Most people recognize the name ‘Dior’ as one of the world’s premier fashion houses. People interested in fashion and French history know Christian Dior was its founder and one of the most important figures in modern fashion. But far fewer people know the story of Christian’s sister, Catherine. While not as famous as her brother, she lived a remarkable life. She endured terrible tragedy as a child, joined the French Resistance, was tortured and deported to Ravensbruck, survived a death march, returned to France where she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and inspired one of the most popular perfumes ever.
Today’s episode is an interview with author Justine Picardie on her new book: Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture, which explores the life and world of Catherine Dior. Justine Picardie is the former features director of British Vogue, editor of the Observer magazine and has worked as a fashion columnist for Harper’s Bazaar and the Times of London. She is also an award-winning author of books such as If The Spirit Moves You, My Mother’s Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes, and Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, among others.
Thank you very much for being on the podcast. Before we get to your most recent book. I noticed that in 2010 you published the book Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life. Studying Coco then later researching Catherine Dior must have been quite a shock since the two women couldn’t be more different. Coco was a very public figure who was even a singer in a cabaret, whereas Catherine was reserved to the point of being hidden. When writing Miss Dior a story of courage and couture. Did you reflect on the differences between these two large figures in 20th century French fashion?
Justine: Yes. I mean, inevitably I did. I think that what I reflected on was in terms of the differences. I mean, Miss Dior was as much about Christian Dior’s as it is about Catherine Dior. It’s about a relationship between a brother and a sister. But it’s also about Miss Dior, this sort of imaginary, romanticized version of French femininity, which is represented by the Miss Dior perfume and the Miss Dior couture dress in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. But what struck me having written my Chanel biography, was that with Chanel, you see her becoming really famous. After the end of the First World War and the end of that first global flu pandemic of 1918-1920, and she launches Chanel No. Five in 1921, so a century ago, exactly, and also the little black dress which makes her famous and what I found interesting, you know, through looking at history through the prism of fashion, through couture and perfume that you see Christian Dior becoming globally famous in the same way that Chanel did, but in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. So it’s rather a long answer to your very good question. But my answer is what I was struck is how fashion becomes a way of reflecting a mood after a period of great trauma and disruption. And in its aftermath, you see these two great visionary appearances. First of all, Coco Chanel, then Christian Dior.
Gary: It’s perfectly fine to give long answers to questions, especially because as I read this book, I couldn’t help but think that here you have to interpret the silence, which of course we are going to get more into because Catherine was a very reserved figure. So on that note, what made you want to write about Catherine?
Justine: Well, I wanted to write about her and Christian, her brother. So when I first started the research for the book after my Chanel biography was published, Dior, the House of Dior asked me if I would like to look in their archives with a view perhaps to doing a biography of Christian Dior. And when I looked at those archives, I was struck by the beauty of the artifacts that the couture gowns that have been carefully preserved, the designs, the drawings, the illustrations. And I thought that it would make a really interesting exhibition and indeed that did lead to the Dior Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Viennais The original idea actually came from me and I introduced Dior and the archives to the Viennais. And there is now the big exhibition at Brooklyn, the Dior Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. But the figure of Catherine, I really, nobody really knew anything about her, so I knew I wanted to write about Christian, but I hadn’t found my way into how to tell the story until I heard about Catherine. And I just thought it was so fascinating that his sister, who was the woman he was closest to in the world, she was his best friend as well as her beloved younger sister and who Miss Dior is named for. He called his first perfume Miss Dior, in tribute to Catherine had been so forgotten by history. So what was it about her story that meant that she was apparently written out of his story? And the book explores that. So Catherine joined the French Resistance at the end of 1941 at a time when very few people were active members of the French Resistance in France. There was probably no more than 100,000 active members of the resistance at that point out of a population of 40 million. And I was interested in exploring, if you look at the, you know, the mythic figure of Miss Dior there’s this vision of beauty and luxury and romance and femininity after the Second World War. How is it and why is it that the woman who is the inspiration for this perfume is forgotten? And that’s what the book’s about. That’s what the book explores. What is it about the history of the occupation in France and the resistance and in particular, the women in the French resistance and those who survived deportations to Ravensbruck What was it about their return to France that was literally unbearable for France to talk about?
