Miss Dior … It’s a title wrapped in the scent of rose petals and nostalgia for those of us whose first real perfume was Miss Dior. All those floral smells, the millefiori of sweet and dusky, the bottle with its white satin couture bow.
What a surprise, then, to learn that Miss Dior was named after Christian Dior’s sister Catherine, who was anything but a delicate flower. As Justine Picardie writes in Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture, Catherine was Christian’s favorite sister, the courage to his couture. Where Catherine was a dedicated member of the F2, a stealth arm of the French Resistance, when Hitler came to power, Christian was assiduously working to become known, first as a fashion illustrator, then as a designer under the tutelage of Lucien Lelong, where he quickly distinguished himself.
In Picardie’s telling, these two, 12 years apart, were the closest among the five Dior children (Christian was older, born in 1905). Though their lives as young adults were differently framed by the war, their deep bond remained throughout their lifetimes.
Picardie, the author of a biography of Coco Chanel and a former editor of British Harper’s Bazaar, has nearly unassailable fashion knowledge. She reconstructs with ease and confidence how fashion restored luxury to its French perch after the war, symbolically culminating in the 1947 launch of Christian Dior’s collection, dubbed “the New Look” by the fabled Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow.
The players in the world of Parisian couture and culture were headline-makers, among them Florence Gould, Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton, Chanel, Christian Bérard, and Jacques Fath. But it is the story of Catherine Dior and other women of the Resistance that forms the spine of Picardie’s story.
Catherine Dior was 24 when she met Hervé des Charbonneries at a radio shop in Cannes in 1941. He was debonair, a clandestine member of the F2, and married. In short order, they fell in love, and Catherine, already sympathetic to the Resistance and Charles de Gaulle, at the time the leader of the Free French Forces in England, became a committed and accomplished member of the F2 (his code name was Eric; hers, Caro).
Over the next few years, Dior provided intelligence reports to the British secret services, crucially in 1944 as the Allies were planning the invasion of France on D-day. Exactly 30 days after the Normandy landings, Dior was arrested by the French Gestapo in Paris and taken to 180 Rue de la Pompe, run by a motley crew of black-market thugs notorious for their inventive means of torture.
In one of her few statements about her incarceration during the war, she described being beaten and frequently subjected to waterboarding, huddled naked and bound in a tub filled with ice water. Incredibly, Dior resisted giving up incriminating information.
While his sister was undergoing what the Nazis called “special treatment,” Christian Dior continued working long hours for Lelong in Paris. In his memoir, Dior by Dior, published in 1956, a year before his death, he addressed how deeply Catherine’s absence affected him. “I sometimes wonder how I managed to carry on at all. . . . I exhausted myself in trying to trace her. Work—exigent, all-absorbing work—was the only drug which enabled me to forget her…”
After Rue de la Pompe, Catherine Dior was sent to Fresnes, a prison south of Paris, before being transported to Ravensbrück, the Nazi all-female concentration camp north of Berlin, where she was known only as Prisoner 57813. It was a living hell. Among the more than 130,000 women kept in cramped quarters, later accounts attest to starvation, beatings, rape, so-called medical experiments, and death.
Despite being beaten and waterboarded, Catherine Dior resisted giving up incriminating information.
In April 1945, as the Allies were liberating the camps, the Germans ordered the women of Ravensbrück to leave the camp on foot, one of the notorious Nazi death marches. Dior managed to escape, first to Dresden and then on to Paris. When her brother met her train that May, he didn’t recognize her. She was only 28.
Back and forth the story goes, interweaving connections between the very different lives of the Dior siblings. Although the details of Christian Dior’s soaring reputation are well known, apart from Catherine’s only public statement about the war, given at a trial in October 1945, it was left to Picardie to fill in the details of those years with accounts from other survivors.
Catherine Dior, who died at the age of 90 in June 2008, after living out her postwar days with des Charbonneries in Les Naÿssès, remained true to her Resistance training: Dis rien. As des Charbonneries’s grandson told Picardie about this courageous, largely silent woman, “the dictionary of Catherine Dior would not have many words in it.”
Ruth Peltason is a New York–based writer and editor