by Louise Mitchell*
Mention Christian Dior to Australians with memories of the postwar years, and they are likely to recall the excitement of seeing the New Look after years of wartime austerity. The success of Dior's New Look sparked the revival of haute couture, and his authoritative word made headline news both in France and abroad. The postwar period was a time of intense interest in French fashion and Australia became part of an international audience that played an important role in the making of 'French style'.
Despite the distance, Australia was by no means isolated from the influence of Paris. Communication and travel improved dramatically after the war and, through the efforts of the fashion media, department stores and the couture houses, those Australians interested in fashion were able to keep a close eye on Paris couture, particularly the House of Dior. It was no longer necessary to go to Paris to purchase fashion: fashion came to the buyer, not only through the press and publicity, but also through the boutiques opened in cities across the world and beyond the fashion centres of Paris, New York and London.
Opposite: One Australian photographer who successfully captured the allure of French fashion was Athol Shmith, who was commissioned to do a series of fashion shots, including this one of Patricia 'Bambi' Tuckwell in a Dior cocktail dress in 1949.
To a great extent, the couture-led recovery of Paris can be credited to the intense competitive interest of department stores and fashion magazines around the world. Fashion editors and buyers flocked to Paris in the postwar years. The most important market for France was the United States, whose interest was particularly stimulated by the Theatre de la Mode of 1945, a travelling exhibition of child-size dolls made of wire armatures with porcelain heads, dressed by Parisian couture houses and mounted on sets designed by famous artists. Organised by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne as part of a carefully planned strategy of the French Ministry of Reconstruction, the purpose of the Theatre de la Mode was to reassert the dominance of French fashion over, and define it against, American fashion, which had developed considerably during the period of isolation from Europe. The French had quickly come to understand that their own fashion industry had suffered little from the war in comparison with the devastation wreaked on French heavy industries. For although fashion, to some, was trivial, it nonetheless represented hope to France after four years of German occupation. By attracting buyers back to Paris, the Theatre de la Mode paved the way for the reception of Dior's New Look in early 1947.
Unlike the United States, which had developed its own fashion industry during the war, Australia needed little encouragement to be enticed back to Paris. The interest in and
In 1957 David Jones, in association with the Australian Women's
Weekly brought a parade of Dior couture originals to Australia. This cover depicts the seven Dior house mannequins who came to Australia.
Opposite: Christian Dior showing his house mannequins Australia on the globe in preparation for the 1957 Dior parade. Dior and his staff often wore overalls while working. Photo by Andre Gandner.
prestige of French style had been set during the interwar years and was to be intensified after the war. Before the war, Australian women interested in fashion had kept abreast of the Parisian image of the modern woman through foreign fashion magazines and local publications, such as The Home. For those who could afford it, French fashion could be purchased through upmarket local dressmaking establishments, which were as French as their owners could make them — bearing French names and often run by French people. Since the 1920s, however, for the vast majority of middle-class Australian women, the preferred choice had been the department store, with its ready-made merchandise. Again, Paris was the inspiration for department stores such as Sydney's Mark Foys, which was modelled after Paris's Bon Marche, and David Jones's new store, which opened in 1927. David Jones was particularly noted for its sophisticated and modern window displays, fashion parades and the French salon, where shoppers could select from a glamorous array of ready-made gowns.
During the war Australian women had little exposure to Paris and its fashion industry. In the early 1940s, the main source of fashion influence was the United States. Rationing, which regulated the amount of clothing available to Australian women, was introduced in 1942. Government war restrictions also necessitated the simplification of civilian clothing, which was aimed at economising on both materials and labour. The resulting style of dress
had a simple, austere silhouette, with square, padded shoulders and a short, narrow skirt. Reflecting in 1957 on his New Look designs compared with wartime fashions, Christian Dior wrote: 'In December 1946, as a result of the war and uniforms, women still looked and dressed like Amazons. But I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and handspan waists above enormous spreading skirts.'1
Australians were able to renew their admiration of French fashion as early as 1946 through a series of fashion parades organised by the country's leading women's magazine, the Australian Women's Weekly. Known as the French Fashion Parades, the idea for the parades came from Mary Hordern, wife of businessman Anthony Hordern IV. Mary's sister Gretel had married Frank Packer, owner of the Australian Women's Weekly, where Mary worked as a fashion editor. With Frank Packer's financial backing, Mary Hordern pursued her project with enthusiasm, travelling to Paris, meeting designers, selecting gowns and accessories, and recruiting mannequins, a fashion director and a parade technician. The logistics of it all were complex and novel, and the project made good copy. Mary's movements were assiduously reported on by the Weekly, as the opportunity to see French fashion so soon after the war had captured the public imagination.
The first Australian Women's Weekly French Fashion Parade was launched with a gala
The Australian Women's Weekly's fashion advisor, Mary Hordern, snapped with Christian Dior, 'the newest designer in Paris'. Photo by Jean-Louis Moussempes, 1947.
