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Christian Dior is basically a household name, having achieved worldwide success after his first New Look collection in 1947, which aimed to turn women into flowers after the brutality of WWII.
Along with this collection, he also released the all-time favorite perfume, his first fragrance, Miss Dior, still a bestseller today.
While Christian has a lot to celebrate, the story of his younger sister, a stoic and courageous woman who has endured more than anyone, is filled with inspiration and fascination.
Catherine Dior was also her brother’s muse for the Miss Dior perfume, described as “the perfume of love”, but which the Telegraph’s Justine Picardie acknowledges will also be “forever emblematic of freedom, too”.
Picardie tells the story of Catherine’s life because, although her story intertwines with that of her brother, she deserves full recognition:
… Her courage during the war as a devoted member of the French Resistance convinced me as a writer that she should be celebrated in her own right, rather than relegated to a secondary footnote in [Christian’s] Biography.
Catherine was born in 1917 and Christian in 1905, a significant age gap of 12, but they were apparently the closest of the family’s five siblings and had a bond that stretched over the years.
They started with a privileged bourgeois education in a town along the Normandy coast, but things started to change after the Wall Street crash, as well as their mother’s death from sepsis.
Here are the Dior children, starting with Catherine on the left, followed by Bernard, Jacqueline, Christian and Raymond:
In 1936, Catherine and Christian lead a decent life together in Paris, she sells accessories while he begins his career as a freelance fashion illustrator:
… They discovered the pleasures of bohemian life in Paris at the end of the thirties.
“Paris had rarely seemed more sparkling to me,” writes Christian in his memoirs. “We flew from ball to ball… Fearing the inevitable cataclysm, we were determined to sink into a burst of splendor.
Then another blow came with the fall of France in 1940, when the two siblings fled to their father’s small farmhouse in rural Provence.
Although they had roses and a vegetable patch, life was not too bad at the moment.
Things really started to get carried away when Catherine fell in love with a French Resistance man named Hervé des Charbonneries.
He was part of an intelligence network known as F2, and Catherine chose to join him, becoming one of the movement’s 400,000 activists.
In 1944, she moved again, this time back to Christian’s in his Parisian apartment, after receiving a coded message urging her to continue her work for F2 in the big city instead:
…[the apartment] was right across from Maxim’s, the trendy restaurant where German officers dined alongside French collaborators who had enriched themselves through their support for the Nazis.
Swastikas flew over the Eiffel Tower and the nearby Arc de Triomphe and the Gestapo took over some of the most prestigious properties in central Paris.
In fact, shortly after the move, Catherine was arrested and tortured by rue de la Pompe Gestapo, which included French collaborators, many of whom were even women.
But worst of all was Friedrich Berger, the leader, who had “a background in espionage and extortion, and possessed a psychopathic capacity for cruelty.”
She is said to be tortured for information at her command, some of which she describes in a witness statement:
“When I arrived in the building, I was immediately questioned about my activities for the Resistance and also about the identity of the leaders under whose orders I was working. This interrogation was accompanied by brutalities: punches, kicks, slaps, etc. When the interrogation turned out to be unsatisfactory, I was taken to the toilet. They undressed me, tied my hands and plunged me into the water, where I stayed for about three quarters of an hour.
But she gave no information, saving her brother and his comrades, despite the “nightmarish system of torture” she had to endure.
The worst was far from over, as Catherine was then forced to move between several concentration camps for women, described as places that seemed as if “God had remained outside”.
If it had not been for death by gas chambers, the 130,000 women imprisoned at Ravensbrück would die by “extermination by labor”, combining hard work, starvation and beatings:
Catherine endured this punitive plan, first at Ravensbrück, with her Siemens arms factory on site, then at the Torgau sub-camp, where she was forced to work hard at another munitions factory, dipping casings into copper in deep acid trays.
The 12-hour shifts were exhausting, and the sulfuric fumes damaged Catherine’s lungs; yet even there she and her companions engaged in secret acts of resistance by sabotaging the machinery, so that from time to time it broke down.
It was only during the “death march” led by SS officers in 1945 that Catherine managed to escape and fulfill the only wish that made her go through all these days of horror: to return to the family home. that she left in Provence.
Christian and Hervé were waiting for her at the station to welcome her at their home and did not recognize her at all when she entered the track:
Her stoicism at work and her commitment to rebuilding her life after the war are all the more remarkable in the context of the physical injuries and severe psychological trauma that resulted from her imprisonment in Germany.
Christian also prospered with her home, but died before her, at the age of 52 in 1957 of a heart attack.
Catherine, as a “moral heiress”, never bragged about her accomplishments and lived to be 91 years old.
She is a truly remarkable woman behind the Dior brand.
Read her story in full here.