egance by MariLa Genty*
'Far from wanting to revolutionise fashion ... I only wanted to dress the most elegant women, from the most elegant ranks of society."
Such boldness from one so timid was enough to convince industrialist Marcel Boussac when Christian Dior came to him with his plan: to create a fashion house under his own name, something 'small and secluded, with very few workrooms; within them the work would be done according to the highest traditions of haute couture; ... and would be aimed at a clientele of really elegant women'.2 It would produce only clothes 'which would give an impression of simplicity, [but] would in fact involve elaborate workmanship'3 to cater to markets abroad. The die was cast, and on 8 October 1946 the Societe Christian Dior was formed.
But just who was the man behind the name Christian Dior? Born in 1905 at Granville in Normandy, Christian Dior did not come to the world of fashion until the age of thirty, after
Opposite: 'Curacao', from the 1954 Autumn - Winter collection, known as the H-line. Dior's intention was to create an elongated, youthful line by pushing up the bust and dropping the waist to the hip. The press dubbed it the String Bean or Flat Look, mistaking the high bustline for no bust. Photo by Henry Clarke.
Each season Dior presented a collection of the most dramatic and feminine evening gowns. 'Junon' (Juno) was part of his Milieu du siecle (Mid-century) collection of 1949, which referred to the crinoline dresses of the mid-1800s. Photo by Horst.
Opposite: Some of Dior's most beautiful dresses featured elaborate floral embroidery. In 'Vilmorin' (detail shown), from the Spring-Summer 1952 collection, delicate daisies seem to grow from the white organza ground. Photo by Sacha.
originally training for a diplomatic career, setting up an art gallery and travelling widely outside France. He worked briefly as a fashion illustrator, but from 1938 to the declaration of the Second World War he was employed as an assistant to couturier Robert Piguet, and then became a junior designer for Lucien Lelong. At Lelong's he learned a sense of fabric, honed his creative talents and observed the workings of a major fashion house.
In 1946 he left Lelong and set up his own premises at 30 avenue Montaigne in 'an attractive dwelling ... with [a] classical and Parisian elegance. I was determined that my decor should not degenerate into elaborate decorations and distract the eye from my clothes.'4 The pearl grey and white Louis XVI decor he knew from his childhood was perfectly in tune with the atmosphere at his establishment and, in its characteristic elegance, contributed to the famous Dior look.
Such surrounds demanded 'a staff of great class',5 rigorously handpicked by Christian Dior. His gift lay in his choice of the best employees who, along with the clout of Marcel Boussac, allowed him to develop the quality he strove for as 'a conscientious craftsman" and gave free rein to his imagination.
To provide an overview of each collection and ensure the smooth running of the fashion parade, Dior drew up charts containing the name and number of each dress, a fabric sample, and brief descriptions and details of all the accessories. Photo by Loomis Dean, Life Magazine, about 1957.
Opposite: Dior relied on his technical director, Marguerite Carre, to oversee the translation of his sketches into clothes. Each workroom, under the leadership of a skilled head, was assigned a number of dresses to complete. In the background of this photograph are dress forms, which were made to the measurements of each client. Photo by Bellini.
Christian Dior's first collection was unveiled to le Tout Paris (the cream of Parisian society) on 12 February 1947, amid great excitement. It was received with 'a hurricane of applause'. 'It's quite a revolution, dear Christian,' said Carmel Snow, chief editor of Harper's Bazaar, uttering her famous phrase: 'Your dresses have such a new look. They are wonderful, you know.'7 And so the New Look, as the first Dior collection came to be known, was born.
Deliberately turning his back on the military style so favoured in the 1940s, Christian Dior revived the feminine look, with clothes that were all soft curves. His dresses emphasised the breasts, featured little rounded shoulders and a nipped-in waist, flaring at the hips into a straight or flowing skirt that dropped to below calf length. These were the new lines a la Dior, typified in his 'Bar' suit.