Opposite: Geiger's, an up-market fashion accessory shop in Collins Street, Melbourne, commissioned Wolfgang Sievers to photograph the French mannequins recruited in
1946 for the Australian Women's
Weekly first French Fashion Parade Photo by Wolfgang Sievers, 1946.
opening in David Jones's Great Restaurant and was reported as one of the most glamorous events of the year. It consisted of gowns from the houses of Patou, Lanvin, Lelong, Molyneux, Balmain, Carven and Fath. Similar gala openings were held at Myer's Mural Hall in Melbourne, Myer in Adelaide and at Finney Isles in Brisbane. Although the fashions were not for sale, the stores were able to produce credible copies for purchase.
The success of the parades took Mary Hordern back to Paris the following year to organise more. On this second trip she met Christian Dior, who had only just become famous, and had her picture taken with him for the Weekly. Christian Dior, she assured her Weekly readers, was 'the' name in Paris and she was determined to feature his designs in the parade. A Dior New Look black cocktail dress in the parade was illustrated in the Weekly, and a pattern was provided so readers could run up their own version at home.
Like the previous year's parade, the 1947 Weekly parade consisted of couture clothes from a variety of Parisian houses. Again French mannequins were recruited and flown to Australia by Lancastrian plane (a gruelling sixty hours, with numerous stopovers). A change of venue from David Jones to Mark Foys underscores local rivalries.2 In the same year David Jones launched its Paris Fashions for All policy with a selection of fashions, including some from Dior, which were reproduced in the store's Marlborough Street workroom so that Australian
women could enjoy the 'luxury and glamour of Paris high fashion and at prices to suit all pockets'. Later in the year, the store invited the Paris designer Pierre Balmain to Sydney to lecture on fashion and to design clothes specifically for 'the Australian woman'. The underlying assumption of the store's new policy was that it was every Australian woman's dream to own a creation from a Paris couture house.
In 1948 David Jones was able to upstage the competition by persuading Christian Dior to agree to the first-ever parade of his New Look clothes in Australia. In April the Herald's London-based fashion editor reported that David Jones's spring parade would show 'the first-ever representative collection of original fashions designed by Christian Dior to be shown outside of Paris'.3 When the parade arrived, the Herald headlines claimed Dior's tiny waists and whirlaway skirts cause sensation'.4 The parade was launched in August and emphasised the designer's current silhouette, Envol (Flight) and Zig-Zag. Australian mannequins approximating the Dior house mannequins modelled the clothes. Dior lent himself to the occasion through an interview with the Herald's European correspondent. Dior claimed Australia was the right country for his clothes as 'living in the sunshine of a comparatively new country unscathed by war, Australians have a cleaner, brighter outlook and are more receptive to new ideas than the tired people of European countries.'5
Opposite: Invitation to David Jones's French fashion parade. Launched in 1947, David Jones's Paris Fashions for All policy aimed to provide copies of Paris couture to suit all pockets.
Program for the parade held at David Jones in 1948. The program reveals that a selection of Australian-made copies were modelled alongside the original garments.
The Dior clothes at the David Jones parade were worn by local mannequins, but the Australian Women's Weekly parades were able to get extensive publicity through their recruitment of French mannequins. For the four years in succession that the parades were staged, Mary Hordern interviewed and selected four mannequins to travel to Australia to model the clothes. By all accounts, the reception the French women received when they arrived in Australia was overwhelming.
Paule Paulus, originally a Dior model and now living in Melbourne, travelled to Australia in 1948 with the Weekly show and recalled that she was encouraged to come here by a mannequin from the previous year's parade. If a woman called Mary Hordern approached her to go to Australia she was to accept at once, for 'Australians' said her compatriot, 'were absolutely crazy'.6 Apart from the endless stories in the Weekly about their flawless complexions, hair colour, accents and charming personalities, the French mannequins received coverage in most newspapers and radio stations throughout Australia. Feted as international celebrities, the women received the red-carpet treatment, reflecting the aura of glamour and prestige French femininity had in Australia in the postwar years.
The sexual allure and sophisticated style of French femininity as fashioned by Dior was projected through fashion photographs of the time. With the upsurge in production of
A group of leading Australian mannequins were carefully selected to model Christian Dior clothes in the 1948 David Jones parade. June Dally- Watkins, seen here and opposite modelling in the Christian Dior parades, recalls that a major prerequisite was having an eighteen inch waist to fit into the Dior garments. Photo right by Bowen.
consumer goods and the expansion of department store chains after the war, fashion photography was increasingly in demand, as it was used both in catalogues and for window displays. A local photographer who demonstrated a flair for capturing the look that embraced the modern Paris style was Melbourne fashion photographer Athol Shmith. When the French mannequins arrived in Melbourne in 1948, Athol Shmith was commissioned by Myers department store to photograph them.
