The Dior Palladium dress

Part of the Sailormoon Diaries

The Spring 1992 Christian Dior Palladio dress rises tall on a massive white shelf in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs exhibition space in almost overstated imitation of the towering Greek Ionic columns after which it was designed. Dancing white lights echo around the immersive Christian Dior: couturier du rêve exhibition dreamscape, giving every dress the impression of being the “color of the moon,” calling to mind the old French fairytale, Donkey Skin. For the Palladio dress more than the others, the illusion is particularly apropos.

In 1992, Naoko Takeuchi immortalized the Palladio dress in her then-early manga Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon. It was a bold move, as contemporary as it was timeless; the dress would have been sent down the runway just months before it was published in the manga. In Sailor Moon, the Palladio dress materializes as if a mirage during the most climactic moments for the princess of the moon, Usagi – the heroine named for the Japanese fable of the rabbit (usagi translating to “rabbit”) in the moon.

If not for this appropriation, the Palladio dress would have been destined for relative obscurity. It wasn’t remotely the dress célébrée of the Spring 1992 couture collection – that would be the billowing floral ball gown with which Christy Turlington closed the show. As far as I can tell, the only time it was photographed, perhaps even worn, on a human body was during the couture show at which it debuted; it isn’t featured in any editorials or advertisements from that year. Yet considering that over 35 million Sailor Moon manga volumes have been sold worldwide – to say nothing of the even more well known anime series – it is one of the most iconic couture dresses of all time.

“The design of a dress, furniture, a house, a room, a street and a city are all the same process.”
Gianfranco Ferré

The Palladio dress is every bit a child of its designer. Gianfranco Ferré, controversially appointed as director to the Dior couture house in 1989, studied architecture in Milan before becoming a couturier, and his pedigree is obvious in his work. “The design of a dress, furniture, a house, a room, a street and a city are all the same process,” Ferré famously remarked to GQ magazine in 1988.[i]Although his background in architecture informs most of his work, it is in the Palladio dress more than others that his training culminates so obviously and elaborately. The gold embroidery in the bust painstakingly imitates the frieze of the traditional Ionic capital – indeed, the forms of the bust are embroidered in relief. (That is, the embroidery sculpts the forms and textures of the bust, creating three-dimensional shapes, rather than functioning as a two-dimensional design on the top layer.) The sleeves are a confounding but meticulous imitation of the scrolls of a column, and the flutes along the traditional Ionic column are emulated in the long, plissé silk georgette skirt. Even the name of the dress, “Palladio,” pays homage to the Italian high Renaissance architect and scholar of Classical architecture, Andrea Palladio. Incidentally, there were a few other dresses in the collection that employed the same techniques and materials, but the Palladio dress was the most verbatim reimagining of Greek architecture.

Ferré’s literalism – at best nostalgic and sentimental, at worst patently nerdy – was a quality for which Ferré was often criticized. André Leon Talley remarked that critics of Ferré’s work found his couture as “simply too much, like one extra spoonful of a sublime soufflé.” But while this might have made him an outsider in the French couture circuit, his dress fit perfectly into the confection-colored Sailor Moon story.

The details in the bust of the Palladio gown imitate the frieze of an Ionic column with forensic detail. Even the gold thread embroidery sculpts the three-dimensional shape of the silk in relief. Photo by Pauline Privez, 2011.

Dior director Gianfranco Ferré (center) poses with models Linda Evangelista (left) and Christy Turlington (right) after the Spring 1992 Dior haute couture show. You can see in Evangelista’s gown some of the same gold embroidery and techniques used in the Palladio gown. Turlington, dressed in a sumptuous floral ball gown, closed the show.

Turlington’s dress, the final look in the 1992 Dior Couture show, is modeled for an issue of French Vogue in 1992.
For all of its nerdy indulgences, the Palladio dress is whimsical and sublime. Ferré described the 1992 Dior haute couture collection, titled “Balmy Summer Breezes,” as “a very feminine collection.” The Palladio dress, made in an airy silk georgette, layers the sensibilities of empire fashion, Neoclassical values, and ancient Greek artifacts. We can infer from this collection, and particularly the Palladio dress, conventional values of “feminity” often found in Greek art. Greek art often reflects this theme of the childbearing woman with broad hips, but unsuckled breasts (cite) – simultaneously maternal and youthful – and these values were particularly celebrated in Neoclassical fashion, particularly in empire dresses. Lower necklines freed breasts for breastfeeding, and waistlines were liberated from the constraints of corsets. Empire skirts, which tumbled below a very high waistline, were often made of sheer silk georgette. The empire waist adhered to the Greek program of naturalism both aesthetically and thematically. These sheer, high waists not only drew attention to busts, but to bellies – even pregnant ones. The “natural” female body – whether youthful or maternal, though often both – was foregrounded in empire fashion.