Gary: So we’ve talked a bit about how Catherine was such a private figure. Was it difficult for you to research her and how did you approach the gaps in the record on her life?
Justine: I never saw this as a biography of Catherine Dior. That’s not what this book is. This book is about Christian, his sister, Catherine and the story of many women who had similar experiences to Catherine either in the French Resistance and also in the concentration camps. So I saw it as a piecing together of threads really, Catherine, nobody knew anything at all about Catherine, so there’s a little bit about her in the Dior archives visually. So there’s pictures of her, both as a child. And then when she was living with Christian in Paris in the 1930s, when he was beginning his career as a freelance fashion illustrator and designer, and she was working in a maison de mode in Paris. So there’s some very atmospheric images which tell you something about how she was his first model in a certain way. Then she appears in the archives of “F2”, which is this resistance network that was originally set up by some of a couple of Polish intelligence officers who found themselves behind enemy lines in France after the fall of France. Some of the Polish army made their way to London and others, but many were killed or put in prisoner of war camps. But one of the earliest French resistance networks was in fact set up by some Polish officers, and then they started recruiting French people, and that was the network that she was part of. So those archives were very interesting, but they were also reporting into and supported by British intelligence. So I also spent a long time looking in the archives the National Archives at Kew in the United Kingdom, which contains some British intelligence, Second World War archives. And then I needed to go to Germany to Ravensbruck to find out what happened to Catherine and other women with her. But I also needed to find out what had happened to her in Paris when she was arrested in July 1944 by a Gestapo unit known as the Rue de la Pompe Gestapo, which had a German sort of sociopath or psychopath really who was in charge and who they liaised with the Gestapo in Paris. But they also recruited French collaborators who worked for the Gestapo and who were involved in these arrests and torture. And there was an investigation into the activities of the Rue la Pompe Gestapo after the war, and there were about 15,000 handwritten statements, which were in about 14 cardboard boxes in a remote archive in France. And I just went through all of these until I could find Catherine Dior’s handwritten statements.
Gary: So many things to talk about that you mentioned, and we are definitely going to get to all of those. But first, let’s talk about Christian Dior, which is, you describe the relationship with her brother as being the most important of her life. Can you tell us about their lifelong partnership?
Justine: I’m not sure it was the most important of her life. It was certainly an extraordinarily long-standing relationship in that, they were very, very close until his death in 1957. So he died in 1957, very unexpectedly of a heart attack. And then she had a long life after his death. She lived until the age of 90 and she didn’t die until 2008. So I think it would be wrong to say it was the most important. It was certainly a profoundly important relationship. I think that what they shared was they were born into this prosperous Belle Époque family in Granville on the Normandy coast. Their father had inherited a family business of fertilizer factories that had been established in the 19th century. So they were born into a very prosperous family. And their mother, Madeleine Dior was a rather remote maternal figure, I suppose, which was quite normal in that kind of upper-class backgrounds. And in those days, they would have been brought up by nannies and governesses nursery maids. But where they were able to find a way, I suppose, to their mother’s heart was through her love of the garden that she had created at their home in Normandy. And it was on top of a clifftop overlooking the English Channel, and she’d really created a garden there against all the odds. And of the five children, it was Christian and Catherine who inherited this love of gardening, which they shared with their mother, but also with each other. And then they went and endured together a series of catastrophes that afflicted the Dior family, the older brother Raymond, who joins the French army during the First World War. Soon after Catherine’s birth, he was the only soldier in his division to survive the appalling death toll of the First World War in the trenches, and he suffered from shell shock and also the aftereffects of mustard gas poisoning. And then their other brother Bernard, developed schizophrenia and was institutionalized. And they never saw him again, and their mother, Madeleine, died of septicemia and then their father lost all his money in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression. So this family that had gone from a very secure and prosperous way of life was left with nothing. So the house in Granville ended up in the hands of the town council. All its contents was sold. Their father, Maurice Dior ended up with a tiny little farmhouse in rural Provence in the hills of Provence. And I think Christian really felt that it was his responsibility to help look after Catherine. She had lost her mother when she was just 13 years old, and he, at the time of his mother’s death and when his father lost all his money in the Wall Street crash, had an art gallery in Paris, which was showing modernist art everybody from Dali to Max Jacob and Picasso, Christian Bérard. But in the early years of the Great Depression, you know, nobody wanted to buy those modernist and surrealist artists. So his gallery went bankrupt and he had to learn how to make a living, which he did by teaching himself to draw. And then as soon as he was able, he gets Catherine the job in maison de mode, and they lived together in Paris. So they discover independence to gather basic economic independence by both having to earn a living. But also, I suppose, the independence of living in Paris in the late 1930s, at a time when it was a center of modernism of Bohemianism. It was a very exciting city for the brother and sister to live in together. So they shared that experience. And then they shared the catastrophic experience of the invasion of France in 1940 and the fall of France and the occupation. And together, first of all, they were living in their father’s farmhouse in Provence, growing vegetables because like so many other people, they were close to starvation because of rationing, so much food and fuel, and so much was being siphoned out of France and into Germany. And so they shared this series of catastrophic events in their life. That’s what made them very close.