Shmith portrayed the mannequins as being totally removed from ordinary people. The opulence and contrived glamour so characteristic of French fashion of this period is portrayed in his portrait of Madame Chamberlaine, director of the French parades in 1947 and 1948. An equally memorable photograph by Shmith is a portrait of the Australian model Patricia 'Bambi' Tuckwell wearing a dramatic Dior New Look black dress.
In a recent reflection on her modelling days, Patricia Tuckwell described the 'exhilaration which came with swishing about in those full-skirted, tiny-waisted, many-petticoated garments after the dullness and limitation of wartime clothes'.7 Such self-gratification was shared by many women, who quickly adopted the New Look, and her comment highlights the excitement Dior brought to fashion.
One of the extraordinary aspects of the New Look was the speed with which it was
assimilated and redefined. There was a ready reception of the New Look in Australia, particularly when compared with England. There was very little hostility to its introduction, and almost none of the moralising about rationing that was experienced in Europe, where war had had a more profound effect.
The sheer prestige of Paris contributed to the New Look's success. Everything to do with Paris fashion seemed to be of interest to Australian women, who eagerly read articles about the hands that sewed the dresses, the mannequins who modelled them and the couturiers who designed them. Local dressmakers cashed in on the prestige of French fashion by modelling themselves on French workrooms. At the upper end of the market, there were the Sydney salons of Germaine Rocher, Madame Pellier and the milliner Henriette Lamotte, while Melbourne had La Petite and Lillian Whiteman's Le Louvre in the 'Paris end' of Collins Street.
The House of Dior was able to build its empire by catering to the needs of retailers. In financial terms the international buyers were Dior's most important clients, since they paid a surcharge of 40—50 per cent on each garment they bought, by which they acquired the right to make copies. They bought the garment without trying it on, often in the form of a toile or a paper pattern.
One of the first to obtain rights to copy and mass produce Dior originals was Douglas Cox of Melbourne, who launched a range of clothes under the label 'Dior, Australia' in June 1949. The style was also rapidly mass produced by middle market firms, such as Adelyn and Curzon's, along with many of the larger department stores.
Most of the Australian-made copies were modified to suit local conditions. This usually meant a toning down of the styles seen in Paris, as there was a widespread view that the exaggerated Paris fashions had to be adapted to suit the ordinary Australian woman. For example, Berlei, another Australian firm that rapidly responded to the influence of the New Look, urged its clients to adopt a policy of 'intelligent frocking'. Berlei produced its Parisian Waist Girdle, a modified version of the guepiere worn by Dior mannequins to achieve the then-fashionable 18-inch waist. The firm thought it was 'unlikely that the good sense of Australian women will allow them to follow these extreme couturiers' attempts so slavishly that they will be compelled to wear constricting foundation garments to achieve it ... as Australian women are not sensation seekers, and like to live a healthy, normal, busy life.'8
The 1948 Christian Dior parade at the Sydney department store David Jones featured his New Look collection. Opposite: Publicity photo for the 1948 David Jones Dior parade.
Publicity photograph for the Australian Women's Weekly French Fashion Parade of 1948. Flowers, greetings at airports, photos with Australian fauna and having their accents recorded by local radio were all part of the red-carpet reception the French mannequins received in Australia. Their celebrity status reflected the aura of glamour that French femininity had in postwar Australia. The mannequins were Paule Paulus, Yanick Guichard, Mouny Neussbaum and Maya Leroy.
Another way to purchase a Dior design was through the licensing system, which many Parisian couture houses introduced during the late 1940s and 1950s. The licensing system was initiated by the House of Dior in 1948, when it diversified by opening a branch in New York to sell luxury ready-to-wear goods. From the early 1950s, the House of Dior was responsible for 55 per cent of the entire exports of the French couture houses. Two collections each year were created for American women, and in 1952 an agreement was signed with the House of Youth in Sydney, granting exclusive reproduction rights for Dior's New York ready-to-wear designs. Again these were modified versions of French style. As put by the director of Dior's Australian licensee, 'The prestige attached to the Dior label means a great deal to us, and women need not be frightened of any extreme styles in our Dior collection.'
Christian Dior also collaborated with local manufacturers by using Australian fabric in his clothes. In 1951 a selection of Dior clothes, worn by leading Australian mannequin Judy Barraclough, were shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They were the first imports made by the fashion house in an Australian fabric, a wool jersey by Austral Swiss Textiles Ltd. In this way, the promotion of French fashion in Australia was tied in with the promotion of a burgeoning Australian fashion industry. The Australian Wool Bureau played a
Dior house mannequin Paule Paulus parades for Doe Avedon (left) and Carmel Snow, the influential American editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar. It was she who dubbed Dior's first collection the New Look. Paule Paulus later toured with the Australian Women's Weekly's French fashion parades in Australia in 1948 and 1949. Photo by Richard Avedon, 1947.
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