John Galliano originally studied to be a fashion illustrator at Central Saint Martins. He'd even signed a contract for a job in Manhattan. Then the hand of fate turned his head to design. Oh, how different things might have been. For one thing, we'd never have gotten the Dior couture show we saw today.

Galliano's salute to René Gruau, the illustrator whose work for Christian Dior in the forties and fifties created the house's most iconic imagery, felt like it had been a long time coming, not just because of the designer's own early aspirations, but because it gave him another opportunity to indulge his passion for an era when couture was truly haute.

Even that golden age would have been hard-pressed to match the achievements of the atelier Galliano has at his disposal. The graphite smears, pencil strokes and scribbles, erasure marks, and gouache washes of Gruau's illustrations were duplicated in cloth and embroidery, used, said the designer, "in an illustrative way." He called it his most technically challenging collection, but the effort was rarely obvious. It was remarkable that such extravagance managed to capture the speed, the spontaneity, the airiness, even the economy of the illustrator's work. Opulently swagged tops and gowns bobbed and floated like billowing sails. One utterly gorgeous thing hid roses in clouds of white marabou. Dior's New Look was an obvious source point for skirts that flared from corseted waists or dropped pencil-thin to below the knee from rounded hips.

The most dramatic effects were chiaroscuro—the interplay of light and shade, duplicating the wash of Gruau's watercolors and the shadows of Irving Penn's classic couture photography. Where it seemed that hand-painting fabric would have been the simplest way to achieve the desired result, Galliano and his studio used seven layers of tulle to create a shimmering depth of dégradé. The effect was as quietly impressive as the wash of dark pink down a pale pink gown. Embroidery was used on one side of the fabric only, so it cast a subtle relief shadow. Ostrich feathers made swooshes of ink on a huge ball gown, pencil lines were picked out in sequins. And Stephen Jones was in his element—his hats were trompe l'oeil strokes of paint, soaring heavenward.

Orlando Pita's hair and Pat McGrath's makeup duplicated the mesmerizing artifice of the iconic creatures Gruau drew for Dior. You left the show with the feeling that everyone involved had an absolute ball, creating the haute-est fashion for the sheer, pleasurable hell of it. Today, the question of how any of it would convert to anything approaching the real world could be handily put off until Galliano's ready-to-wear show in March. Speaking of that real world, the designer's latest transformation, adapted from his Nureyev-influenced menswear collection the other day, actually made him look like Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.