Gary: So the next segment of the book is one of the most harrowing yet fascinating parts. Catherine falls in love with a member of the resistance and joins an organization to liberate France. What did she do to fight the occupation?
Justine: So she joins, as you say, she fell in love with a man called as Herve des Charbonneries, who was one of the earliest members of of the French Resistance, and he was part of “F2” to this Franco Polish network that were reporting into British intelligence. It’s very interesting Catherine met him really during her first act of resistance, which was to go and try and find a radio. So she went to Cannes from their little farmhouse in Provence to go in search of a radio and to get a radio, she wanted a radio to listen to General de Gaulle’s band broadcasts on the BBC on behalf of the free French and de Gaulle, you know, from the very beginning of the fall of France and Vichy France was calling on the French to resist, to not collaborate. So the mere fact that she wanted a radio to listen to these broadcasts was a sign that she was prepared to resist and indeed to risk her freedom in that cause. Because simply to have a radio and to listen to those BBC broadcasts of the free French was to risk imprisonment. So when she’s getting the radio, she meets Herve. He recruits her. They fall in love. And her role was to gather intelligence on the German troop movements. And first of all, she did that all the way along the Mediterranean coast and in southern France. So Cannes, Nice, Marseilles. She was part of a very, very active resistance network, but their role was not to, unlike the maquis who would sometimes try and take on the Germans by attacking them or blowing up, you know, perhaps a railway line, Catharine’s roll in “F2” and “F2’s” role was intelligence gathering and as the allies made their plans. Well, first of all, for the United Kingdom, when it was totally isolated and was the last part of Europe not to be occupied they needed information from “F2” on whether the Germans were moving troops to because at that point it looked very likely that the United Kingdom would be invaded. And then, after America joins the war on the allied side, and the allies begin to make their plans to invade, to land on French soil and to fight the Germans. Those landings were taking place on the Mediterranean coast and at Dunkirk, sorry, not Dunkirk on the Normandy coast for the Normandy landings, the D-Day landings. And so the information and the intelligence that was being provided by Catherine and the rest of “F2” was vital for those landings. At the same time, the Gestapo was stepping up their surveillance and infiltration of these resistance networks. And towards the beginning of 1944, Catherine got a coded message, telling her to go to her to her brother in Paris because more and more people were being in her network were being arrested along the southern coast. And so she was told to go to Paris and to continue the activities there in Paris, which she did. So she moved into Christian’s apartment where they’d lived together before the Second World War and he when he was living again. And he sheltered her. He also sheltered other members of her resistance network when they had meetings there. But finally, she was and this particular network was betrayed by a French collaborator, having been infiltrated by a French collaborator. And in early July, Catherine, along with other members of the network, were arrested and tortured at 180 Rue de la Pompe by these particularly brutal collaborators and French Gestapo members. And some of them were so badly tortured that they were killed and indeed to begin with, I mean, the archives of “F2”, one of the leaders originally thought that the Catherine also had been tortured and killed. But in fact, she didn’t give away any names. She survived the most terrible bouts of torture by remaining silent. She saved the life of Hervé, of his family, of her best friend, Lillyanne, who was in the same resistance network and of her brother Christian. So she was tortured on two separate occasions and imprisoned in a French prison and then moved to an internment camp on French soil near Paris and then was deported on the night of the 15th of August 1944. So really, just shortly before the liberation of Paris. And the train that she was on, which was made up of sealed cattle trucks that left Paris, it was the last train of deportees out of Paris before Paris was liberated by the allies on the 25th of August. So she was on a train with about 400 women and there were members of the resistance like her, French women. There were also British SOE agents who’d been working with the French Resistance. There was an American woman on board who’d been working with the French Resistance. She had an American husband and there also about 1800 to 2000 men, including allied airmen, who’d been shot down and who were deported. And the men were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp and the women to Ravensbruck. Christian