Naoko adapted several features of the dress to suit Princess Serenity; unlike the Palladio dress, which has a column skirt and a fringe hem, Serenity’s dress has a full, ball-gown skirt with a lettuce hem. In this illustration, she included the corsage worn by the model in the Dior 1992 couture runway show.

Princess Serenity, wearing the Palladio dress in the manga. In this particular illustration, you can see where Takeuchi used lace as a stencil for texturing. This is a common practice in shoujo manga. Also notice Serenity’s sheer skirt, true to traditional Empire fashion.
And what princess is more uniquely fit to wear this dress than Sailor Moon? Usagi is a special heroine: she is at once a teenager, Usagi; a magical girl hero, Sailor Moon; and a mother, NeoQueen Serenity. Her daughter, Chibi-Usa (“Little” Usagi), is sent from the future to the present, a relationship Usagi is forced to confront without the experience and wisdom that she gains presumably after the series has ended. As a fourteen-year-old, Usagi faces the serious and sometimes solemn responsibility of childcare, all the while dealing with daily trivial adolescent dilemmas. Her relationship with her daughter is one of tension and also tenderness, an intersection of sentiments often explored in the question of “How do I share my [future] daughter with my boyfriend [and baby daddy]?” Chibi-Usa is a foil for Usagi’s best qualities, and we learn much about Usagi’s maturity and wisdom through the insights of her letters from her future self. Usagi, sent from the past to the future by her own mother, is also in dialogue with her future self. She is at once a young girl and a mother,  a girl who leaps through time – suitably robed in a gown that defies age.Takeuchi often draws Princess Serenity in her gown atop or among Greek columns, so the source material for the Palladio dress figured heavily into her depictions of Usagi during her past life. Greek mythology undergirds much of the Sailor Moon narrative, including characters’ names (Princess Serenity is named after the lunar mare, the Sea of Serenity), backstories, and more.

But it would be presumptuous to say Takeuchi chose this dress as the embodiment of values of femininity as motherhood or youth. Indeed, Usagi is certainly more than the sum of just these parts – she is also a video gamer, a soldier, a friend, and a lover. Lover – this is important because Usagi’s sexuality was always important to the series. Although Usagi appears in the story in various states of disrobement, it isn’t until after the publication of the series that Takeuchi drew Usagi in front-facing nudity. The Palladio dress, though firmly rooted in bygone eras, also expressed quintessentially 90s sensibilities, resembling the slip dresses and negligées that became so popular as day wear during the decade. Though Takeuchi never drew Usagi naked until after Sailor Moon’s publication, she illustrated Serenity’s dress with a sheer skirt. Takeuchi’s adaptation of the dress hinted at Usagi’s budding sexuality, particularly in scenes where she’s drawn with Prince Endymion (more popularly known as Tuxedo Mask).

In this particular illustration, Princess Serenity’s gown is so loosely sketched she almost appears nude, imbuing this moment with immense romance and intimacy. Of Empire fashion, scholar E. Claire Cage remarks that the Empire style was to “lightly veil or reveal the body,” which fit squarely into the Neoclassical idea that La vérité est nue, or “The truth is nude.”
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the dress depicted but one model of womanhood. In fact, the many heroines and anti-heroines of Sailor Moon are all incredibly different. There is Sailor Uranus, who wears a boys’ uniform and races cars and motorcycles; Sailor Mercury, a super genius aspiring doctor; the mysterious Sailor Starlights, who moonlight as male pop stars in search of their princess, to name a few. The most common thing among them is that they’re all beautiful. This wasn’t incidental, but in fact one of the touchstones of Sailor Moon.

In Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, Naoko Takeuchi laid forth a manifesto of beauty. In fact, not unlike Ferré, Takeuchi’s vision of unbridled fantasy was often a point of contention with her editors. But despite pushback, Takeuchi persevered: “I thought,
’I’m going to show these old grandpas that beautiful girl characters can be good for business, and I’m not leaving my concept in the hands of old men.’ So I had to work hard to develop a sense of beauty and elegance in my characters, no matter what their type was.”

Fashion figured heavily into her philosophy of beauty. A well-known fan of couture who also sewed in her spare time, Takeuchi’s obsession with fashion is apparent in Sailor Moon, and Dior’s Palladio dress was not the only dress she borrowed from the runway. She famously used dresses, contemporary advertisements, and fashion editorials, from Thierry Mugler to Chanel, in her artwork. Takeuchi even would send in her original drawings for the manga with beads and lace attached.

“The design of a dress, furniture, a house, a room, a street and a city are all the same process.”
Gianfranco Ferré