1950 Evening Gowns

Right: Twice each year Dior presented his collections to a select group of private customers, buyers and the press. At this opening of the Autumn-Winter 1955 collection Marlene Dietrich is seated in the front row. Photo by Willy Maywald, 1955.

Haute Couture Evening Gowns

Left: For Dior, accessories were an important part of creating a total look and his dream was to be able to dress women from head to toe. These are his New Look accessories of 1948. Photo by Frank Scherschel, Life Magazine

Willy Maywald Photographer

Dior selected each of his house mannequins personally. He believed that it was their style and personality that brought his clothes to life. Here he is pictured with Renee, of whom he said 'Of all my mannequins, Renee is probably the one who comes nearest to my ideal. Every dress she puts on seems to be a success as though there existed an exact equivalence between her proportions and those of my imagination' ('Dior by Dior, page 128). Photo by Henry Clarke, 1957.

The opening of the Theatre du Chateau de Groussay, 1957. From left: Pafricia Lopez- Willshaw wearing 'Festival' from Dior's Autumn-Winter 1956 collection, her husband Arturo, Francine Weisweiller wearing 'Muguet' (Lily-of-the-valley) from the Spring-Summer 1957 collection, Edouard Dermit and Jean Cocteau.

Photo by Andre Ostier.

a world that he made his own and put forward as the epitome of good taste and elegance. His cleverly coordinated collections conjured up the rather paradoxical image of a modern woman, free of any financial constraints, yet enjoying a demanding and active social life.

The range and subtle variations of a Dior wardrobe made it the arbiter of a new code of good taste, the privilege of a happy few. But, even more importantly, the seasonal need to create something new brought about the stereotype of the style-setter. By launching a new line that was in seeming contrast to the preceding look, Dior turned the very notion of fashion (that of the passing craze) into a system ruled by its own dictates. Never before had the fear of being demodee (out of fashion) reached such a high proportion of women. Take the example of the sort of advice that appeared in numerous magazines the day after the explosive appearance of the New Look. To readers who could never aspire to owning a real Dior, Elles October 1947 issue suggested clever solutions for shortening jackets and lengthening skirts, to rescue dresses already in their readers' wardrobes.

The collections, analysed in advance in a program accompanying each presentation, bore names that sounded like so many slogans. Everything was determined — the colours and fabrics — down to the smallest accessories. The 'total look' that Dior invented was destined to create a lasting career, for himself and his colleagues. He had the undeniable qualities of a fashion designer and businessman, but also (although he denied it) the instincts of a good

Red Evening Gown Dior 1950

Dior's evening dress 'Peruvienne' (Peruvian) from his Milieu du siecle (Mid-century) collection. Presented in 1949, it was full of dramatic lines and technical virtuosity. In this collection Dior was particularly interested in exploring what he called the internal geometry of the material, the grain of the fabric, which through careful cutting gave life and body to his dresses. Photo by Willy Maywald, 1949.

publicist. His much-imitated programs are an example of this. The creed of the creator, his intentions, his vision are clearly exposed, leaving the commentators only a small margin for personal analysis. He was inclined to be both an attentive observer of his work, and his own critic, which became apparent in the publication of his two autobiographical books in 1951 and 1956. These were also professions of faith regarding his trade, which came to symbolise, thanks to him, not only the dream of great luxury, but also that of commercial success.

Although Dior was terrified of the idea of travel, he was astute enough to understand the primary importance of direct contact with the vast world he had to conquer. America, incarnation of modernity, appeared to him as the land of possibility towards which he had to turn. In 1948 he decided to open a shop for a deluxe pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) fashion house producing designs adapted for the American market. This great first in the history of haute couture was followed by other similar initiatives, scattering the Dior label to the four corners of the globe and consolidating the prestige of his empire of luxury.

In less than a decade, he had established the ground rules for the renaissance of French couture. Owing to his rigorous adherence to the rules of his craft and his extraordinary flair, fashion even became a respectable subject outside the fashion houses. On 3 August 1954, the Sorbonne invited Christian Dior to present a lecture titled the 'Aesthetics of fashion' in a course on the history of French civilisation.

Haute Couture Dresses From History

The formal afternoon dress 'Zerline' was part of Dior's Autumn-Winter 1957 collection, the last collection he would present. Photo by Willy Maywald, 1957.

Willy Maywald Dior New Look

Now deemed an heir to the great figures of fashion whom he admired — Poiret, Chanel, Vionnet — the art lover, now couturier, could claim his legacy and combine their qualities. To the flamboyant side of Paul Poiret, he linked the luxury of simplicity dear to Gabrielle Chanel and the advanced techniques of Madeleine Vionnet, adding his own innate sense of construction and quality of execution.

In a few concise phrases he once summed up the challenge confronting the field to which he gave a modern face: 'Fashion has its own moral code however frivolous: ... The maintenance of the tradition of fashion is in the nature of an act of faith. In a century which attempts to tear the heart out of every mystery, fashion guards its secret well, and is the best possible proof that there is still magic abroad.'5 He concluded, with clairvoyance, that 'the great adventure which constitutes Parisian couture is not merely a Temple of Vanities: it is a charming outward manifestation of an ancient civilisation, which intends to survive'.'

* Lydia Kamitsis is curator ofthe Union Française des Arts du Costume, Paris.

1. Christian Dior, Dior by Dior, translated by Antonia Fraser, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1958, p4. 2. Dior, p4. 3. Dior, p33. 4. Dior, Elie Rabourdin and Alice Chavanne, eds. Je suis couturier (I am a couturier), by Christian Dior, Editions du Conquistador, Paris, 195 1, p118. 5. Dior, p p l 8 9 - 9 0 . 6. Dior, pl90.

Haute Couture Fifties Dress

Christian Dior with the mannequin Sylvie. Two months before Dior started designing, the fabric merchants brought their samples for him to make a selection. Wearing the linen toile, or pattern, of the dress, mannequins would stand for hours while Dior draped fabrics over them. Photo by Bellini.


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