managed to find out that Catherine, that she’d been imprisoned and that she was then on this train and the train took, a week to reach Germany and until it crossed from the French borders into Germany, Christian had been doing his very best to get Catherine released off the train, as were many other people because the allies were now so close, you know they were on French soil. It seemed particularly brutal that the Nazis was still forcing this train of prisoners to go to Germany. But Christian didn’t succeed in getting Catherine off, and she arrives in in Ravensbruck on the 22nd of August 1944, and Ravensbruck was Hitler’s only concentration camp for women. And she arrives there and it is the beginning. She’s already had this terrible experience of torture and imprisonment in France, and then this terrible journey with no water, no food, no sanitation on the train. And then she arrives in the hell that is Ravensbruck.
Gary: So how did Catherine survive and what was her brother doing while she was in Germany?
Justine: So, when she was in Germany, so she arrived in Ravensbruck and this, I mean, all concentration camps were truly terrible and Ravensbruck was no exception to that rule. She was subjected to a program called extermination through labor. So there were gas chambers at Ravensbruck, but there was also this this truly appalling program where the prisoners will work to death as slave laborers. Some of them stayed at Ravensbruck, there was a Seimans factory, Ravensbruck that was, you know, manufacturing weaponry. There was a textile workshop where women were forced to make SS uniforms and there were various other sort of slave labor that they were forced to do. So Catherine worked at Ravensbruck for a time, and then she was moved to a series of three sub camps. And while I was researching the book and I went to Germany twice when I was researching the book, I just had no idea that there were so many camps, there were over 1100. And many of them have been completely forgotten, and the three that Catherine was moved to, which were called (29:00 Torgau, Abterode and Marklinburgh. Well, you know, none of these are well-known names like Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or Buchenwald, but terrible things happened there. And Catherine was forced to work as a slave labor on a munitions on aircraft engines, and many of her companions and her comrades were worked to death or died of a combination of disease, you know, starvation, exhaustion. And somehow, Katherine survived. And I interviewed a woman in America who met Catherine and in one of these camps along with the other French women. And this woman was just 14 at the time, and she and her 13 year old sister were the only people who had survived in a large Jewish family who had been deported to Auschwitz. And she and her younger sister had ended up at the same slave labor campus as Katherine and a number of the French members of the resistance. And I went to talk to her about her experience, and she is one of the last survivors. And she said that Katherine and this other small group of French women had seemed very, very courageous to her. They had shown her and her younger sister how to do a “v” sign for victory. She also told me that that Catherine had continued to resist by secretly sabotaging the machinery that they were working on so that it would break down all the the components that they were manufacturing set for the Nazi arms manufacturers would have a flaw in them. So, Catherine found a way, I suppose, to survive by resisting. And she said to me that Catherine was the captain of her own soul, which I thought was very sort of powerful description that that somehow that although physically she was in prisons and was suffering terribly, that she somehow found ways of not letting her spirit be crushed by the Nazi regime. And given that everything that the Nazis did in the camps was to dehumanize people, to treat them as subhuman, that the survivors like Catherine, they survived for a number of reasons. One of them just might be luck. The other was the support of their friends around them. And then the other way was to somehow finds a way to keep your spirit alive. And that’s what Catherine did. And she managed to escape from what were known as the death marches. So as the allies were advancing across Germany, she was in a camp that received a command that the prisoners should be evacuated away from the advancing allied troops. So there was this sort of crazy vision that the Nazis still had the leadership that somehow, you know, they were still going to win the war and that these slave laborers would come in useful. So they were forced on to a death march where many, many more of them died, were collapsed and was shot. But Catherine managed to escape after, you know, the most terrible experiences where Germany was in ruins. She escaped in Dresden when Dresden had been firebombed and was in complete ruins. But she finally made her way back to Paris at the end of May 1945, and Christian was