Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Christian Dior and The New Look

Come to the Art, Music and Recreation Center on the 4th floor of the Main Library to see a small exhibit on the life of Christian Dior and his famous New Look.

Christian Dior was 42 years old when he presented his first collection. He became a fashion designer after a good but unremarkable career as an art dealer. He had no formal training and only a couple of years’ experience in design. He died just ten years after opening the House of Dior. In those ten years he profoundly changed the course of fashion history.

The New Look debuted in 1947, just 18 months after the end of World War II. The timing was inconceivably bold. The long years of war had devastated the French fashion industry and couture in particular. Severe shortages of clothing and shoes led to worldwide rationing. In the United States, laws were passed specifying fabric consumption for every article of clothing. Shortages were even more severe in Europe. Leather shoes and stockings were virtually unobtainable. Silk was restricted to war uses. Most men were in the military, and women stepped in, filling jobs formerly open only to men, many in manual labor. Due to gas rationing, transportation was largely by foot or bicycle. As a result, a typical woman in the 1940s wore cork or wooden soled shoes, bare legs, a straight knee length skirt or bicycle-friendly trousers, and a masculine, padded-shoulder jacket with military detailing. With so many shortages women expressed their femininity through whimsical hats and piled up long hair.

Dior’s first collection, named Corolle (flower petals) was quickly dubbed The New Look by Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar. It was an instant sensation. For the first time in history fashion was front page news. It was the antithesis of everything women had been wearing for the previous eight years. With small rounded shoulders, full bust, corseted wasp waist, padded hips and lavish, ankle grazing full skirts, its hour glass silhouette was exuberantly feminine. Dresses frequently used more than 30 yards of fabric.

The Bar Suit is the most iconic image of 1947’s New Look. It has all of the New Look elements: small shoulders, full bust, wasp waist, padded hips, and long full skirt.

In his very first presentation Dior reestablished Paris as the heart of fashion innovation and quality. He used the most luxurious textiles from French mills. His collections, all made by hand, were embellished with beading, embroidery, fur and other extravagant details. Styles were always presented with matching shoes, hats, gloves and other accessories. This revitalized crafts that had disappeared during the war and insured the livelihood of many thousands of skilled artisans. He brought French couture back from the brink of extinction.

Hand beading and hand embroidery were added after the dresses were made so that the motifs reinforced the silhouette and accentuated the shape of the body beneath.

Although it was wildly successful, The New Look was controversial. American women picketed Dior on his first trip to the United States. They formed the “Little Below the Knee Club” claiming that the amount of yardage used in his skirts was wasteful and hid their legs.

Dior was also a brilliant and innovative business man. He was the first couturier to develop licensing agreements as we know them. His label was on ties, furs, hats, corsets, hosiery and more. This practice, now ubiquitous, was denounced by the French Chamber of Couture as “degrading to the Haute Couture image.” He was the first to open lower priced boutiques and to create a global brand with stores in North and South America, Asia and Australia. He had a keen instinct for promotion. He pioneered the now common practice of lending couture fashions to celebrities and models to wear to public events. Traditionally couturiers created a signature look that gradually evolved over time. In order to keep interest in The House of Dior alive, Dior created a new silhouette every season, always making front page news. Each collection had new proportions and was eagerly embraced by women around the world. By the mid-1950s Dior products generated 50% to 75% of France’s clothing exports, and 5% of the total of all French exports.

Dior created a new silhouette every season. Each collection was named for its key shape.

Dior was also skilled at recognizing and nurturing talent in others. When he met 18 year-old Yves Saint-Laurent he hired him on the spot. Pierre Cardin also worked for Dior in the 1950s. In a move unusual for the time, he placed women, including his sister and a childhood friend, in executive positions. In addition, Dior was one of the first designers to feature Asian models. He was known for creating a family atmosphere among his employees.

For ten years Dior had a golden touch. It’s impossible to know where his talent might have led fashion. His last collection in 1957 with its youthful chemise silhouette and bright colors anticipated the look of the 1960s. After fitting the autumn 1957 collection, Christian Dior died of a heart attack. He was 52 years old. Privately, he was known as a shy, sentimental, warm-hearted, provincial man, adored by his staff, who loved spending time in his garden. Publicly, he was a brilliantly inspired designer, and a pioneering businessman who will forever be remembered as the man who saved French couture.

For more information on fashion in the 1940s browse Dewey call number section 391 – 391.4.  For more information on Christian Dior browse Dewey call number 746.9209.

All images shown were sourced from books in the collection at The Art, Music and Recreation Center at the San Francisco Public Library.

Some of our favorite books on Dior:

Dior Impressions: The inspiration and influence of impressionism at the House of Dior (Rizzoli, 2013).

Inspiration Dior (Abrams, 2011).

Vogue on Christian Dior (Abrams Image, 2014).

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