Miss Dior: A Sto­ry of Courage and Couture

Jus­tine Picardie

  • Review
By – November 12, 2021

War and fash­ion — some­times these words are incon­gru­ous uttered in the same breath; oth­er times they are meld­ed togeth­er like two sides of a shiny French coin. And that’s just what they do in Miss Dior, the glit­tery new book by British jour­nal­ist Jus­tine Picardie that tells the sto­ry of Cather­ine and Chris­t­ian, two sib­lings whose lives couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent, yet whose hearts stay con­nect­ed through chaos, con­flict, and couture.

The name Chris­t­ian Dior res­onates loud­ly, as he was one of the most wild­ly pop­u­lar fash­ion design­ers of the post-war world. How­ev­er, his younger sis­ter Cather­ine Dior is known only by those who fre­quent­ed her mod­est flower shop and learned that she was the inspi­ra­tion for her brother’s sig­na­ture, rose-scent­ed cre­ation, a per­fume he named after her.

This is because Catherine’s sto­ry has nev­er been told. At least not until now, when Picardie delved into fam­i­ly archives, exhumed old his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, and stud­ied the diaries and mem­oirs of peo­ple who knew the qui­et­ly coura­geous, soft-spo­ken, elu­sive woman. Picardie found so much rich mate­r­i­al that the book reads like a col­or­ful nov­el, mov­ing from the macabre to the ethe­re­al and pre­sent­ing us with a steep wall of con­trasts between Cather­ine and Chris­t­ian, a wall that we can’t fail to enjoy climb­ing as we try to under­stand each of them indi­vid­u­al­ly and gain a firm grasp on their relationship.

For exam­ple, both loved gar­den­ing and adored the ros­es that grew in pro­fu­sion through­out the family’s farm­land. Yet after the fall of France in 1940, while Chris­t­ian con­cen­trat­ed on cre­at­ing his escapist cos­tume ideas and honed his cou­ture skills, Cather­ine became involved with a Resis­tance fight­er who brought her into the movement.

Christian’s life of beau­ty and roman­tic vision — and his abil­i­ty to stay out of trou­ble — con­trast­ed sharply with Catherine’s work gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion on the move­ment of Ger­man troops and war­ships and trans­mit­ting it to British intel­li­gence ser­vices. Their lives diverged even more sharply when she was cap­tured by the Gestapo and impris­oned in Ravens­bruck and then a series of labor camps and final­ly forced to endure one of the infa­mous death march­es of 1945.

As we learn about Cather­ine and Christian’s indi­vid­ual chal­lenges, we also become stark­ly aware of the dual­i­ty of occu­pied France, with Parisian cou­ture palaces on one side and Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps on the oth­er, often with the two inter­min­gling, with a prof­it motive in the mix. The book is a his­to­ry of the war and French pol­i­tics of the time, but also a study of fash­ion. The many pho­tos of dress­es designed dur­ing the peri­od and the celebri­ties who wore them bring some need­ed charm and col­or to the story.

Picardie is well suit­ed to write this book. A fash­ion his­to­ri­an, British nov­el­ist, and mem­oirist who lives in Lon­don, she is also the for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of the British edi­tions of Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Coun­try, and served as the fea­tures edi­tor of British Vogue. In addi­tion, she is the author of sev­er­al books.

Although a clear pic­ture of Cather­ine remains shad­owy through­out the book, we do get a sharp sense of her courage and her strong spir­it, plus her deep belief in the work of the Resis­tance, and we find ample evi­dence in the text that she was noth­ing short of a woman of steel. Despite the fact that she is known because a per­fume was named after her, it is clear from the words of the oth­er women cap­tured by the Nazis and incar­cer­at­ed with her that her true lega­cy is her faith in her own abil­i­ties when faced with the unimag­in­able evil she wit­nessed in occu­pied France.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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