THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE

Christian Dior originally wanted to dress only well-born women. Instead, he became fashion's great democratiser

FIFTY years ago in February, the western world went fou for fashion. Wartime shortages were still in effect; women's dress meant drab woollen suits with mannish jackets and militaristic uniformity. In the chill of winter in Paris, on 12 February 1947, Christian Dior presented his first haute couture collection, a dreamy confection that restated the wiles of womanhood in a single silhouette: cinched waists, soft shoulders, shapely hips and long, swaying skirts. In one afternoon, the 42-year-old first- time couturier secured the future of French style.

Dior's "New Look" - as the US editor of Harper's Bazaar, Carmel Snow, christened it - was really an old look. It revived the hourglass curves of the previous century to create an impression of confined flirtiness. In this ideal, woman was a flower, blossoming from a trussed-up bustline in a way that expressed faith in the future as well as the traditions of the past. "Our civilisation is a luxury; we are defending it," Dior said with Forster-like dread of the machine age.

So indulgent was the New Look that it was initially seen as a moral affront by everyone from old Parisian women to British MPs. "You have disfigured my wife," accused one American man in a hate letter. Dior had reconfigured her, certainly, but into something irresistible; desire itself was hidden in the folds of silk. One didn't need to have ideal proportions, either: Dior built them into his dresses with architecture that remains the paradigm of tailoring this century.

Dior wasn't the only couturier in town; Balenciaga was his polar opposite; and Fath, Balmain and Chanel - who accused him of committing "upholstery" instead of couture - shared his stage. But as a commercial force, he was unique. Ironically, for a bourgeois man who wanted to dress only well- born women, Dior became fashion's democratiser. Despite his shyness and less than dashing demeanour - Cecil Beaton said he looked "like a country curate made out of pink marzipan" - Dior created the first financial empire from a designer signature (tights, perfumes and other Dior products) and the first French couture house to go mass-market in America. At the time, it was radical stuff.

By the time of his death in 1957, Dior had given the century its notion of drop-dead glamour; the backless, shoulderless evening gowns, the delicate drapes held aloft by unseen corsetry - seams and darts were unseemly to him. He also invented off-the-peg designer clothing and delineated the geometric possibilities of silhouette: the flared Fifties skirt with tight waist; then the lean "string bean" shape; and finally the A-line that presaged the Sixties. He had a way of making detail - cuffs, buttons, collars and belts - intrinsic to the architecture of his designs. He gave women black as a glamorous colour, and to menswear he gave fabrics such as hound's-tooth and grey flannel. While on his deathbed, he also had good sense to appoint Yves Saint Laurent as his successor, the designer who reinvented fashion for the rest of the century.

The countdown to the anniversary of the New Look is gathering momentum: New York's Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is showing 80 Dior dresses (six are shown here) until 23 March; Nigel Cawthorne's The New Look: The Dior Revolution is just published; in February, London's Imperial War Museum is showing an exhibition of fashion from the late Thirties and Forties, culminating in Dior's New Look. And in January, Dior's wheel comes full circle when John Galliano, Britain's radical latter- day romanticist, takes over as couturier in time to produce the anniversary collection.

Dior was so much a creature of his time that he pushed couture through the looking-glass of contemporary culture while glorifying the past of his bourgeois Normandy childhood. In doing so, he created a glamour that only class, formerly, could buy. But although all he ever wanted was "to be a good tailor", the need to feed the media with fashion dictates each season took its toll. He died at 52 of a heart attack, only a decade after his charmed enterprise had begun. !

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

    £16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

    IT Systems Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

    £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world