An afternoon dress could take anything from 3 to 40 metres of fabric: 40 metres of faille were used to make 'Cherie'. This abundance of fabric signalled the end of postwar restraint and heralded the kind of fashion women hungered for, and this was the key to the enormous success of the New Look.
On the other side of the Atlantic, however, department stores reacted with hostility after
their orders of Dior gowns sold out in the space of twenty-four hours. Alliances were formed to defend short skirts, and Dior was accused of 'disfiguring' women. Only the strenuous efforts of the fashion editors saved the day, by convincing the buyers to go back to Paris. By the end of 1947 America had been conquered, and Nieman Marcus in Dallas awarded Christian Dior the Oscar of Haute Couture in recognition of the new life he had breathed into fashion.
Orders began to mount up and, to cope with the demand, two new workrooms were added to the three Dior had started with. The second collection was even more successful than the first.
The next step was to expand and take advantage of the Christian Dior name: why not create accessories to his designs, articles like perfume, furs, hats, stockings, gloves, shoes and jewellery? Not even the slightest detail of elegance was to be ignored. Christian Dior's dream was now realised: to dress women 'from head to foot',8 right down to their underwear.
In order to satisfy Dior's desire to provide a complete wardrobe, a whole network sprang
'Favori' (Favourite), from Dior's Oblique line, was shown in his Autumn-Winter 1950 collection.
The tie scarf wrapped across the body and was cinched under the belt, giving the suit a dynamic asymmetrical line. Photo by Irving Penn.
Opposite: For Dior, line, shape and proportion were most important, as seen in the dramatic silhouette of the 'Cocotte ' (Sweetie) suit from his Spring-Summer 1948 collection.
Photo by Coffin, 1948.
up around the central hub. Jacques Rouet, Dior's administrative manager and financier, soon put in place a system for manufacture under licence to the name Christian Dior. Licensing contracts were signed with department stores in Australia, Canada, Cuba, Chile and Mexico.
From the earliest days of the couture house, the name of Christian Dior extended its influence beyond its native borders. In 1948 Christian Dior opened boutiques in New York and Caracas, and another followed in London in 1954.
With twenty-eight workrooms by 1954 the Dior empire was flourishing. The future was bright. But every season demanded new designs to surprise his two to three thousand clients and inspire them to renew their Christian Dior wardrobes.
Names of lines like Zig-Zag, Envoi (Flight), Cyclone, Moulins a Vent (Windmills) or Ciseaux (Scissors) not only created an image in the public's mind, but also made movement the focus of each collection. Dior's whirlwind pleated dresses gave life and youth to the form, transforming the wearer into a flower. The Z-shape formed by the folds of a gown recalled the flighty strokes of a pencil sketch. The impression of flight with every step came from an unequal distribution of the fullness of the skirt of a dress.
Creating volume, emphasising a neckline, accentuating a waist with an overlay, a bow or a crossover, asymmetrical effect — to assiduous followers of the seasonal collections these were the details of the broad direction in which Christian Dior was moving, keeping the New Look well and truly alive.
But were these details and seasonal changes enough to entice women to wear Dior? They were also invited to dream a little with embroidered gowns rich in Persian-inspired motifs and equal to the finest pieces of jewellery. And tempted to reconsider the charms of a rustic ball with dresses sewn with daisies, currants or dragonflies. Creating an embossed effect, creating texture with lace, braid or jet— anything to fuel women's imaginations.
Each collection was a cunningly orchestrated coup de theatre: by constantly coming up with something new Dior ensured maximum publicity for every collection.
After the wasp waist and oversized full skirts, Christian Dior realised that women wanted clothes that were in tune with the demands of daily life. He moved away from the New Look and onto collections dominated by geometric lines. In the 1950s the words 'vertical', 'oblique', 'oval' and 'long' came up time and time again, suggesting a stylisation of the female figure. But the culmination of Dior's geometric lines were the H, A and Ydesigns.
