When American Vogue's former Paris bureau chief, Susan Train, arrived in the French capital as a student in 1947, she had quite a shock. "I was horrified to discover that I could not wear any of the clothes I possessed," she remembers. All she had were the short, mannish fashions that had dominated the war years. Within weeks, she herself was whipping up a Dior-style skirt out of grey flannel, which she wore every day for the next six months. What any self-respecting Parisienne had on was a full and feminine, mid-calf-length skirt which nipped in tightly at the waist. The biggest fashion revolution of the century had just hit town - the New Look.
It was 50 years ago tomorrow, at 10.30am sharp, that Christian Dior showed his first collection and turned the world of fashion on its head. "Anything you had from before was totally out of style," says Francoise Giroud, now 80, who was editor-in-chief of French Elle from 1945 to 1953. "All around Paris, women were ripping down their curtains to run up new outfits."
Tonight, London's Imperial War museum marks the 50th anniversary of the House of Dior with an exhibition, Forties Fashion and the New Look. On show will be clothes from the make-do-and-mend war years plus 15 original Dior outfits, among them a dress that the designer made for Princess Margaret's 21st birthday.
"It was like nothing we had seen before," says Giroud. Throughout the war, cloth and labour shortages had limited the amount of fabric and trimming that could be used. Until 1946, jackets had been masculine, shoulders square and skirts short and straight. In Britain, belts, seams, collars and trouser turn-ups had to conform to certain restrictions under the government's stringent Utility clothing scheme. Yet, only two years after the end of the war, here were ankle-length skirts whose hems measured up to 40 metres in circumference. Here was a fashion that emphasised femininity, with rounded shoulders, waists nipped in tight, and hips and busts exaggerated by bodices and padding.
"That first show was enchanting," enthuses Edmonde Charles-Roux, editor of French Vogue from 1950 to 1966, who was later to introduce a certain Yves Saint Laurent to Dior. "It signalled that we could laugh again - that we could be provocative again, and wear things that would grab people's attention in the street."
"At the end, there was a feverish standing ovation," recalls Giroud, "and everybody went over to kiss Dior." As they did so, the then editor of Harper's Bazaar, Carmel Snow, uttered the phrase that would go down in fashion history, and give the collection its name: "It's quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look."
It was not only fashion editors and society ladies who were dominated by the New Look. "Even taxi drivers were fascinated by it," Train recalls. "The French were thrilled that, at last, Paris was once more the centre of fashion."
Within three months, the new style had hit department stores in New York. "From one day to the next, every woman had to dress in the New Look," says the fashion historian Marie-France Pochna, whose biography, Christian Dior: the Man who Made the World Look New, has just been published in English. "It was like a powder trail," agrees Giroud. "It is the only time I have seen that in my career. But, at that time, you simply could not be out of fashion."
Fortunately, copies of the new style were relatively easy to make. The skirts were more or less a circle with a hole in the middle. At the time, women were either proficient dressmakers, or had a dressmaker who could run up copies of Dior's designs in cheaper fabrics from pictures in magazines. Two friends would often share the same outfit.
However, the New Look was not particularly easy to wear. Daytime outfits could weigh 8lb, and evening dresses as much as 60lb. "The evening dresses were rather heavy," remembers the film producer Denise Tual, now aged 90. Tual, and many others, complained that they were unable to dance in them. "They were so beautifully made that people used to say that you could wear them inside out," adds Helene Rochas, a Dior client and wife of the late designer Marcel Rochas, who is now in her seventies. "But they were not at all supple. They had whalebone corsets and a rigid lining. When you travelled with them, you had to have a special suitcase for each dress."
Coco Chanel once famously accused Dior of "upholstering" women rather than dressing them. American feminists were not that happy, either. They believed that the new fashion with its tight waists turned women into sex objects. When Dior visited the States in the autumn of 1947, he was met by demonstrators brandishing placards reading, "Go home Monsieur Dior", and "Burn Christian Dior." Time magazine organised a survey asking the question, "Are you for or against the New Look?" Charles-Roux remembers being verbally abused in the streets of Paris when she stepped out in a pink Dior jacket and a long navy blue skirt. However, others do not remember any hostility. "When I posed in the street people would sometimes laugh," says the former model Bettina Graziani, "but I don't ever remember any aggression."
Whatever the controversy, Dior remained the king of fashion until his death in 1957, and his outfits will dominate the new exhibition. However, they will not be the most unusual. Also on show will be parachute-silk dresses, handbags with built-in gas mask compartments, and clothing made from flags and sacking. Other highlights include dresses owned by Greta Garbo and Greer Garson, Mae West's make-up box and jewellery, and an all- in-one siren suit worn by Winston Churchill. Dior himself would no doubt have been delighted by the exhibition. "Fashion is not only made to be worn," he once said. "It is also made to be seen and talked about"n
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies