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