there at the train station to meet her. And she, like so many of the returning deportees, was unrecognizable. She was emaciated, her heads had been shaved and she recovered. Physically, by, first of all, going to Provence where she spent the summer of 1945 and there’s a letter in the archives where she said that just being in this place that that she loved with the sunlight in this landscape that she loved was was a way of helping her convalescence. And one of her friends said that one of the few things she’d said about her experience in the camps was that she was determined to see the sunrise and the sunsets again, and in France, this land that she loved and in Provence. So she slowly recovers that summer. And she has the love of the two men that she has these very important relationships with, which is Christian and Herve. Her father was also still alive at this point, though he died in 1946. And she also found a way to go on living despite deep psychological scarring and physical trauma and suffering and through flowers. So she started growing roses and jasmine on her father’s farm after his death in 1946. He left the farms for her, but she also in the autumn of 1945, when she was living with Christian again and in Paris, she received a license to deal in cut flowers in the flower markets in Paris. So she literally, in one sense, becomes a flower woman. And the phrase is important because when Christian makes the decision to set up a couture house and a launch a perfume of his own in 1946, he seems to have decided this in the spring of 1946. It’s when Catherine is living with him, and he says that he wants to launch a fragrance, which is the fragrance of love he calls it. But it’s a floral fragrance, and it’s prime ingredient is rose. But then there are other flowers. That’s a part of it. And Catherine is growing roses, and she is surrounded by roses in Paris, and he also, his first couture collection he calls it “La Corolle” or “the Corolla,” which is, you know, the name of the central part of the flower and the petals, the whirl of petals that surrounds it. And there is Catherine who has found a way to go on living after the trauma of her experience through love and through flowers. And Christian takes this and turns it into his famous vision of couture and perfume.
Gary: It truly is an incredible story, and you do an incredible job detailing her life from her early childhood up far past World War Two. So let’s talk a little bit about her life afterward, you mentioned how she grows, flowers, how she lives a mostly quiet life. However, there is a moment where she does have to reconnect with her prior trauma when she testifies against some members of the Gestapo and their involvement in cracking down on the resistance during World War Two. Can you talk about this trial and her involvement with it?
Justine: Yes, it’s an extraordinary trial based on a long investigation that actually started fairly soon after the liberation of Paris. So this unit that was known as the Rue la Pompe Gestapo. There’s one Polish woman who’d been living in Paris and was horribly tortured at Rue la Pompe, and rather than being deported, she was somehow kind of overlooked and she was actually in hospital when the allies arrived in Paris, and she made a statement saying that she had been arrested and tortured and that there were German members of the Gestapo, but there were French members of the Gestapo, too. So a French investigating magistrate takes on this investigation and it takes until November 1952 for the trial of the Rue la Pompe Gestapo to take place. And in that period, they take literally thousands of witness statements, including from Catherine Dior. I mentioned that in my research, I went through all these handwritten witness statements in order to discover what it was that the Rue la Pompe Gestapo had done and how they operated and their links with black marketeers and racketeers in Paris. And the trial finally takes place, and Catherine is one of the witnesses. And the fact that she appears in court is very, very brave, given how traumatic it was for her talking about her experiences. But what is equally telling is that at this point, her brother is not just one of the most famous Frenchmen in the world. He’s not just the most famous designer in the world. He’s one of the most famous men in the world. And Catherine appears at this trial, and nobody says anything about her in the reporting, and nobody makes the link with the fact that she is Christian Dior’s younger sister. Even more remarkably, because I went to the archives of the newspapers that covered the trial and the reports, the journalist from Lemons, who covers the trial he had been a member of the French Resistance, and he had been deported to a German concentration camp, which was one of the reasons he wanted to to cover the trial. But he says in his reporting on the trial that nobody in France wants to know about the trial, that the public gallery is empty and he makes the point that France cannot bear to