The princess and the frock star

From movie icons to socialites, Christian Dior dressed them all. But his greatest muse was Princess Margaret, says Justine Picardie.

‘Women,’ wrote Christian Dior in his memoir, ‘have instinctively understood that I dream of making them not only more beautiful, but also happier.’ After the debut collection of his eponymous couture house on 12 February 1947, which launched what the formidable editor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow coined ‘the New Look’, women flocked to be dressed by him. And in May 1949, Christian Dior’s status as fashion royalty was confirmed as a result of a visit by Princess Margaret to his couture salon.

Princess Margaret and Christian Dior
Princess Margaret meeting Christian Dior for the first time at his Paris salon, 1951. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images

Margaret was 18 and on her first European holiday. The princess created a sensation wherever she went, attracting swarms of photographers and journalists, for – as Christian recalled – ‘she crystallised the whole popular frantic interest in royalty… She was a real fairy princess, delicate, graceful, exquisite’. Such was the frenzy surrounding Margaret that she had been pursued throughout Italy in the preceding days by paparazzi, who captured images of her in a bikini on the island of Capri, which were then published around the world. Meanwhile, a female journalist slipped into Margaret’s hotel suite, and reported that it contained a detective story (Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers), a bottle of Tweed perfume and a phial of Peggy Sage nail polish.

Margaret was already perceived as being fashion-conscious. For the silver wedding celebrations of her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the previous year, she had worn an outfit designed by the Queen’s dressmaker, Norman Hartnell: a full skirt and fitted jacket in forget-me-not blue that had been much admired in the press. Margaret was also ravishingly pretty, with big blue eyes, a soft, peach-like complexion and a voluptuous hourglass figure that was perfectly aligned with the New Look silhouette.

Dior fashion show
A Dior fashion show at Blenheim Palace. Image: Keystone-France/Gamma-Ra​pho/Getty Images

On 31 May, the princess was filmed being met by Christian Dior at his couture house on 30 Avenue Montaigne. After a tour, she was shown dresses from the Trompe l’œil collection, which included the now famous Miss Dior design, and chose a romantic evening gown for herself. Years later, she recalled: ‘My favourite dress of all was never photographed. It was my first Dior dress, white strapless tulle and a vast satin bow at the back. Underneath the huge skirt there was a kind of beehive, fixed like a farthingale [a hooped petticoat]. It meant I could move any way, even walk backwards, without tripping up.’

Dior was delighted to have secured such a high-profile client, and impressed by Margaret’s sartorial confidence. In his memoir, he noted that she ‘was keenly interested in fashion, and also, unlike many women, knew exactly the sort of fashions which suited her fragile height and Titania-like figure’. Princess Margaret is the only one of Dior’s clients identified by name in his memoir, as if her patronage represented the highest acclaim, beyond that of any film star or rich socialite.

Princess Margaret and Christian Dior
Princess Margaret is given a private view of the new collection at Dior’s salon, 1951. Image: Topfoto/PA Images

The Dior dress, however, raised eyebrows when Margaret wore it for the first time at a dinner party given by her father; apparently her mother suggested that shoulder straps should be added, and the low-cut neckline raised to a more demure level.

Despite the Queen’s concern, she nevertheless accompanied her younger daughter to meet the couturier and view his latest collection when he came to London in April 1950. Dior was there for his British debut at the Savoy hotel. Tickets for the two shows on 25 April sold out so quickly that a third was added. The next day, a private show was held for members of the royal family at the French embassy. The Queen and Princess Margaret attended, along with the Duchess of Kent and her sister, Princess Olga of Greece and Denmark. According to Dior, the proceedings were shrouded in secrecy. ‘The huge ball dresses, with their voluminous skirts concealed by covers, were smuggled out of the service door of the Savoy,’ he recalled. ‘The whole operation took place amidst a telltale rustle of material and constant “sshs”.’

After arriving at the embassy, a ‘final, chaotic, rather emotional rehearsal’ took place. The models had practised walking backwards out of the room, in line with royal protocol, but the Queen requested that they turn around so that she and her companions could see the garments in all their glory. After the show, Dior was introduced to the Queen: ‘I was instantly struck by her elegance, which I had been quite unprepared for: that, and the atmosphere of graciousness which she radiates. The mauve dress and draped hat which she wore would have been quite inconceivable on anyone else – as it was, on her they looked wonderful.’

