendour.”
After the fall of France in 1940, Christian and Catherine retreated to their father’s small farmhouse in rural Provence, where they planted vegetables and tended a field of roses. At the end of 1941, Christian returned to Paris to work for the couturier Lucien Lelong, while Catherine remained in Provence. Soon afterwards, on a trip to Cannes, she met a dedicated member of the French Resistance named Herve des Charbonneries. It was love at first sight for them both, although Herve was already married with three children. Along with his mother and his wife Lucie, Herve was part of an intelligence network known as F2, and Catherine swiftly joined them.
Fearing the inevitable cataclysm, we were determined to go down in a burst of splendour.
Catherine and Herve were staunch supporters of General Charles de Gaulle, the exiled leader of the Free French, who had embarked on his crusade against the Occupation in June 1940. But F2 had closer links with the Polish and British intelligence services in London, and was one of the most effective networks in supplying vital information about German movements to the Allies. They were also under constant threat from informers and the Milice, a fascist French militia set up by the collaborationist Vichy regime at the beginning of 1943.
In March 1944, Catherine received a coded message warning her to leave the south of France and travel to Paris, to continue her work for F2 there. She moved into Christian’s apartment on Rue Royale, which she used as a safe place for meeting her colleagues in F2. By sheltering his sister and her comrades, Christian was certainly putting himself at risk, not least because Rue Royale was at the epicentre of Occupied Paris. It was just across the street from Maxim’s, the fashionable restaurant where German officers dined alongside French collaborators. Swastikas flew above the nearby Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe and the Gestapo had seized some of the most prestigious properties in central Paris.
While some fashion houses, including Chanel, closed during the war, much of the couture industry continued to flourish during the Occupation, serving a similar clientele to Maxim’s. Christian Dior’s friend and colleague at Lelong, Pierre Balmain, recorded in his autobiography that their customers “consisted mainly of wives of French officials who had to keep up appearances, and of industrialists who were carrying on business as usual”.
He remembered standing with Christian Dior before the first show of 1943, scanning the audience of “women who were enjoying the fruits of their husbands’ profiteering. ‘Just think!’ [Dior] exclaimed. ‘All those women going to be shot in Lelong dresses!’”
As it turned out, it was his sister Catherine who was arrested on July 6, 1944, and she suffered grievously at the hands of a gang known as the Rue de la Pompe Gestapo, made up principally of French collaborators, including several women. One of the women, Madeleine Marchand, had managed to infiltrate F2 as a double agent. It was her betrayal that led to the arrest of 26 members of the network. Catherine was the last to be captured; she was seized on the Place du Trocadero by four armed men, forced into their car, blindfolded, and driven to 180 Rue de la Pompe. There, in an apartment that had been forcibly requisitioned from its Jewish owners, a nightmarish system of torture took place.
Catherine subsequently gave a witness statement describing her experience: “When I arrived in the building, I was immediately subjected to an interrogation on my activities for the Resistance and also on the identity of the chiefs under whose orders I was working. This interrogation was accompanied by brutalities: punching, kicking, slapping, etc. When the interrogation proved unsatisfactory, I was taken to the bathroom. They undressed me, bound my hands and plunged me into the water, where I remained for about three quarters of an hour.”
After this terrifying episode, Catherine was transported to Fresnes, a prison on the outskirts of Paris. Two days later, she was taken back to Rue de la Pompe, where she was tortured yet again in the bathroom, and submerged in icy water for several hours, until she came close to drowning.
Despite these brutal assaults, she gave nothing away, thereby saving the lives of her surviving comrades in the Resistance, and protecting her brother from arrest. Catherine’s records in the Resistance archives refer to her “exemplary courage” when subjected to “particularly odious” forms of torture.
On August 15 – just 10 days before the Liberation of Paris – Catherine was one of 400 women on the last train of prisoners to be deported from Paris to Germany. Christian had tried desperately to save her, and held out hopes that, as the Allies gained ground, she might be set free before the train crossed the French border. Instead, she remained locked in an overcrowded cattle truck, with no food or sanitation, and very little water. After travelling for a week in these appalling conditions, Catherine and her companions arrived at Ravensbruck on August 22, 1944.
