Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

In memory of Dalida

An exhibition at the Palais Galliera in Paris is remembering the Franco-Egyptian singer Dalida, writes David Tresilian

Born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti in the Cairo district of Shubra in 1933 to a family of Italian origin, the Franco-Egyptian singer Dalida, a stage name adopted in Paris, was one of the most popular European singers of her generation, managing to reinvent herself several times over for changing audiences and enjoying a remarkable 30-year career.

Like many, perhaps most, figures from the European entertainment industry Dalida never managed to make the cross-over to the English-speaking world where even for those of an older generation (she died in 1987) she remains largely unknown. However, in continental Europe and, it seems, other parts of the world, she enjoyed extraordinary success, claiming to have sold some 120 million records during her lifetime and becoming as well-known in the genre of popular song – variété as it is called in France – as Edith Piaf, her older peer.

It is perhaps for the generations that bought these records that a new exhibition of Dalida’s stage outfits has been organised at the Palais Galliera, a fashion museum, in Paris. Running until 13 August and built around a generous bequest from Dalida’s brother Bruno Gigliotti, the exhibition brings together clothes from every stage of Dalida’s long career from the 1950s to the 1980s, interspersing them with clips from her stage shows and films. 

While the exhibition will perhaps appeal most to visitors nostalgic for the popular French music of the 1960s and 1970s, along with connoisseurs of fashion, there is much that is perhaps unexpectedly poignant in it, suggesting the ways in which this determined, talented, restless woman from a lower middle-class immigrant Shubra family became one of the world’s best-selling popular singers and one loved by generations of European audiences.

In her later years and from perhaps the late 1970s onwards, Dalida renewed her relationship with her native Egypt, recording songs in Arabic and visiting Cairo on various occasions during which she met late Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. In 1986, the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine released his film The Sixth Day (Al-Yawm Al-Sadis) adapted from a novel of the same name by the Lebanese writer Andrée Chedid and starring Dalida as a washerwoman of reduced means eking out a living in a Cairo basement. 

Like her increasingly frequent visits to Egypt, the film was a way for Dalida to return to her Cairo roots, since when growing up in Shubra and attending local schools she had dreamed of becoming an actress. Her early Arabic-language films included Sigara wa Kass (A Cigarette and a Drink) directed by Niazi Mustapha in which Dalida, having recently won the Miss Egypt competition in 1954, was cast as an Italian nurse. Earlier, she had appeared as an extra in Ghazal al-Banat (Flirting Girls), a comedy directed by Anwar Wagdi with singer Leila Mourad in a leading role.

Few would make high claims for these films, any more than they would for Dalida’s later films made in France in which she was cast in vamp-like femme fatale roles that did not show off the full extent of her talents. In The Sixth Day by Chahine Dalida enjoyed a late flowering and a return to her family roots and to her first and chosen career. Tragically, she died shortly after the film was released, depriving her of what could have been the beginning of a new and perhaps more fulfilling reinvention of her career.


ARRIVING IN PARIS: The Palais Galliera exhibition begins with Dalida’s arrival in Paris in 1954 and the start of her European singing career. 

Working at first as a cabaret singer, Dalida attracted the attention of French record producers looking for the kind of youthful talent that would be able to turn out more of the hits that were then appearing on European markets in imitation of the teenage music scene developing in the United States. 

Improved technology in the shape of the 45 rpm single record and increasing spending power among young people were giving rise to what were soon to become familiar sales charts of popular music, being easy listening material produced for mass consumption. Dalida, having won one of the first industry competition shows, “Number Ones of Tomorrow,” in Paris, soon began turning out such hits, her sales helped by new music radio stations such as the Paris-based Europe 1.

Her first major hit Bambino, initially intended for established star Gloria Lasso, was soon playing day and night on Europe 1, staying at the top of the French pop music charts for 31 weeks and selling more than 300,000 copies. In 1957 she was topping the bill at the Olympia concert hall in Paris, and by the early 1960s she was at the peak of this first youthful phase of her career.

The Palais Galliera exhibition says of these years that Dalida’s stage presentation differed little from that off-stage, the idea being to fashion an image of a young and modern woman – a starlet, certainly, but also a kind of Parisian everywoman whose clothes, increasingly designed by Paris designer Pierre Balmain, could be seen as within the means of the readers of mainstream fashion magazines. They were as well-adapted for leisure activities as city life, and they were suitable for the new work opportunities that were increasingly opening up to young women.

Dalida’s outfits, inspired by the 1950s “new look” that promoted a more natural, less tailored look for women and was associated perhaps particularly with the Paris designer Christian Dior, featured “generous necklines and nipped-in waists with skirts that rustled about the wearer,” the exhibition says. Dalida “seemed to be hesitating between a Hollywood model of the seductress suggested to her by [Alexandria-born Paris designer] Jean Dessès… and the new, fresh and youthful look fashioned by [stylist] Jacques Esterel, whose creations, characterised by a sophisticated simplicity, caught the atmosphere of the time.”

The first room of the exhibition contains many of Dalida’s outfits from this time, including pieces by Dessès such as a red velvet strapless dress from 1958 and the black lace dress Dalida wore in Rapt au deuxième bureau (Kidnapping in the Deuxième Bureau), a 1958 thriller directed by Jean Stelli. From Esterel, there is a belted shirt dress in blue shantung silk worn by Dalida for a concert at the Theatre de l’Etoile in Paris in September 1959.  