Christian Dior
Christian Dior surrounded by models following his show at the Savoy, 1950. Image: Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images

Dior was equally enthusiastic about the other Englishwomen that he encountered. ‘I adore the English,’ he declared, ‘dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well, but also in those flowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.’ Indeed, what he termed his ‘Anglomania’ extended even further: ‘There is no other country in the world, besides my own, whose way of life I like so much. I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture, I even love English cooking! I dote on Yorkshire pudding, mince pies, stuffed chicken, and above all I worship the English breakfast of tea, porridge, eggs and bacon.’

As the younger royal daughter, Margaret was able to distinguish herself from the future queen with a glamour that also contained a streak of rebellion. It would have been perceived as unpatriotic for a queen, or the heir to the throne, to appear in French couture, but Margaret was allowed to choose a Dior dress for her 21st birthday, and to wear it in Cecil Beaton’s memorable portrait of her at Buckingham Palace in July 1951. Among the most romantic of Dior’s ballgowns, it was made of white silk organza, the seven layers of the full skirt ingeniously gathered into a 21-and-a-half-inch waist, and embroidered with floral motifs that formed the perfect frame for an English rose.

When London’s V&A Museum staged its immensely popular Dior exhibition in 2019, the birthday dress proved to have lost none of its original appeal. The gown took pride of place, displayed opposite Beaton’s picture. He noted in his diary that she jokingly said she liked the golden embellishment ‘because it’s got bits of potato peel on it’. In fact, its most unusual feature was the incorporation of raffia and straw into the intricate embroidery, combined with mother of pearl, sequins and rhinestones. The princess wore the dress to her birthday party at Balmoral in August 1951, and again on 21 November that year, at a charity ball in Paris. The morning after the event, pictures of her dancing at the ball appeared in newspapers around the world.

Princess Margaret and the Queen
Princess Margaret with the Queen at Royal Ascot, 1952. Image: Topfoto/PA Images

As Elizabeth ascended to the throne, the differences between the two sisters inevitably became more marked. The photograph of Princess Margaret in her white Dior dress at Ascot in June 1952 (above) shows her walking a few steps behind her sister. Both of them are very beautiful, but it is Princess Margaret who looks chic, her wide-brimmed hat trimmed with black ribbon to match her black gloves and sandals.

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In December 1951, Princess Margaret had appeared for the first time in the International Best Dressed List, an annual ranking started by the New York Dress Institute in 1940, and which regularly featured the Duchess of Windsor (formerly Mrs Wallis Simpson). The princess was ranked at number 13, while the duchess was in the top spot. By 1953, however, Margaret had risen to number eight, two places above her. The list was widely reported in the press. For as Picture Post observed about Margaret’s relationship with fashion: ‘What she wears is News. It is seen by thousands of women in person, hundreds of thousands on newsreels, millions who read the newspapers and magazines. Her dresses, her hats, are copied, modified and sold to girls all over the country in weeks. Her whole life is a public appearance. She is known as the Princess who loves clothes.’

Princess Margaret and Christian Dior
Dior receiving his Certificate of Life Membership of the British Red Cross from Princess Margaret, 1954. Image: Keystone-France/Gamma-Ra​pho

Hence the significance of her appearance as the guest of honour at a Dior show at Blenheim Palace on 3 November 1954. The event was organised by the Duchess of Marlborough in aid of the British Red Cross. Such was the duchess’s allegiance to the charity that when she conducted an expedition to meet Christian Dior at his headquarters in Paris, she arrived dressed in her Red Cross uniform, an outfit admired by the couturier as setting off ‘the chic of her tall figure’.

In his memoir, Dior remarked on the ‘magnificence’ of the surroundings, and the series of 14 salons that the models paraded through, before an audience of 2,000. He also noted that Blenheim had originally been built for the first Duke of Marlborough ‘in recognition of his great victories over the French… When I saw the two flags of France and England fluttering together in the afternoon wind over the palace, I silently asked Marlborough’s pardon for having set up the triumphant standard of French fashion in such a place. At any moment I expected his indignant ghost to join the line of mannequins.’ No such apparition appeared; and Dior was applauded by the audience, fêted by the press and presented with a Certificate of Life Membership of the British Red Cross by Princess Margaret.

This is an edited extract from Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture by Justine Picardie.

*To be published on 9 September by Faber & Faber, prince £25. To preorder a copy for £21.25 until 5 September go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.