This was Hitler’s only concentration camp for women, built in 1939 near Furstenberg, a small town about 50 miles north of Berlin. It was hidden by scenic woodland and stood beside a serene lake; but those who passed through the camp’s immense iron gates entered a hell on earth. About 130,000 women were imprisoned at Ravensbruck over the course of six years. The death toll remains unknown: estimates have ranged from 30,000 to 90,000.
Catherine endured this punishing scheme, first at Ravensbruck, with its Siemens armaments factory on site, and then at the sub-camp of Torgau, where she was forced to toil in another munitions plant, dipping copper shell cases into deep trays of acid. The 12-hour shifts were exhausting, and the sulphuric fumes damaged Catherine’s lungs; yet even there, she and her companions engaged in secret acts of resistance by sabotaging the machinery, so that every so often it broke down.
From Torgau, Catherine was transported to another sub-camp called Abteroda, where BMW operated an underground facility manufacturing aircraft engines. Conditions were dire: the women slept on a cold cement floor; there were no latrines; rations were minimal (watery soup and dry bread); and they were beaten by SS guards if they worked too slowly. Yet these women were still determined to resist the Germans, and wherever possible they would insert flaws into the tiny sub-components of the engines.
What sustained Catherine Dior was a single fierce desire: to return to the family home in Provence, and see the sun rise and set in her beloved country again.
In April 1945, during one of “the death march” evacuations taking place across Germany, Catherine slipped away in Dresden, a city that lay in ruins following weeks of intensive bombing, and was liberated by Soviet troops. At the end of May she finally returned to Paris, where Christian was waiting at the railway station. He had never given up hope that she had survived, despite nine months of silence about her fate. When she stepped off the train, he did not immediately recognise his emaciated sister.
During the course of the European summer, Catherine began to recover at her father’s farmhouse in Provence and was finally well enough to return to Paris with Herve; the couple moved into Christian’s apartment at Rue Royale. Both needed to earn a living, so they set up a cut-flower business, supplying florists in Paris; Catherine would rise at 4am to go to the flower market at Les Halles.
Her return also seemed to bring about a change in Christian; in April 1946 he suddenly found the confidence to open his own couture house. When he showed his New Look collection, Catherine was in the audience, and the floral perfume that he had named in her honour, Miss Dior, was sprayed throughout his elegant premises at 30 Avenue Montaigne.
Dior described his conception of a softly padded silhouette as being inspired by the corolla, a delicate whorl of petals. “In December 1946, as a result of the war and uniforms, women still looked and dressed like Amazons,” he wrote in his memoir. “But I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts.”
In reality, Catherine appeared the very opposite of Amazonian; when she was photographed wearing the uniform of the Free French forces, her face was indescribably sad. If she was Christian’s original flower girl – her arms filled with the scented roses that she grew in Provence – then she was also a heroine who bore witness to the ugly depravity of evil.
Yet at no point did Catherine’s story receive any attention, even when she appeared as a witness at the trial in 1952 of those members of the Rue de la Pompe Gestapo who had been tracked down. A similar silence surrounded the fate of many of her compatriots in the Resistance (the women, in particular), as if the shame of the collaboration in France made it too difficult to acknowledge the crimes that had been committed against them.
By the time of Christian’s sudden death of a heart attack in 1957, at the age of 52, he was the most successful designer in the world. He had restored the prestige of French fashion and contributed to his country’s economic recovery, thanks in part to the vast international appeal of Miss Dior.
After his death, Catherine, who received the Legion d’Honneur in 1994, devoted herself to tending the rose fields at the family property in Provence; the annual harvest provided an essential ingredient in the creation of Miss Dior (as is still the case today). Herve and Catherine remained devoted, but never married, and she continued to live life on her own terms, until she died in 2008, aged 91. Christian had memorably described Miss Dior as “the fragrance of love”, but to my mind, its spirit will be forever emblematic of freedom, too.
© Justine Picardie / Telegraph Media Group Limited 2021.
Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture by Justine Picardie will be published by Allen & Unwin in November.
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