These pieces form a striking contrast to the very different image Dalida began projecting in the second phase of her career from 1966 to 1977. Now the emphasis was more dramatic and less fresh, and there was a clear division between evening wear and the outfits Dalida wore for photoshoots in fashion magazines. 

The exhibition comments that the “chaos of clothing styles” that washed over Europe in the 1960s as “hippie” and other forms of youth culture arrived from the United States left its mark on Dalida’s wardrobe in a new eclecticism “inspired by street fashions… the triumph of jeans and the adoption by women of styles of dress previously reserved for men.” However, in her concert wear it seems that Dalida now adopted a characteristic uniform, designed for her by Balmain, that formed the basis of her stage personality. This uniform, consisting of long dresses, often in black or white, formed a contrast to her earlier, more youthful look and was designed to promote Dalida as an established star.

The exhibition includes various pieces from this period, including a long dress in ivory satin crepe designed by Balmain that Dalida wore for a performance at the Olympia concert hall in 1974. At the same time, it says, Dalida had reinvented herself as a kind of female icon of the 1960s, appearing on TV shows and in photoshoots wearing the “rive gauche” (left bank) look associated with designer Yves Saint Laurent, now coming to prominence in Paris, whose designs typically allowed women to “mix diverse styles of clothing to achieve an individual look rather than submit to the ‘total look’ traditionally imposed by haute couture.”

Dalida, the exhibition says, “made her own the essentials of the Saint Laurent rive gauche ready-to-wear range,” including the tailored jacket, the trouser suit, the trench coat, and the safari suit – the latter in particular being a kind of staple of 1970s fashion in Europe.

LATER YEARS: As far as the music of this period is concerned, Dalida managed to survive the cull of 1950s stars as the youth music of the 1960s took hold, even as she began to appeal more to older and more mainstream audiences. 

As she entered her thirties and forties she could not hope to compete directly with more youthful singers targeting teenage audiences, at least not on their own terms. However, she could adapt ideas from some of the new styles that were now attracting such youthful listeners, repackaging them for mainstream audiences, as she did with a stream of hits including T’aimer follement, Itsi bitsi petit bikini, La leçon de twist and Garde-moi la dernière danse. 

However, Dalida was planning a third, and possibly more ill-advised reinvention, as the third part of the Palais Galliera exhibition reveals. Having established herself as a mainstream star, even receiving a medal from former French president Charles de Gaulle in 1968 in a kind of benediction from the French establishment, Dalida relaunched herself as a disco star in the 1970s, her concerts giving way to song-and-dance spectaculars and her previously sober stage outfits being replaced by what the exhibition calls “athletic queen of disco outfits… sprinkled with rhinestones and sequins.”

This part of the exhibition includes fascinating documentary material from the period, including spectacular performances of some of Dalida’s disco hits packaged up as early music videos. This was an industry that was still in its infancy in the late 1970s, having been developing in tandem with colour television from the earlier part of the decade onwards. Dalida, seeing its potential as she had that of the 45 rpm single record and radio some 25 years before, now threw herself into recording songs with ready-made videos suitable for television broadcast such as Génération 78 and Laissez-moi danser. She also started to appear in outfits that mixed the fur-and-feathers look of American disco with night-club leather gear.

All this was very far away from the Dior designs of the 1950s, and it reflects the enormous musical distance, and frequent reinventions, that Dalida had travelled since the early years of her career. It gave way, the exhibition says, in the last part of Dalida’s career to the “I am every woman” look she adopted in the 1980s in which her “everyday wardrobe, often scarcely less discreet than what she wore on stage, began to explore the multiple opportunities offered by 1980s fashion.” 

Its uncertainties and hesitations, the exhibition notes suggest, building bridges, or severing them, between private and public life, are perhaps linked to an unanswered question – “what does one wear at fifty?”

Perhaps this question, suitably reformulated, was also hanging over Dalida’s musical career. For this visitor at least, whereas Dalida’s disco numbers have a kind of retrospective fascination, linked perhaps to this most unlikely of musical styles and its unpredictable international career, it is a fascination mixed with misgivings. Dalida’s wardrobe, the exhibition says, was lurching precariously in the final years of her career, but so, too, were her musical performances, especially when compared to the unalloyed charm of particularly the first two decades of her career. 

No visitor to the exhibition can fail to be struck by the enormous energy and determination that must have powered this unusually intense three-decade singing career. It ends with clips from Dalida’s films and a display of the clothes she wore in them. Perhaps fittingly, bringing Dalida’s career full circle and back to the childhood of Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti in Shubra, it ends on a clip from Chahine’s film The Sixth Day. 

Today, there is a Dalida museum and visitor trail in the Paris district of Montmartre, this area now being as indissolubly linked with the singer as it is with earlier residents like painters Auguste Renoir, Suzanne Valadon, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Utrillo. Perhaps it would be possible to imagine a similar Dalida trail in Cairo, this time taking in parts of the Shubra neighbourhood where the singer grew up and went to school, the downtown area in which she held down her first jobs, and the site of the Old Cairo Opera House where her father once played first violin in the Opera House orchestra. 

Dalida, une garde-robe de la ville à la scène, Paris Galliera, Paris, until 13 August.

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