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Revolutions In Fashion: Christian Dior

Dec 25, 15 Revolutions In Fashion: Christian Dior

Paris fashion has suffered deeply after the World War II. Its leadership in the fashion world has been challenged. Will Parisian Couture ever recover and handle the rising competition from London and New York as global cities of fashion?

On February 12th, 1947, Christian Dior revealed his first Haute Couture collection in the newly founded Maison on 30 avenue Montaigne in Paris. French fashion designer, whose parents wanted him to be a diplomat, was about to make a furor and to change the world of Haute Couture as everyone knew it.

Christian Dior was born in the seaside town Granville at the Normandy cost in France on January 21st, 1905. His parents owned a fertilizer manufacturing firm, called Dior Freres. He had four siblings, Raymond, Jacqueline, Bernard and Catherine. When Christian was five, the family decided to move to Paris, returning to Normandy every holiday. He was surrounded by flowers, inspiring his imagination. He will carry this passion with him throughout his life and career.

Dior Family

Since the very young age Dior had an artistic state of mind, and dreamed to become involved in art. He began to draw at a very early age, and always preferred decorating and gardening, over the rough and tumble life of his family. At their holiday home in Granville, on the coast near St. Malo, the children would all become involved in preparations for the annual carnival, and Christian soon became well known for designing and making imaginative outfits for his brothers and sisters.

As a teenager in post war Paris Christian became enthralled with the life of the artisan community. Unbeknown to his parents he visited galleries and bars frequented by painters and writers such as Picasso and Cocteau, whilst still appearing to be a shy, withdrawn young man at home. On obtaining his Baccalaureate he asked his parents if he could study at the Academy of Fine Arts, but they were scandalized and flatly refused to give the permission. Instead he was enrolled at the Faculty of Political Science. However, Christian secretly continued to visit the galleries and bars.

After four years at the Faculty it became obvious that he would never obtain his degree and his mother’s hopes of him becoming an ambassador were quickly fading. Having no financial need to earn a living Christian spent the next few years enjoying himself and widening his circle of friends.

At the year of 1928 Christian Dior’s father finally acknowledged his true love and passion, and helped him financially to open an art gallery. The gallery became very successful and ran for few years, until in 1930, when a huge tragedy struck the Dior family. The youngest son, Bernard, who had been mentally unstable for many years, became unmanageable and had to be sent to a psychiatric institution. This was too much for Madame Dior to bear and she became ill. Too demoralized to recover from an operation, she developed septicemia and died at the age of fifty one in 1931.

After the death of Dior’s mother and the Great Depression, that caused the family to close the business and to lose control over Dior Freres, loosing everything they owned, the gallery had to be closed. In order to clean the head and to take his mind of all the disasters and the misery, Christian went on a tour to Russia with a group of architects. They found a country in poverty, but Christian enjoyed the sights he saw on the journey home. But it was impossible to escape the reality for long, and the strain took its toll on Christian who became ill with tuberculosis. His friends once more rallied round and paid for his treatment in the Pyrenees, finishing up on the island of Ibiza, where he became interested in tapestry weaving and designing. After a year of recuperation he finally returned to Paris determined to succeed at something.

Christian was tired of living of his friend’s charity, and was desperate to find a job. He than came to the blinding conclusion that he wanted to become a couturier. Why had he not thought of this before? He was fortunate in finding a room with Jacques Ozenne, an illustrator, who showed him how to perfect his drawings. Christian Dior began selling his fashion sketches outside of his house, for 10 cents each. Ozenne was able to sell some of these sketches too, giving Christian some money at last. Soon Dior went to work illustrating fashions for the weekly magazine Figaro Illustré.

In 1937 Christian Dior started to work for the fashion designer Robert Piguet, who gave him the opportunity to design few collections. While working for Piguet, Dior worked side by side with Pierre Balmain. He left Piguet when he was called to server his duty in the army.

Robert Piguet and Christian Dior

After serving the army, in 1942 Dior joined the fashion house of Lucien Lelong, who worked very hard to preserve the fashion industry during the hard times of the World War II. While Christian, working for Lelong, designed dresses for the wives of the Nazi officers, his sister joined the French Resistance and was captured by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp, being released only in May 1945.

At the end of the Second World War there was a mood of anticipation, particularly amongst the women, many of whom had been assigned to men’s jobs, which entailed them wearing unflattering protective clothing. Something new was required. A new revolution. A New Look.

At the year of 1946, Marcel Boussac, one of the richest men of France, decides to fund a couture house, and invites Dior to join him and revive an old fashion house, Philippe et Gaston. Dior refuses, saying that he wants to build something under his own name. Surprisingly, he gets the full support of Boussac, and on December 8, 1946 the couture house of Dior is founded in Paris.

Marcel Boussac

February 12, 1947 is a day etched in the history of fashion. Christian Dior’s first collection was introduced to the public, offering something that the women after the war were craving for. Ninety stunning designs were shown during the show, offering a special kind of historicism and the return to the Belle Epoque, that served a great inspiration to Dior. Each silhouette in the collection celebrated the beauty of the female figure, pronouncing the shoulders and the hips, small waist and emphasizing the bust. The evening versions of the New Look were very glamorous and consisted of strapless boned tops with full skirts and were ultra feminine. The shaped fitted jacket Dior designed with his New Look full skirt was also teamed with a straight mid calf length skirt.

