in focus

The New Look: How Christian Dior defied the Nazis and revived modern fashion

A new Apple TV+ drama starring Ben Mendelsohn chronicles how Dior and his contemporaries, from Coco Chanel to Cristóbal Balenciaga, launched their careers in the midst of the Second World War. Tom Murray looks back on the feuding between Dior and Chanel, and the key role that Dior’s family played in the French Resistance

Wednesday 14 February 2024 06:00 GMT
<p>Ben Mendelsohn portrays the French designer in ‘The New Look’</p>

Ben Mendelsohn portrays the French designer in ‘The New Look’

It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have such a new look!” With these words in 1947, Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, ushered in a revolutionary era of fashion. She was speaking to Christian Dior after his debut fashion show in Paris. The New Look – a lavish repudiation of wartime pragmatism – went on to define Dior’s style and is now the title of Apple TV+’s latest drama series, with Ben Mendelsohn playing the famously understated French designer. The show follows Dior and his contemporaries – Coco Chanel (Juliette Binoche), Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich), Cristóbal Balenciaga (Nuno Lopes) and Pierre Balmain (Thomas Poitevin) – as they navigate the terrors of World War Two while launching modern fashion.

Binoche portrays the rather one-sided rivalry between Dior and Chanel with gusto. From the off, we see Chanel bad-mouthing Dior, calling the attendees at his fashion shows “prisoners” who have to “suffer” through his designs. Her actual comments were even more spiky: “Dior doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them,” she once said. In the series, Chanel publicly maligns Dior for designing ball gowns for the Nazis, which she claims she refused to do. The truth, however, is far more complicated.

During the German occupation of Paris, Chanel sought refuge in the Ritz hotel. It was here, among throngs of Nazi officers, that she met Baron Hans von Dincklage (Claes Bang), with whom she struck up an affair. In his 2011 book, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, veteran journalist and ex-diplomat Hal Vaughan offers convincing evidence that Chanel was a Nazi intelligence operative as well as a “vicious anti-Semite”. D​​eclassified archival documents show that Chanel was involved in a plot to get British prime minister Winston Churchill (with whom she’d had a close relationship since the 1920s) to consider a separate peace treaty brokered by the SS, stating that a number of leading Nazis wanted to break with Adolf Hitler.

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She used her favour with the Nazis and their Aryanisation of property laws to attempt to wrestle control of her perfume empire away from the Jewish Wertheimer brothers. In episode one of The New Look, a Nazi official tells Chanel: “Once you complete our task, your Jewish partners will no longer have any claim over your company.” After the Germans lost the war, Chanel fled to Switzerland to avoid criminal charges for her collaboration as a Nazi informant. She returned to Paris in 1954, escaping persecution for war crimes thanks to her friendship with Churchill, whom Vaughan claims intervened to protect her.

It’s true that Dior designed dresses for the wives of Nazi officers during the war, while working for Lelong’s fashion house – just as many brands did to ensure their survival. But he also played a role in the resistance via his younger sister. Catherine Dior (played by Maisie Williams) was a crucial figure of the French Resistance, arrested and tortured by the Gestapo in 1944 and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The first episode of The New Look shows Catherine risking her life for a covert network titled F2 that gathered intelligence for the Allies during the war. Dior riskily lent his sister his Paris apartment to host her underground meetings. In 1944, Catherine and 26 fellow Resistance members were double-crossed and arrested. She was deported on one of the last prison trains to leave Paris, just days before the Germans surrendered to the Allied forces.

Catherine returned to Paris in 1945, emaciated and traumatised. Justine Picardie, author of Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture, writes that Catherine was so physically changed that Dior failed to recognise her when collecting her from the train station. Later that evening, she was unable to eat the celebratory meal he’d prepared for her return.

In order to transform into the cadaverous ex-prisoner, Williams lost 25lb through a regimen carefully overseen by medical professionals. “I had to be up at 4am to start sweating. The night before, at about 7 or 8pm, I was allowed to have something salty and dehydrating – some smoked salmon and a tiny glass of wine,” the Game of Thrones star told Harper’s Bazaar in an interview. “Then I had a boiling-hot bath with lots of salts in it. And I sort of levitated to bed and slept for maybe three hours and woke up and had a handful of nuts. I wouldn’t be able to sleep through the night at this point.”

Maisie Williams as Catherine Dior in ‘The New Look’

In France, Catherine was awarded several decorations honouring her work as a member of the Resistance, including the Croix de Guerre —a distinction usually reserved for the armed forces. She was also named a Chevalière of the Légion d’Honneur (France’s highest order of merit). Britain gave her the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, recognising foreign nationals who had aided Allied forces.

From her brother, she received a legacy that continues to live on to this day. It is said that Dior was wondering what to name his fragrance when Catherine walked into the room, at which point Mitzah Bricard, Dior’s muse, is believed to have exclaimed: “Ah, here’s Miss Dior!” The designer allegedly replied: “Miss Dior: now there’s a name for my perfume!”

Juliette Binoche and Claes Bang as Coco Chanel and Baron Hans von Dincklage in ‘The New Look’

Catherine died aged 90 in 2008, having outlived her brother (who died of a heart attack in 1957 at the age of 52) by five decades. Dior left his estate to Catherine and his right-hand woman, Raymonde Zehnacker. And Catherine, whom Dior called his “moral heir”, dedicated the rest of her life to preserving the memory of her brother. She was the honorary president of the Christian Dior Museum from 1999 until her death.

Twenty-five years later, Dior is being memorialised once more in the form of this star-studded prestige drama. As The New Look’s showrunner Todd A Kessler told The New York Times: “My hope is that people won’t see the name Chanel or Dior in airports again, without realising that these were full people.”

‘The New Look’ is out now on Apple TV+

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