The H-line, created for the 1954 Autumn-Winter collection, essentially lengthened and streamlined the torso to create a half-girl/half-woman effect. The dresses, suits and coats were cut along parallel lines like the letter H. The Flat Look or Haricot Vert (String Bean), as the fashion media dubbed them, seemed to flatten the chest — arousing a great deal of criticism and controversy.
The shape symbolised by the letter A, introduced in the Spring-Summer collection of 1955, was similar in construction to the H-line, but was based on two joining diagonals. The dominant effect was once again a longer torso, while the crossbar of the A, representing the waist, was more mobile.
The Y-line of the 1955 Autumn-Winter collection was a reaction against long basques and dropped waists. In this collection the two upward strokes of the Y formed a wide, high bustline. The waist was tightly nipped in and placed higher than usual, giving an extra length to the skirt, and therefore also to the legs. The key element in Dior's letter collections was the variation in waistlines.
But closer to Dior's heart than the latest novelty was his desire to meet the needs of his elegant clientele. He developed a system of chartes (charts) to ensure balance in the collections and to give an overview of the types of garments each one featured. These large sheets of paper (measuring 24 x 1 9 inches) were pinned to the wall or placed on the floor of his studio and detailed every item in the collection, from suits to evening wear, in thirteen different categories. A fabric sample for each garment was attached, along with any relevant
For Dior the hat was an indispensable part of the total look, complementing the proportions and line of the dress. He spent many hours designing and selecting hats for each of his outfits, and his hat styles came to be as influential as his clothes. Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1953.
Right: On the day of the showing of a new collection, chaos reigned as dressers, mannequins, hairdressers and workroom heads crowded into the dressing-rooms. For Dior, this was the moment when the collection passed out of his hands into those of the mannequins. Here the mannequin is being dressed in 'May', an evening gown from Dior's Spring-Summer 1953 collection. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1953.
Left: Seamstresses at work at Maison Dior. When Dior set up his house he carefully handpicked his staff, aiming for a mix of technical expertise with inspirational flair. His seamstresses in particular had to be technically very skilled: each dress was constructed on a foundation, and, instead of using darts, Dior insisted that they mould the fabric to shape with hot irons. Photo by Bellini.
Presented in his Envoi (Flight) collection of 1948, Dior considered the 'Adelaide' evening gown his masterpiece. With 70 metres of tulle in the skill alone the dress embodies the femininity, luxury and extravagance of Dior's New Look and marks the end of wartime restraint. It was shown at the Dior parade in Sydney in 1948. Photo by Coffin, 1948.
Olivia de Havilland was a long-standing customer of Dior. At her wedding to Pierre Galante she wore the 'A' suit from Dior's Spring-Summer 1955 collection. Photo by Mike Dulmen.
instructions for the workrooms making up the pattern. The chart also featured the names of the individual models and the mannequins who wore them at the collections.
The Dior charts have been preserved in the company's archives and are considered an invaluable legacy. They are evidence of the detailed nature of the lines created by Christian Dior and his successors and, even more importantly, they constitute a resource through which we can more readily identify each of their designs.
After the devastating death of Christian Dior on 24 October 1957, Yves Saint Laurent was asked to take over the studio. He was only twenty-one years old, but Dior had already identified him as crown prince. Saint Laurent's first collection, in 1958, went under the name Trapeze (Trapezium). It was a triumph, and for three years he continued Dior's geometric themes. But by 1960, quite soon after his departure, a new spirit had taken over.
Marc Bohan took another tack when it came to feminine elegance: he wanted distinc-tiveness without rigidity, and sought to make Dior products more accessible. Two pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) lines were introduced: Miss Dior in 1967 and Christian Dior Monsieur in 1970.
From the early 1950s Dior began to move away from the nipped waists and full skirts of the New Look, and his collections became dominated by geometric lines. His Y-line was clearly expressed in 'Voyageur' (Voyager) from the Autumn-Winter 1955 collection. The large stole creates the arms of the Y and the slim skirt the stem. Photo by Willy Maywald, 1955.
