Secret figure of the Resistance who fought the Nazis and inspired the timeless perfume of her brother: the incredible story of the real Miss Dior


ohn November 1941, Catherine Dior went to Cannes to buy a radio.

The purchase was significant: two years after the start of World War II, France had fallen under German occupation. General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Resistance and future French president, was known to broadcast speeches from London, where he lived in exile. Owning a radio meant being able to listen to one’s addresses – and more generally Radio London, a station operated from the BBC by resistance fighters to their supporters in occupied France. In this radio store, Catherine meets Hervé des Charbonneries, one of the first resistance fighters. The two fell in love, and at the end of the year, Catherine Dior – the sister of illustrious fashion designer Christian Dior – had joined him in a Resistance network.

Catherine Dior would become a crucial figure in the French Resistance, arrested and tortured by the Gestapo in 1944 and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp before her escape near Dresden in 1945. Her story, as written by British novelist and biographer Justine Picardie in a new book, is that of a “true heroine who embodied the best and the bravest spirit of the French resistance during the war”. As Christian’s sister, she became the inspiration for his famous Miss Dior fragrance, a heady floral scent that remains a classic to this day. Miss Dior: a story of courage and couture, recently published by Faber & Faber in the UK and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, chronicles Catherine’s life, caught between the atrocities of war and the glittering legacy of her brother’s fashion house.

Picardie, whose previous books include a biography of Coco Chanel, was invited by Dior to consult their archives, “perhaps with a view to doing a biography of Christian Dior”.

“I started to look at the archives, and there was really nothing on Catherine at that time”, says Picardie. The independent. “But when I found out the minimum amount of information there was about Catherine, I became really intrigued and fascinated by her story. I felt that in order to write about Christian, I needed to write about his relationship with Catherine.

Initially, there were five Dior siblings: Christian, Catherine, Bernard, Raymond and Jacqueline. Raymond, having served in World War I, never shaken the trauma of combat, while Bernard struggled with symptoms of mental illness for years until he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1932. Born 2 August 1917, Catherine lost her mother, Madeleine Dior (to septicemia following an operation), at the age of 14. Her father, Maurice Dior, lost the family fortune in the Wall Street crash in 1929. Young Catherine, writes Picardy, “had no other choice but to accompany her father on his descent into hell. », Moving, unfortunately, from his large childhood home in Normandy to a small farmhouse in Provence.

Catherine Dior in 1945 on her return from deportation

(Christian Dior Parfums Collection, Paris)

In 1936, Catherine and her brother Christian joined Paris together. Christian found work as a fashion designer, while Catherine sold hats and gloves in a boutique. Separated by 12 years, they remained “the closest to the Dior siblings”, writes Picardie. This brief period of recklessness ended in a “quivering stop” when Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. As Paris fell under Nazi occupation and France signed the armistice of June 22, 1940 with Germany, Christian and Catherine had already met again in Provence, selling vegetables at a Cannes market twice a week.

It was the following year that Catherine met and fell in love with Hervé des Charbonneries, then married and father of three children. Catherine, a fervent supporter of De Gaulle, joined Charbonneries in F2, a Resistance network linked to the British and Polish secret services. “Her task,” Picardie writes, “was to collect” (under the code name of Caro) “and convey information on the movements of German troops and warships, and to do this she carried out frequent and long trips by bicycle. to liaise with other F2 agents ”. On one occasion, she withheld “incriminating material” from the Gestapo during a raid, later earning praise for her “cool, cool”.

On the phone, Picardie recognizes Catherine’s first knowledge of “trauma and disturbance” in her childhood, which could have influenced her temperament later as a member of the Resistance. “But,” she adds, “it’s so hard to find out where people get their courage from. What is clear is that very few people had this courage when Catherine joined the Resistance. There were no more than 100,000 active members of the Resistance out of a population of 40 million. And even at its peak, there were 400,000. That’s one percent of the population. So people like Catherine were very, very unusual.

