The most influential fashion designer of the late 1940s and 1950s, CHRISTIAN DIOR (1905 to 1957) dominated fashion after World war II with the hourglass silhouette of his voluptuous New Look. He also defined a new business model in the post-war fashion industry by establishing Dior as a global brand across a wide range of products.
“My mother says that when I was little my grandfather used to take me and my cousins on one side after dinner and ask us what we wanted to be when he grew up, and I’d say ‘Christian Dior’,” recalled the French fashion designer Christian Lacroix.” He was so famous in France at the time. It seemed as if he wasn’t a man, but an institution.”
When Lacroix was growing up in Arles during the 1950s, Christian Dior was indisputably the world’s most famous fashion designer. His name was known all over the world and his label accounted for half of France’s haute couture exports. The Dior client list ran from Ava Gardner and Marlene Dietrich to Princess Margaret and the Duchess of Windsor. A short, pear-shaped man, with a shiny bald pate and habitually nervous expression, he was courted by Parisian society: but so shy that he could barely bring himself to bow to his audience at the end of each couture show. Fastidious to a fault, Dior refused to receive any man who was not wearing a tie: yet was so superstitious that he consulted his clairvoyant before every major decision.
Christian Dior was born in 1905 in Granville, a lively seaside town on the Normandy coast. He was the second of the five children of Alexandre Louis Maurice Dior, a wealthy fertiliser manufacturer. The family lived in a pretty grey and pink house perched high on a cliff with spectacular views over the sea. They moved to Paris in 1910 returning to Granville for holidays each summer. Dior longed to become an architect but, at his father’s insistence, he enrolled at the prestigious Ecole des Sciences Politiques (nicknamed Sciences Po’) in Paris to take a degree in politics which, or so his parents hoped, would prepare him for a diplomatic career.
All Dior wanted was to work in the arts. In 1928, his father gave him enough money to open an art gallery on condition that the family name did not appear above the door. Galerie Jacques Bonjean soon became an avant garde haunt with paintings by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob hanging on walls decorated by Christian Bérard. Disaster struck in 1931 when the death of Dior’s older brother was followed by that of his mother and the collapse of the family firm. The gallery closed. For the next few years Dior scraped a living by selling fashion sketches to haute couture houses. Finally he found a job as an assistant to the couturier, Robert Piquet.
When World War II war began in 1939, Dior served as an officer for the year until France’s surrender. He joined his father and a sister on a farm in Provence until he was offered a job in Paris by the couturier Lucien Lelong, who was lobbying the Germans to revive the couture trade. Dior spent the rest of the War dressing the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators. France emerged from World War II in ruins. Half a million buildings were destroyed. Clothes, coal and food were in short supply. Yet there were ample opportunities for new business ventures and fashion was no exception. Dior was invited by a childhood friend from Granville to revive Philippe et Gaston, a struggling clothing company owned by Marcel Boussac, the “King of Cotton” with an empire of racing stables, newspapers and textile mills.
Boussac met Dior and listened to his theory that the public was ready for a new style after the War. Dior’s description of a luxurious new look with a sumptuous silhouette and billowing skirts had an obvious appeal to a man who owed his wealth to selling large quantities of fabric. Boussac agreed to launch the new couture house in style with a then-unprecedented budget of FFr60 million. Jacques Rou?t, a young civil servant, was appointed as its administrator. The house of Dior and its 85 employees moved into a modest mansion at 30 Avenue Montaigne which was decorated in Dior’s favourite colours of white and grey.
The first Christian Dior couture show was scheduled for 12 February 1947. Clothes were still scarce and women wore the sharp-shouldered suits with knee-length skirts that they had cobbled together as makeshift wartime versions of Elsa Schiaparelli’s slinky 1930s silhouette. The Paris couture trade, which had dominated international fashion since the late 18th century, was in a precarious state. What it needed was excitement and Christian Dior delivered it in a collection of luxurious clothes with soft shoulders, waspy waists and full flowing skirts intended for what he called “flower women”. “It’s quite a revelation dear Christian,” pronounced Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, the US magazine. “Your dresses have such a new look.”
The New Look was absolutely appropriate for the post-war era. Dior was correct in assuming that people wanted something new after years of war, brutality and hardship. His new look was reminiscent of the Belle Epoque ideal of long skirts, tiny waists and beautiful fabrics that his mother had worn in the early 1900s. Such a traditional concept of femininity also suited the political agenda. Women had been mobilised during the war to work on farms and in factories while the men were away fighting. In peacetime those women were expected to return to passive roles as housewives and mothers, leaving their jobs free for the returning soldiers. The official paradigm of post-war womanhood was a capable, caring housewife who created a happy home for her husband and children. Dior’s “flower women” fitted the bill perfectly.