In 1968 Frederic Castet joined Bohan with the launch of Dior's couture furs. The harmonious assembly of shapes and lines, the variety and combination of furs, the ingenious preparation of the hides, new colours, and work with the best workrooms added a new dynamism. So many great talents under the one roof played an important part in carrying on the name and spreading the reputation of the House of Dior.
Since 1989 Gianfranco Ferre has continued the Dior spirit. His emphasis is on geometric and graphic designs, the purest lines and masculine fabrics, rendered feminine with accentuated curves, and highlighted with lace or organza, embroidery or flowers. His work is a series of colourful and extravagant variations on the abiding theme of the House of Dior: Couture and Elegance.
* Marika Genty is librarian-archivist for Christian Dior, Paris.
1. Christian Dior, Dior by Dior, translated by Antonia Fraser, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1958, p20 and p135. 2. Dior, pp7-8. 3. Dior, p8. 4. Dior, p19. 5. Dior, p 11. 6. Dior, p21. 7. Cited in Francoise Giroud, Dior: Christian Dior 1905—57, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987, p9. 8. Dior, pl46.
Of all the great names to have made their mark on the history of fashion, only a few have succeeded in doing what Christian Dior did: reinvent the rules, for all time, in the space of a single decade.
With an acute awareness of the importance of his trade, he opened the House of Dior in 1946 and established a way of working that was to signal the advent of a new era in haute couture.
This success story is all the more dazzling because the road that led to it was so long and unusual. Son of an industrialist, Christian Dior had to renounce his artistic leanings to study political science, in accordance with his father's ambitions. But far from thinking of a future diplomatic career, the young student preferred to lead the life of a gilded Bohemian, surrounded by the artist friends who formed his tastes. In 1928, pushed into practising a trade, he obtained (not without difficulty) financial assistance from his parents to open an art gallery, on the express condition that he remain a silent partner. He and his associate, Jacques Bonjean, exhibited the work of artists they admired — Picasso, Braque, Matisse,
Opposite: The 'Bar' suit was a star attraction of Dior's first collection in 1947. The short, fabric-skimping dresses and masculine silhouette of wartime fashions were swept away by the long, full skirts, softly rounded shoulders and tightly nipped waists of the New Look. Photo by Willy Maywald, 1955.
Dufy — and those who were close to them, including Christian Berard, Salvador Dali and Max Jacob. But this experiment, which satisfied Dior's keen interest in art in all its forms, was cut short by his father's bankruptcy in 1931. He withdrew the funds given by his parents from the gallery, but continued, with his friend Pierre Colle, to promote the Surrealists and Salvador Dali. In 1934 Dior fell ill with tuberculosis and spent a year in convalescence.
On returning to Paris in search of something to satisfy his own needs and help his family, and on the advice of his friends, Dior tried his hand at fashion design. A complete novice, he knew nothing of this world, but a few couturiers, and milliners especially, accepted his sketches, as did the newspapers, including the women's pages of the daily Le Figaro.
These hesitant beginnings in fashion took a more decisive turn in 1938 when Robert Piguet hired him as an assistant designer. For the inexperienced Christian Dior, it was an opening into the profession of design, and he was quick to prove his ability. The 'Cafe Anglais' model he created there attracted a great deal of attention, as did the 'Robes Amphores', and they both showed the essence of what was to become the Dior style. 'Cafe Anglais', a black-and-white hound's-tooth check suit, consisted of a wide overskirt draped over a full petticoat, and a short, fitted jacket in black woollen fabric. The 'Robes Amphores' featured a full skirt (seemingly inadvertently inverted, so that the skirt's fullness was at the waist rather than the hem), caught in at the waist by a belt — launching the fashion for fuller, rounded hips.
From 1941 Christian Dior spent five years with Lucien Lelong, which gave him the opportunity to perfect his technical knowledge and to develop his sense of discipline in execution. He thus added his skills as a tailor to his talents as a connoisseur, his love of avantgarde art and his proven entrepreneurial ability.
