Enchanted by Dior? Love the dresses in the V&A’s highly acclaimed exhibition, Designer of Dreams? Then don’t miss this year’s exhibition across the Channel in Normandy at the great couturier’s childhood home on the west coast of the Cherbourg peninsula.
Standing in shady grounds on the clifftop above Granville, the Musée Christian Dior is a must-do, whether you have a designer budget or, like me, just enjoy admiring celebrity fashions. Put up for sale in 1932 when his industrialist father floundered in the economic crisis, it was bought by the town who opened the garden to the public in 1938.
“I have the most tender and wonderful memories of my childhood home”, wrote Dior. “What can I say? Most of my life and style I owe to its position and architecture.”
Today the garden is open, free of charge, all year round, whilst the house opens from April to November, the only Musée de France entirely dedicated to a couturier. And each year, visitors can enjoy a different slant on the life, work and inspiration of Christian Dior who died in Italy of a heart attack in 1957, aged just 52.
The 2019 display sounds like one of its most spectacular – 90 dresses that celebrate the 90th anniversary of the birth of Princess Grace of Monaco. And 37 years after her death in a car accident, the Hollywood actress turned European royalty is still a fashion icon.
Grace Kelly wore Dior for her engagement ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, carrying on her association with the fashion house through its subsequent directors. In 1967, she became ambassador for the children’s brand Baby Dior, and she always decorated her private bathroom with Dior perfume bottles.
All the dresses in the exhibition Grace de Monaco, Princesse en Dior, have been lent by the Palace of Monaco, and reflect her style and taste both as a public figure and as a modern wife and mother. So expect elegance by the bucket load, but also a more informal selection from the royal wardrobe. On top of this, there will be photos, sketches, perfume bottles, and letters between Princess Grace and the House of Dior.
Make sure you leave time too to wander around the tranquil garden with its tree fringed lawns and coastal views. And don’t miss the bust of Dior himself, gazing heavenwards from a plinth in the rose garden. The designer’s love of flowers began as a child whilst watching his mother in her beloved garden, and he was to incorporate floral motifs in many of his clothes – a passion he shared with Princess Grace.
As a firm believer in the power of women, Grace would also have found a kindred spirit in the House of Dior’s current artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri. “I am basically a feminist”, the former actress once remarked. “I think that women can do anything they decide to do.”
So indulge your fashion fantasies in the pink-washed villa in its floral garden and then head downhill to explore the buzzing port of Granville. A town of two halves, Granville is split between the busting area of shops and restaurants at harbour level, and the historic Haute Ville on the promontory above it.
From the 16th century onwards, Granville was a major player in the cod fishing industry off Newfoundland, and you’ll still see colourful boats returning with the day’s catch. Once you’ve admired the sleek sailing yachts and maybe had a seafood meal beside the water, wind up the hill to the upper town.
The first people to live on the promontory were the English, who settled here during the Hundred Years War when Normandy was part of England. In the 16th century, back in French hands, the town was licensed by Louis XIV for military privateering – the legal capture of ships that belonged to enemy nations. Look out for the evocative cliff-top statue of Georges-René Pléville Le Pelley, the privateer with the wooden leg, who was one of 15 admirals based at the town during the Sun King’s reign.
The English built ramparts at Granville and 21st century visitors can still enjoy the rare opportunity of crossing over a wooden drawbridge as they pass beneath the main gate to enter the cobbled streets of the Haute Ville. On the right, the Museum of Old Granville houses maritime artefacts, local costumes and traditional furniture.
Wander along streets of solid no-nonsense houses, splashed in summer with floral window boxes; linger over a drink in pretty Place Cambernon; and visit the Church of Notre Dame with its contemporary stained glass windows.
Granville is a great base for exploring Normandy’s far west and the area around the Bay of Mont St Michel. You can even make like a sailor yourself and take a short trip by ferry to the Channel Islands or to Grand Ile, the only inhabited island in the archipelago of the Iles Chausey. Maritime Normandy at its very best, with a designer fashion bonus!
Granville is 90 minutes from St Malo, 2 hours from Cherbourg, both ports served by Brittany Ferries.
‘Grace de Monaco, Princesse en Dior’ runs from 27 April to 17 November 2019. Adults €9, concessions €5, under 12s free. Opening hours from www.musee-dior-granville.com. For tourist information on Normandy, visit www.normandy-tourism.org.