His couture house was inundated with orders. Rita Hayworth picked out an evening gown for the première of her new movie, Gilda. The ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, bought a suit. Dior put Paris back on the fashion map. The US couture clients came back in force for the autumn 1947 collections and Dior was invited to stage a private presentation of that season’s show for the British royal family in London, although King George V forbade the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, from wearing the New Look lest it set a bad example at a time when rationing was still in force for the general public.
Behind the scenes Jacques Rou?t built up the Dior business. The old Paris couture houses were small operations making bespoke clothes for private clients. Some couturiers had diversified into other products, notably Chanel and Jean Patou into perfume, and Elsa Schiaparelli into hosiery. Rou?t realised that the future lay in diversifying further afield into more products and international markets. Eager to capitalise on the publicity generated by the New Look, he opened a fur subsidiary and a ready-to-wear boutique on New York’s Fifth Avenue as well as launching a Dior perfume, named Miss Dior with the US market in mind.
Christian Dior too had sound commercial instincts. When a US hosiery company offered Rou?t the then-enormous fee of $10,000 for the rights to manufacture Dior stockings, the couturier proposed wa?ving the fee in favour of a percentage of the product’s sales thereby introducing the royalty payment system to fashion. Dior’s approach to design was equally pragmatic. Resisting the temptation to experiment, he adhered to his luxurious look with the structured silhouette of padding, starch and corsets, which was so flattering to his middle-aged clients. So conservative were those clients that when Dior called a suit the “Jean-Paul Sartre” in honour of the radical philosopher, no one bought it and he stuck to ‘safer’ names in future. He even adhered to the same commercial formula for each collection: one third new, one third adaptations of familiar styles and one third proven classics.
The newly wealthy Dior bought an old mill near Fontainebleau outside Paris and a flower farm at Montauroux in the heart of Provence, where he could potter around with Bobby, his dog, and indulge his love of art, antiques and gardening. Still shy, he left socialising to Suzanne Luling, his vivacious sales director, and he grew even more superstitious with age. Every collection included a coat called the “Granville”, named after his birthplace. At least one model wore a bunch of his favourite flower, lily of the valley. And Dior never began a couture show without having consulted his tarot card reader.
Throughout the 1950s Christian Dior was the biggest and best-run haute couture house in Paris. The closest rivals were Pierre Balmain, and the enigmatic Spanish designer, Cristobál Balenciaga. Yet neither had the same support structure as Dior who, as well as Jacques Rou?t and Suzanne Luling, had the “three muses” who worked with him on the collections: Raymonde Zehnmacker who ran the studio; Marguerite Carré, head of the workrooms; and Mitza Bricard, the glamorous hat designer and chief stylist.
The house was run along rigidly hierarchical lines. Each of the vendeuses, or sales assistants, had their own clients with whom they were expected to nurture friendly relationships. The ateliers, or workrooms, were staffed by seamstresses, many of whom had worked there since leaving school. During the twice-yearly haute couture shows in late January and early August, some 2,500 people filed in and out of the Dior salons to see the new collections. Each show included up to two hundred outfits and lasted as long as two and a half hours. The models, or mannequins as they were called, came from the same privileged backgrounds as the clients and were hired in different shapes and sizes to show how the clothes would look on different women.
The biggest clients were North American: Hollywood stars, New York socialites and department store buyers who bought the exclusive rights to individual designs to be made up by their own seamstresses. Marshall Fields, the Chicago store, had nine couture workshops and a marble-lined salon, “The 28th Shop”. Discount clothing chains, like Ohrbach’s, were allowed to attend the shows on condition that they bought a minimum number of outfits, which they were then allowed to copy stitch for stitch into “knock-off” lines.
As the most prestigious Paris couture house, Dior attracted the most talented assistants. One was Pierre Cardin, an Italian-born tailor who was Dior’s star assistant in the late 1940s before leaving to begin his own business. Another was Yves Saint Laurent, a gifted young Algeria-born designer who joined in 1955 as the star graduate of the Chambre Syndicale fashion school. As timid as Dior himself, the young Saint Laurent flourished in the feminine atmosphere of the couture house and contributed thirty-five outfits for the autumn 1957 collection. When all the fittings for the collection were finished, Dior took off for a rest cure at his favourite spa town of Montecatini in northern Italy hoping to lose weight in order to impress a young lover.