A fortuitous meeting with industrialist Marcel Boussac gave Dior the chance to capitalise on his multifaceted experiences. Drawing on that experience in their new venture — the creation of a fashion house — helped lend originality to what came to be a successful business enterprise. From the time of his first collection, presented in February 1947, Christian Dior reaffirmed his unfailing ability to create an event. He captured the spirit of the times — and ultimately created it.
In a reaction to what he called the 'hideous fashions'1 that had characterised the war years, Dior chose to take an opposing perspective. He said that 'Hats were far too large, skirts far too short, jackets far too long'2 and replaced them with the exact opposite. He proposed a feminine image, one contrary to the military look. Novel though it seemed, this merely harked back to the age of the crinoline. The New Look, with its rounded shoulders, wasp waists, generous hips and long, full skirts was only new from a very short view of fashion history. It was a stroke of genius to pass off as innovation what a whole century had
'Diorama', the centrepiece of Dior's second collection, for Autumn-Winter 1947, had taken Dior's seamstresses 230 hours to complete and included 26 metres of fabric and 42 metres of braid. Photo by Forlano.
done its utmost to forget. It appears that the success of this style was chiefly due to the persistent need that people seem to have in times of crisis to seek comfort in the trappings of what are thought to have been more carefree times. After years of deprivation and misery, the wish to believe in a bright future pushed people to a desire for splendour. Dior sensed this and accentuated it in his second collection. 'Dresses took up fantastic yardages of material, and this time went right down to the ankles ... A golden age seemed to have come again ... What did the weight of my sumptuous materials, my heavy velvets and brocades, matter? When hearts were light, mere fabrics could not weigh the body down. Abundance was still much too much of a novelty for a poverty cult to develop out of inverted snobbism.'3
The passion for opulence inherent in the quantity of the materials and in the variety of embroideries and accessories was to be the best way of restoring the tradition of French haute couture.
The success of such ideas, and the clever management of the spin-offs they generated, enabled Dior to make luxury a serious business, a rationally organised industry. His direct involvement in the business side of the House of Dior took haute couture out of the undoubtedly brilliant, but limited, domain of a very small elite and offered it to the world, turning haute couture into a financial empire. He analysed his role thus: 'We are merchants
Each parade closed with the announcement 'Grand Mirage' and a mannequin would emerge in a wedding dress. 'Fidelite' (Fidelity) was shown in the Autumn-Winter 1949 collection.
Opposite: 'Mexique' (Mexico) from the Autumn-Winter 1951 collection. Dior's favourite, the Longue (Long) line marked the waistline under the bust, giving the illusion of a high waist and a long body line. Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, 1951.
of ideas. Each season we have a certain stock of ideas to sell. Then we have to analyse, in a strictly commercial manner, just what they cost to produce and how many are actually sold.'4 These ideas rapidly snowballed into the creation of a multitude of products: stockings, gloves, ties, perfumes and shoes bearing the label of the house, and bringing to fruition the dream to dress a woman in Christian Dior from head to foot.
Dior was a determined innovator: in 1947 he hit on the idea of establishing a boutique that would offer a choice of accessories such as jewellery, flowers and scarves. In 1948 he diversified by launching a range of simpler dresses that were more modest than those of the main collection. The idea of a boutique collection was born, opening the way to what was later to become a common practice among couturiers. Other items were added — gifts and even light furniture — necessitating a move in 1955 from the tiny boutique at 30 avenue Montaigne to larger premises at 15 rue Francois 1 er. The decor of the new boutique reflected the Dior style perfectly. The couturier had entrusted the task to Victor Grandpierre, who re-created the spirit of the Louis XVI style that was so dear to Dior, but with a 'very 1955' belle epoque flavour.
Christian Dior based his universe on a past whose strongest references came from the French art de vivre (the splendours of Louis XVI, the imperial feasts of the Second Empire, the frivolity of the belle epoque). But far from dwelling on the past, he drew from it the essence of
Was this article helpful?