Dior’s lucky flower, lily of the valley, was stitched inside the hems of the New Look dresses as they debuted to an adoring public. Roses factored in to the designs as well. For Christian Dior, their endless varieties embodied a woman’s desire to blossom and reinvent herself. Among all the splendid feminine looks of the collection, there was one that was the most notable – the Bar afternoon suit, with its pure architectural cut, a cream-coloured morning coat with soft, rounded tails and large, black pleated skirt captured everyone’s attention. Topped with a hat and gloves, it reminded women about their romantic and feminine side. It summarized the message of Dior’s spirit.

Bar suit and jacket, spring/summer 1947  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The slender shoes the models wore during the show, were a fashion revolution on their own. To achieve his signature look, Dior actually re-structured his mannequins to create the ideal silhouette. He folded the material around each curve and revived the tradition of lining the fabrics with taffeta. The full skirts needed support to look good and nylon was used extensively to create bouffant net petticoats or paper nylon petticoats. Several petticoats often of varying styles were worn to get the ‘just right’ look of fullness which progressed from a gentle swish to a round ball.

Each petticoat was stiffened in some way either by conventional starch or a strong sugar solution. Later a hoop crinoline petticoat was developed and it had channeled tapes that were threaded with nylon boning in imitation of whale bone petticoats. A single net petticoat worn over it softened the look of the rigid boning. He used fabric in excess and his styles oozed opulence, and in-built padding around the hip and shoulder areas to create the hour-glass shaped silhouette.

While the two themes for Dior’s spring-summer 1947 collections were En Huit (eight) and Corolla (corolla of flower petals), it will always be remembered as the New Look, as Carmel Snow, the chief editor of Harpers Bazaar those days, defined it. Being the opposite of the austerity clothing and the rationing of fabric during the war, Dior’s lavish used of material was shocking and a very bold stroke. His styles used yards of fabric, approximately ten yards for the early designs. Later Dior even used 80 yards of fabric for newer refinements that eliminated bulk at the waist.

Venus dress, 1949 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art  Junon dress, fall/winter 1949–50  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The New Look was considered irresponsible by many, and protests risen, blaming it for the waste of material, restricting the women and calling it unpatriotic. During one of the photo shoots in a Parisian market, the models were attacked by female vendors over this profligacy. “Mr Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor!”, their posters said. And our beloved Mademoiselle Chanel, when asked about the new king of fashion, sarcastically noted that “only a man who never was intimate with a woman could design something that uncomfortable”.

At the same year of 1947 a perfume society was created by Dior and Boussac, and pretty fast the perfumes and the accessories became the finishing touch. Dior introduced than the haute couture codes in the perfume.

It took a little while for the British and the Americans to adjust to the New Look, but already in 1948 Dior New York opens in Manhattan on the fifth avenue. This would be the first ready-to-wear shop of Dior, after the refuse to sell the designs to the manufacturers and to make ready-to-wear clothes in France. The clients could try on the outfits at the Fifth Avenue showrooms, but had to buy them in one of the many retail outlets in large stores. One of the major best sellers was a suit with a peplum jacket, named Bobby, after Christian’s dog. Christian kept a very close eye on the manufacture of his clothes in America and began designing regular twice yearly collections exclusively for the American market.

Despite all the protests, it was undoubted that a new revolution in the world of the Haute Couture happened again, and Paris was again reestablished as the center of the fashion world. Dior’s New Look would dominate the fashion for the next ten years, although not being the only silhouette if the era. “Women, with their sure instincts, realized that my intention was to make them not just more beautiful but also happier”, Christian Dior said.

Lys Noir evening dress, fall/winter 1957–58  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1953 Dior starts worldwide licensing Couture, selling the licenses to different countries, including Japan, and creating a new revolutionary business model for the business of haute couture.

Remembering how he himself started and always ready to promote a new talent, in 1955 Dior took on twenty year old Yves Saint Laurent, who eventually will become the chief creative designer of the brand.

By this time Christian Dior was exhausted, and his doctors were warning him to take care of his health and to slow down. But his passion did not allow him to stop, and he worked harder than anyone else to achieve his goals. After each collection Christian loved to retreat to the country and he bought an old mill with several cottages at Milly-la-Foret, which he renovated and soon created a garden in which he would work. The weekends were filled with friends, including various young men. Christian’s last companion was Jacques Benita, a young Algerian singer, who he met in 1956 and who, from that time, accompanied him on all the social activities.

Christian Dior 1950  © Bettmann/CORBIS

After the September collection in 1957, Dior was desperate for a rest, and decided to take Benita to Montecatiny in Italy. Dior even decided to diet to look good and more attractive for his young lover, even though Benita said it was unnecessary. But his body could not handle the strain.

Christian Dior died from a heart attack on October 23, 1957 at the age of 52. Till nowadays rumours are surrounding his death, and the circumstances are still undisclosed.

Photo credits: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, CORBIS