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"We hope to bring you the air of Paris"

Dior's 1959 visit to Moscow

In the afternoon of June 11, 1959, a special Air France plane with a delegation of 12 Dior house mannequins and 30 Dior representatives landed in Moscow with trunks carrying 120 models from Dior's current spring collection designed by Yves Saint Laurent. The same day they modeled an initial private showing at the French Embassy for the diplomatic corps before the collection was shown twice daily for five days at the Workers Club on Leningradskoje Chossee, open to every guest who had purchased one of the 12000 tickets (black market prices hit 100 rubles). While photographs showing the catwalk fail to reveal the surreal notion of a Dior collection being presented in a country where the mere idea of fashionable dress has been repressed for decades, LIFE Magazine photographer Howard Sochurek's documentation of the mannequins walking around Moscow's tourist sights are striking images of the cultural clash of Paris Couture with Soviet daily life: French beauties being given bouquets by market women with rough cotton kerchiefs on their heads or admired by Moscow's poorly dressed middle-class in the GUM department store. Other pictures show Dior's house mannequins visiting VDNH and the Kremlin square elegantly garbed in silk suits in the colours of the French flag. 

An American journalist observed: "They have not stopped traffic but were admired and smiled at by all Russians who have seen them today." To prepare the young French women for this rather unusual journey, Dior supplied them with a guide "How to Act in Moscow" that gives an idea of the curious situations visitors in Russia could be confronted with and suggests that the mannequins could have been left unsupervised while exploring Moscow:

"Be on time – whiskey not available - don't photograph children, houses and bridges - never refuse the first cigarette offered to you - always be dignified and correct in restaurants, in the street, in museums and at tombs - at receptions drink moderately and participate in all toasts - if interviewed, mannequins must consult a list of prepared answers - the French Embassy would like mystery stories - women are asked not to walk in pants...".

Dior's administration expected this venture to result in future commercial success, hoping for a vast new market in the USSR. Before sending mannequins to Moscow, Dior's managing director Jacques Rouet had made an exploratory business trip to the red capital in April of 1959 and declared afterwards "We hope to bring you the air of Paris". Plans to stage a fashion show in Moscow had been made two years before, in the summer of 1957, shortly before Christian Dior's sudden passing, which may have terminated ongoing negotiations between Dior and the All-Union Russian Chamber of Commerce. In the second half of the 1950s Paris Couture was keeping an eye on Russia as a potential new trade partner and in 1957 Women's Wear Daily reported "A real Russian couture may emerge in a matter of a few years, in view of greater atterntion being paid to Western fashion trends and the fact that authorities are encouraging interest in style developments". There is no doubt that there was no intention of selling Couture garments in Moscow (except maybe to government officials' wifes) but mainly to advertise perfumes, cosmetics and other licensed products that Dior was selling globally with enourmous success. In the end, no commercial agreement between the two parties was made until 1966, but Dior's fashion expedition to Moscow was certainly a remarkable symbolic act for the slowly opening Socialist mindset towards fashion.