think about what has happened during the Second World War when it comes to the widespread collaboration. Of course, not everybody actively collaborated in the same way that the Rue la Pompe Gestapo had active French collaborators. Not everybody were members of the Vichy regime. You know, some people just like in fact, like Christian Dior were tacit supporters of the resistance. Christian Dior by sheltering his sister at his apartments where members of the resistance were meeting. That would have been enough for him to have been deported if he’d been arrested. But so many people, I suppose, just kept their heads down and did what they had to do to survive. But many people made a lot of money out of collaboration. Many people made money out of the black market. And then, of course, you know, there were huge numbers of people that were involved in Vichy France and Vichy France, which had very rapidly dismantled French democracy in 1940 with the establishment of the Vichy regime, had enacted their own viciously anti-Semitic legislation without even being told to by the Germans. So there was there was a lot of, I mean, France was really, I suppose, divided, but you see General de Gaulle with the liberation and his famous speech in August 1944, where he says France, you know, France has been martyred. But then France has been liberated by the whole of France, the true France, the eternal France. So de Gaulle makes this decision
n that in order for France to be reconciled and reunited and to move forward, there has to be this myth that everybody resisted. Everybody comes together for the true France, whereas in fact the reality is many people didn’t resist. And that very difficult, tricky history makes it’s a very traumatic period of France for the French to think about. And I think that one of the things that was so hard for Catherine and other women like her was that when those survivors of Ravensbruck returns and I explore this in the book, some of them had written diaries or memoirs and wanted to talk about it, wanted to publish books. Nobody wanted to talk about it. And as I write about in the book, they go through yet another sense of betrayal and trauma when people cannot bear to hear about their experiences. And I think that perhaps what makes it so difficult and why there is so much silence about the women is some of them, you know, had been sexually assaulted both, either when they were tortured or during that periods of imprisonment. And some of the women who talked about surviving the camps and returning to France and then they were mistaken for (45:58 lay fans on zoo). So those women who had their head shaved off in the immediate aftermath of the liberation were women who were perceived and indeed scapegoated for having been seen as having collaborated. Some of them had their head shaved, so the women returning from the camps also had shaved heads. And there is just so much trauma and suffering and bitterness that France just prefers to forget.
Gary: Yeah, it is one of the most powerful and shocking parts of the book, and I can’t imagine what she must have been going through at the time, having to relive those horrible experiences
Justine: And to also know that so many of the women who had been arrested by the Rue la Pompe Gestapo and tortured died in Ravensbruck. So some of her own comrades in F2 or comrades in the French Resistance who had not only suffered at the hands of the Rue la Pompe Gestapo, thanks to the Rue la Pompe Gestapo, they had been deported to Germany, where they had died. And yet her witness statements are very detailed. She she gives all the
details of what had happened to her, and she gives the names of other women in her resistance network who had been arrested at the same time as her. I mean, one of Christian Dior’s friends, who was in F2 with Catherine, had been killed at Rue de la Pompe. His torture, was so violent that he was killed. So Catherine gives all this information. And when she’s on the witness stand, the only thing that is reported actually in Le Mond and they don’t make the association with Christian Dior. But one of the defense lawyers says that, you know she must have been mistaken. It can’t have been these two particular Frenchmen who tortured her because a number of the people involved had rather conveniently vanished at the end of the war and were never found and were tried in absentia. And so the defense lawyer tries to say, Oh, well, it wasn’t these two particular Frenchmen who were actually, you know, on trial in Paris, and it must have been two of the others who disappeared. And she says, I know who I saw. I know who I’m talking about. So she goes through it, but to a France that appears not really to care very much at this point, they just do not want to be reminded of what has happened. The other thing I think that was very hard for for Catherine was that in the post-war economic miracle that takes place in West Germany, there is many of the German industrialists who had been involved in slave labor, you