Haughty, crop-switching equestriennes in top hats, veils, and impeccable riding habits; incredible ball gowns swathed and swagged in dozens of yards of duchesse satin: This was one of those occasions when John Galliano pushed a Dior couture show into the realms of sensory overload. He'd been galvanized by a research trip to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, where—just up his romantic street—he lost himself in a recent bequest of Charles James gowns being prepared for this spring's exhibition American Woman. "I was reading that, actually, it was Charles James who influenced Monsieur Dior to come up with the New Look," he said. "And then I was looking at a photo of Charles James doing a fitting—and on the wall behind him was a picture of women riding sidesaddle. And that was it!"

That eureka moment—plus the images of Gibson girls and Millicent Rogers in the museum's archive—gave Galliano the imaginative license to relate nip-waisted Dior jackets with full riding skirts to frothy "Naughty Nineties" pastel cocktail dresses and end with a sustained tour de force of satin whipped into ball gowns of an opulence that would have sent Cecil Beaton into seventh heaven. By the time the last came out—a rose-tinted bustier with ice-blue petaled skirts dusted with crystal—you could hear gasps of girly delight from the front-row clients. The fight for who will wear what at the Costume Institute Gala is officially on.

Quite apart from the double-layered references, neatly trimmed to both house tradition and the upcoming American moment, this was an example of Dior teamwork meshing at optimum force. From the models' performances—Karlie Kloss walking as if she were a thoroughbred dressage pony herself—to Pat McGrath's porcelain-perfect makeup and matte red lips, to Stephen Jones' giant snoods, veils, and hats, right through to Michael Howells' backdrop of 3,000 overblown pastel roses, it made for an unforgettable coming together of live atmosphere, detail, and voluptuous visual pleasure. After two seasons in which Galliano has set the fashion agenda with hit lingerie collections at Dior, he is, forgive the pun, a designer firmly back in the saddle.