Ten days later Dior died of a heart attack after choking on a fishbone at dinner. The French newspaper Le Monde hailed him as a man who was “identified with good taste, the art of living and refined culture that epitomises Paris to the outside world”. Marcel Boussac sent his private plane to Montecatini to bring Dior’s body back to Paris. Some 2,500 people attended his funeral including all his staff and famous clients led by the Duchess of Windsor. A fortnight later Jacques Rou?t called a press conference to announce the new structure of the house of Christian Dior. “The studio will be run by Madame Zehnmacker, the couture workshops by Madame Marguerite Carré,” he announced. “Mitza Bricard will continue to exercise her good taste over the collections. All the sketches will be the responsibility of Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent.”
The first Christian Dior collection after Dior’s death was a sensation. Designed in just nine weeks by the 21 year-old Yves Saint Laurent, as he was called after dropping the ‘Mathieu’, the clothes were as meticulously made and perfectly proportioned as Dior’s in the same exquisite fabrics, but their young designer made them softer, lighter and easier to wear. Saint Laurent was hailed as a national hero. Emboldened by his success, his designs became more daring culminating in the 1960 Beat Look inspired by the existentialists in the Saint-Germain des Près cafés and jazz clubs. Marcel Boussac was furious and, in spring 1960, when Saint Laurent was called up to join the French army, the Dior management raised no objection.
Saint Laurent was conscripted in the army and, after demobilisation, he opened his own couture house. He was replaced at Dior by Marc Bohan, who instilled his conservative style on the collections until 1996 when the iconoclastic young Briton, John Galliano, was appointed chief designer of Christian Dior by the company’s new owner, the LVMH luxury goods group.
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1905 Born in Granville on the Gulf of St Malo on the Normandy coast, as the second of five children a wealthy fertiliser manufacturer.
1910 The family move to Paris and Dior enrols at the Lycée Gerson
1923 To please his father, Dior studies at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques (Sciences Po’) to prepare to join the diplomatic corps.
1928 Opens a modern art gallery, Galerie Jacques Bonjean, with a friend and financial backing from his father.
1931 The Dior family business folds in the depression. Forced to close the gallery, Dior scrapes a living by selling his art collection and fashion sketches to couturiers.
1938 The couturier Robert Piguet employs Dior as a design assistant at his new couture house.
1939 When World War II begins, Dior is called up into the French Army, but is demobilised after a year when France surrenders and joins his family on a farm in Provence.
1941 Returns to Paris to work as a design assistant to Lucien Lelong.
1946 After World War II ends, Dior persuades the industrialist Marcel Boussac to back him in the opening of his own couture house to be managed by the civil servant Jacques Rou?t.
1947 On 12 February Dior presents his debut couture collection, which is an instant success dubbed the ‘New Look’ for its voluptuous silhouette and luxurious fabrics. Launch of the first Dior perfume, Miss Dior.
1948 Dior and Rou?t open a ready-to-wear boutique in New York and, over the next few years, launch new perfumes and negotiate the licensing rights for Christian Dior hosiery, ties and other products.
1950 Designs a dress for Marlene Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright and, the following year, a suit for Dietrich in No Highway in the Sky.
1954 After years of variations on the New Look, Dior unveils his new direction, the French Bean Line or Flat Look.
1955 Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent joins Dior as a design assistant. The Grande Boutique opens on Avenue Montaigne and Dior launches a cosmetics range.
1956 Designs over a dozen dresses for Ava Gardner in The Little Hut.
1957 Christian Dior dies of a heart attack after choking on a fishbone while on a rest cure at a spa in Montecatini, Italy. Dior’s funeral in Paris is attended by more than 2,500 people. Yves Saint Laurent is named as Dior’s successor and unveils his first collection in January 1958.
Esmerelda De Rethy, Jean-Louis Perreau, Christian Dior: The Glory Years, 1947-1957, Vendome Press, 2002
Richard Martin, Harold Koda, Christian Dior, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2000
Marie France Pochna, Christian Dior – The Man who Made The World Look New, Little, Brown and Company, 1997
Nigel Cawthorne, The New Look: Dior Revolution, Hamlyn, 1996
Terence Measham, Christian Dior: The Magic of Fashion, Powerhouse Publishing, 1994
Diana De Marly, Christian Dior (Fashion Designers), Holmes + Meier, 1990
Fran?oise Giroud, Dior: Christian Dior, 1905-1957, Rizzoli International, 1987
Sacha Van Dorssen, Christian Dior, Editions du Seuil, 1987