know, whether it’s at Siemens or BMW, these sort of household names either go to prison for a very short amount of time or never even puts on trial. So nobody from the Siemens factory at Ravensbruck was ever went on trial in Germany. And what we see in West Germany is that after the the immediate famous Nuremberg trial, there is a sort of feeling that the Soviet Union becomes more of a threat. And the the Nazi industrialists, some of whom have never been put in prison and others are let out of prison because there’s a feeling that the West Germany needs to be reconstructed, it needs to be rebuilt. In the way to do that is with these industrialists. So for Catherine, who never returned to Germany after the war. Some of her comrades did and indeed planted roses at Ravensbruck. There’s an extraordinary rose garden that was planted at Ravensbruck by French women and Czech women and Polish women in memory of their sisters and friends and daughters and mothers who died. Catherine didn’t return to Ravensbruck. But even if she just saw a German car with a German number plates on the road in France, she would be angry and upset. And who can blame her when you think she worked as a slave labor in a camp for a BMW factory? And if she, she couldn’t bear to be reminded that those brands like Siemens and BMW, were still operating and very, very successfully. She would never own a German household appliance, for example, whether it was a refrigerator or a cooker. And she certainly, she hated seeing German cars. So in that sense, she couldn’t forgive or forget. But she did make a very meaningful life for herself, and she lived life on her own terms. She remained with Herve des Charbonneries until his death in 1989 and they ran the flower business together in Paris and then the rose growing business together at their home in France. And when her brother died in 1957, he made Catherine, he described her as his moral heir. So she was in charge of his legacy. So all his drawings, his illustrations, the couture gowns, it’s thanks to Catherine that there is the Christian Dior Museum in their childhood home and in Grenville. She became the first president of that museum in the 1990s, and much of the Dior archives is based on material that Catherine preserved, so she was incredibly loyal to Christian and to his artistic legacy. She also, every year she would go to the commemoration of people that had died fighting for French freedom, both during the Second World War and she would remember those who had died for France, and she, on one occasion talked to schoolchildren in her local village. And I actually met one of the people that had been a child at that point, but is now a grown man. And he said that when she came to speak to the school about the Second World War, she didn’t say anything horrific about her experiences. She just said, France have been occupied and the Nazis had occupied France and the many people had suffered and that some people had resisted. So she puts it in quite simple terms. There was no horror in her description, but she felt it was important for these schoolchildren to know what had happened during the war so that it could never happen again. She lived until she was ninety. And she carried on growing her roses, which were still used for Dior perfume, including for Miss Dior. She lived until the age of 90, and she died in June 2008, having brought in her what would prove to be her final harvest of roses. And that, to me, is extraordinarily inspiring that this, I mean, I love gardening, I’m a keen gardener and in my garden and I’ve planted roses in memory of Catherine and the women like her and I think to grow roses or indeed to create a garden is a sign of hope in the future. You don’t plant a tree or plant a meadow full of roses unless you’re thinking of future generations, unless you’re looking ahead to the years ahead. It is an act of faith. It is an act of hope to plant roses. And the other extraordinary thing about roses at the final chapter of my book is called No Rose Without a Thorn, and that is based on a, you know, on a saying that there is no rose without a thorn and roses are beautiful. Roses are fragrant, but they are also covered in thorns. And and that seems to me to be so wonderfully emblematic of Catherine. She showed great resilience. There are roses that can survive terrible winters. Indeed, the roses that were planted at Ravensbruck are called Resurrection Roses because they have an ability to survive very cold winters. But sometimes roses die in a very cold winter. And yet Catherine would go on planting her roses, go on tending her roses. And that’s such an extraordinary act of resilience and hope.
Gary: So let’s get back to the title of your book, Miss Dior. Despite living largely in the shadows, she did have an impact on her brother and through him, the fashion world. And I think it’s apropos that you mentioned the roses and her cultivation because this definitely plays into it. What impact did Miss Dior have on French and world fashion?
Justine: Well, Miss Dior the perfume becomes and remains one of the most successful perfumes in the world, so it’s still not only survives today, but it still thrives today. And for many people, you know that bottle, little bottle of Miss Dior will be very emblematic of something that is seen as being quintessentially French, just as Christian Dior comes to represents the continuation of French tradition, the tradition of French luxury of artistry, of couture after the war. It continues to represent that today, so Miss Dior the perfume still continues today. Christian Dior also designs a very beautiful couture dress called the Miss Dior couture gown, which is a gown covered in thousands of beautifully, intricately hand embroidered flowers, including roses and lily of the valley. And that gown still survives in the Dior archives, but it has also been remade by the currents or reinterpreted by the current creative director of Christian Dior, who’s Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first female creative director of Dior and Maria Grazia Chiuri has put feminism at the heart of her creative vision for the brand. And by making a Miss Dior dress, you have that sense of how Miss Dior remains at the heart of the brand. Maria Grazia has also been inspired in part by my research and my book into the figure of Catherine Dior because of her independence, because of her fight for freedom. And so there have been subtle references to Catherine and Maria Grazia’s creative vision for the brands. So, Spring 2020 collection was inspired by the figure of Catherine as a gardener, as a constant gardener. And so you see that in Maria Grazia’s designs. She also did a bag which she called the Caro bag, and it’s a very subtle reference as her own tribute to Catherine because Caro was Catherine’s codename in the French Resistance. So you see how today and 2021 Catherine continues to inspire Christian Dior today.
Gary: Your book uncovers a unique figure with an incredible story, having served in the resistance, survived a concentration camp and death March, won the Croix de Guerre, and engaged in France’s world-renowned fashion industry. But your book isn’t just about her, it’s also about you and your journey to rediscover this largely unknown figure. What was your main takeaway from researching Catherine Dior, and what do you hope your readers will be left with once they finish the last page?
Justine: Well, I suppose I hope that the readers will have come with me on this journey and it is in place as a very personal journey because I literally went to the places that I was writing about. So their home in Granville, the family home, which is Les Rhumbs was the name of the villa and the garden is still there today. The family home is now the Christian Dior Museum. I went to two Ravensbruck. I went to the satellite camps. I discovered the Rose Garden in Ravensbruck, which is one of the most moving places I’ve ever been to in my life, not just my life as a writer, I’m now 60, so in my entire life. And to Avenue Montaigne to Christian’s use couture salon, to his home in Provence, (59:00 the Cold War to lead Nice,) which was where Catherine and Christian had lived together in the 30s and in the early years of the war. And then when she left after the war with Herve and where I went and stayed during the rose harvest when I was writing and researching my book, so the reader comes with me. And in that sense, you know, some of the book is written in the first person because I myself were going to those places, and I hope that the reader will come with me. So I hope that by joining me on this journey, the reader will feel a kind of personal experience of this historical period and will have realized that there are so many stories that and women’s stories that I have written about in the book that it is about her story, all her stories, as well as history. And that history is very often the story of generals, of military leaders, of prime ministers, of presidents of male politicians. And I hope that this book will give a sense of people who are often not part of mainstream history. And I include Christian Dior in that because I think that all too often fashion can be marginalized from the history of war because it’s seen as being frivolous and just not relevant. But I think that my experience of writing about Coco Chanel and Christian Dior has taught me that fashion is what we wear is an important expression of history. I mean, Virginia Woolf, in her wonderful novel Orlanzo, says clothes change our view of the world in the world’s view of us, and I would agree with that. You know, the Nazis were obsessed with the clothes they wore. You look at how Jewish people were forced to wear a yellow star so that they were forced to sew it onto their clothes. And it came out of that their clothing rations, they were forced to be marked out as being different. And then the concentration camp uniforms, those striped uniforms that that we should be allowed to look at the fabric of history and the fabric of history includes real material. The warp and weft of history can include what people wear. And I mean, the story of the history of couture during the occupation of Paris is fascinating to the couture industry, thrived during the occupation of Paris. And there is a myth that was just because it was down to German officers and the wives and mistresses of Nazi officials and Germans, in fact. Yes, there were some. Some Germans were buying couture, but there were also a lot of French collaborators who had made a lot of money, whose wives and girlfriends were dressed in couture, and that hadn’t really been written about before. So I wanted to explore these areas. And I hope that the people, I ultimately hope is that I was interested, fascinated in doing the research in things that I’d know nothing about. And I hope that readers will share that fascination and untold stories.
Gary: The book is Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Culture by Justine Picardie. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Justine: Thank you. Thank you, Gary.
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