This official document issued by the French government reflects the status of Catherine Dior as a victim of deportation

(Christian Dior Parfums Collection, Paris)

When informants made her stay in Cannes too dangerous, Catherine again went to live with Christian in Paris, where she continued to work for F2. On July 6, 1944, she was arrested, forced into a car by four armed men. She was brutalized, tortured, imprisoned and interrogated by the Gestapo. On August 22, 1944, she was deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. The following month, she was transported to Torgau, a forced labor camp administered by the Buchenwald concentration camp. In October, Catherine was sent alongside 249 other French women to another site called Abteroda. The conditions, wrote Picardie, were “dire”: “Women were expected to sleep on cold cement floors, in the same building as a factory workshop. There were no latrines; rations were minimal (nothing more than watery soups and an occasional piece of dry bread). Shifts, she writes, lasted at least 12 hours. The SS guards beat them if they were considered to be working too slowly. “They were also warned, adds Picardie, that anyone who refused to work would be immediately shot”. In early 1945, as the war entered its final month, Catherine was transferred to another camp, this one at Markkleeberg, near Leipzig.

On April 11, 1945, American forces liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. A few days later, on April 15, 1945, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen. Allied forces were advancing in Europe; the liberation had started. For prisoners, this meant being subjected to evacuation by SS officers. In recounting this period, Picardy quotes Holocaust survivor Zahava Szász Stessel, who once wrote that “the evacuation turned out to be a euphemism for the death march.” The prisoners were forced to walk despite exhaustion and illness, threatened by dogs and armed SS guards. It was during the march, on April 21, 1945, that Catherine escaped near Dresden.

Justine Picardie is the author of ‘Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture’

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

She returned to Paris at the end of May 1945, so emaciated, writes Picardie, that Christian, who was waiting for her, did not recognize her at first. Too ill to eat the dinner that her brother had prepared, Catherine went to convalescence in Provence and, in the fall of 1945, returned to live with Christian and Hervé des Charbonneries in Paris. In France, she received several decorations honoring her work as a resistance fighter: the War Cross, the Volunteer Resistance Cross and the Combatant Cross. She was also made a member of the Legion of Honor – the highest order of merit in France. Britain awarded him the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, recognizing foreign nationals who aided Allied forces.

Catherine, who had inherited a passion for flowers from her mother, found work as a florist. His medical record, according to Picardie, explained his trauma, both physical and mental. “His innate modesty and quiet discretion were cloaked in the silence that surrounded his suffering during the war; her face still showed the sadness and pain she had endured, and her body bore the scars of her torture and punitive imprisonment, ”wrote Picardie. “Instead, Catherine would be associated with the Miss Dior perfume, a fragrance launched at the same time as the couture brand.”

After his sister’s return, Christian Dior founded his own fashion house. He launched his first collection on February 12, 1947, in a salon sprayed with his Miss Dior perfume. According to a confidante of Christian Dior, the name of the perfume came from Catherine, a little by chance. It is said that Christian was wondering what to name his perfume when Catherine entered the room, it is then that Mitzah Bricard, one of Christian Dior’s relatives, would have exclaimed: “Here is Miss Dior!” And so, a perfume was born.

Sketch of a Miss Dior short evening dress embroidered with 1000 flowers (1949)

(Dior Heritage Collection, Paris)

A bottle of Miss Dior perfume

(Antoine Kralik for Christian Dior Parfums)

Seven years after returning to France, Catherine testified in the trial of 14 people accused of war crimes, some of whom tortured her in Paris and caused her to be deported to Germany. As Picardie points out, it was only briefly mentioned in a report from the French daily. The world (without acknowledging his link with Christian Dior) and left out in other media reports.

Catherine died on June 17, 2008, having survived Christian (deceased in 1957 at the age of 52) and Hervé des Charbonneries (deceased in September 1989). Looking at the painting of Catherine’s life, Picardie is careful to highlight Catherine’s own decisions, not defining her by the male figures of her existence.

“I think it’s important to say that it was her first act of Resistance that led her to meet Hervé,” she says. “So it wasn’t just her meeting with Hervé that made her become a Resistance member. Going to find a radio station to listen to Charles De Gaulle’s banned broadcasts from London on the BBC was in itself an act of Resistance. If she had been found with the radio listening to De Gaulle, she would have been arrested and jailed. She had already shown that she had made this commitment.

Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture is published by Faber & Faber in the United Kingdom and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States


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