The house of Christian Dior was one of the first this month to present its Fall/Winter 2020-2021 haute couture collections. In a world where international travel and large scale events are but a fantasy, the question of how the collection would be presented was on everyone’s mind. The Cruise shows in May had been all but cancelled, the men’s shows were getting digital – or phygital, if Alessandro Sartori of Zegna manages to make that term stick – which leaves haute couture. That highest of peaks for fashion, both financially and creatively.

The way Dior did it made me wish all haute couture collections could be viewed this way. Maria Grazia Chiuri set to work on a collection much smaller this time, capped at 37 looks, compared to a usual closer to 70 or 80. The collection was lensed beautifully by Brigitte Niedermair, a creative collaborator tied closely now to the house, in an almost museum-like quality that mirrored the photographer’s fascination with documenting the sensuous shapes and curves of the body. It was then featured in a short fashion film titled “Le Mythe Dior” by the Italian director Matteo Garrone. The gist of the film is a mish-mash of classical Greek and Roman mythical creatures – satyrs, naiads, dryads – frollicking in a forest before they are enticed and romanced by this season’s haute couture creations.

And then, in the best way of all, a number of key looks from the collection were created in miniature on mannequins 40cm tall. The outfits were made painstakingly to scale, constructed fully with the technique and detail of their full-sized counterparts. In Garrone’s film, these are delicately placed and carried around in a magical trunk modelled after the house’s historic 30 Avenue Montaigne building. The creatures of the forest take their pick from the offering, and so the story goes.

But it’s in a series of savoir-faire videos that the magic truly lives and thrives. The petites mains of the Dior couture ateliers walk us through these dresses: references like surrealist imagery and the work of female artists like Lee Miller, Dora Maar, Jacqueline Lamba, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Cindy Sherman, among others; the secrets of construction and technique like draping, pleating, and embroidery. In a rare, uncommon, and deliciously intimate way, it’s become easy and possible to appreciate these dresses beyond the surface. To look at the bones of the dress, to enjoy the artistry and craftsmanship – for those of us not among the happy few who count themselves clientele, I can hardly imagine a better way to experience haute couture.

Look 4 “Hedda”

Photo: Sophie Carre for Dior

This dress in greige satin-crêpe fabric, named presumably after the Romanian-Born American artist and painter Hedda Sterne, is classic Maria Grazia. The fabric is draped and shaped like a peplos dream from Greek antiquity, and features two sections of pleating. The full skirt is sunray-pleated in the style of Dior’s New Look, while the bodice is pleated flat and with more precision to accommodate a built-in bustier. The latter also uses the matte, reverse side of the fabric to create the illusion that the satin-crêpe has been easily folded over the bust line and tucked into itself – finished around a finely braided cord of the same material.

Look 5 “Valentine”

Photo: Sophie Carre for Dior

Consider this look one of the more direct interpretations of the Bar suit of 1947. Instead of centering around structured tailoring, however, “Valentine” is built around softer, more feminine draping. The waist and center of the front are the starting points, with the alabaster crêpe-georgette fabric (cady in the full-sized version) gathered around the waist, continuing into the back. The skirt is a simpler affair than the original Bar, with godet inserts to create volume instead of full pleating.

Look 6 “Marthe”

Photo: Sophie Carre for Dior

One of Christian Dior’s primary inspirations was flowers, and many of his most iconic designs like Junon and Venus reference petals. The Marthe ball gown, in hand-pleated silk gauze, is constructed in a traditional way. Over a crinoline is an underskirt, cut in circles to give it volume and a broad circular shape – the “Corolle” line from 1947. Then, three tiers of fringed silk gauze are layered atop each other to evoke the effect of a flower in bloom, framing the décolletage and face.

Look 33 “Remedios”

Photo: Sophie Carre for Dior

Inspired by the paintings of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, Maria Grazia Chiuri designed this gown to evoke a sort of fantastical fragility. The primary verdigris crêpe fabric is ruffled on the bodice and skirt, then cut into bias rouleaux strips and embroidered finely on tulle to form the intricate chest and sleeve pattern of undulating cords. The technique to create trim this fine aptly requires, as a member of the house’s atelier puts it, “fairy fingers”.

Look 34 “Meraud”

Photo: Sophie Carre for Dior

The collective reverie of a magical forest inspired the bodice of the “Meraud” dress. Its bodice uses an embroidery technique from the turn of the last century – apparently called “lophophore” – and has a textured, matte and shiny look from a mixture of microbeads and iridescent, tourmaline and emerald-coloured stones. This cage-like bodice sits above a skirt constructed from two layers of chiffon with a pattern inspired by a fan from the 1920s that, when spread open, reveals a petal motif.

Look 37 “Dorothea”

Photo: Sophie Carre for Dior

The final look of this haute couture collection is a midnight blue shantung coat. The hand-pleated and fringed silk is stacked and built upon a structure of layers and layers of tulle, giving it its dramatic silhouette and volume. A circle of fabric is folded back to give the collar its broad and sweeping shape, a deceivingly nonchalant couture technique that belies great mastery of fabric and drape. The edges of the fabric are frayed by hand to create a “wild silk” effect, and the final look suggests a nod to the wild, inexplicable dreamscapes of Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning.

Watch it for yourself here: