Fashion History: Designer of Dreams, Christian Dior and His ‘ New Look ’

Dior styling one of his muses, Marie-Thérése Walter
Picture credit: Getty Images via Chron.

From growing up as an aspiring architect and artist, studying to be a diplomat, becoming a gallery owner and finally transforming into a world-renowned couturier, Christian Dior’s life could have taken an array of different paths.

Fate and chance have not only woven themselves into the precious garments Dior dreamed into reality, they have also sewn themselves into the fabric of Monsieur Dior’s life.

Brought up by bourgeois industrialists in Granville Normandy, Christian Dior had his life mapped out for him. His parents encouraged a career in diplomacy but his degree in political science was left incomplete. Maybe this change in course was a blessing in disguise as later he would become instrumental in stimulating the revival of a couture world which had been ravaged by two world wars. 

During this period there was dependence on international investment (particularly from America). This meant that individuality was forgotten as the Americans produced more affordable duplicates of French couture.

The tale of Dior is one of triumph against adversity; it was from illness and financial ruin that Christian Dior rose like a phoenix from the ashes. He began his ascent into the industry by selling fashion sketches to reputable designers of the period (eg. Balenciaga, Nina Ricci and Schiaparelli.) Later on, he would work in the design studio at Lucien Lelong, alongside the young Pierre Balmain.

Christian Dior working with Mitzah Bricard(left) and Marguerite Carré(right) on the Premiére Soirée Dress, A/W 1955 Couture Collection
Picture credit: Paris, © Christian Dior Photo/Bellini

The stars aligned for Christian on the evening of 18th April 1946…

‘ Whilst walking up the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Christian Dior hit his foot on an object on the ground and almost tripped, as though it was the object itself that wished to attract his attention. He… realised that he was in front of the British Embassy and this made him think of his childhood in Granville, Normandy…Dior picked up the object that had nearly made him fall over: it was a star, the one that was to propel him into the upper echelons of haute couture and luxury, his evening star indicating the path to follow… he knew at that very moment he could no longer escape his destiny…the next day, Dior announced to Marcel Boussac that he would not take over Philippe de Gaston. Instead, he was ready to open a fashion house in his own name. ’

Dior emerged onto the couture scene on 12 February 1947 with his infamous New Look. This spellbinding collection revolutionised couture and has impacted womenswear up to the present day. It was Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar who first coined the phrase ‘ New Look ’ – a term which exemplified the significant trajectory of fashion’s history which Dior’s debut collection introduced.

Christian Dior’s Bar Suit, part of his New Look in a S/S 1947 collection modelled by Renee in 1955
Picture credit: Harper’s Bazaar

We were emerging from the period of war, of uniforms…I drew flower women, with soft shoulders, full busts, willowy waists and wide skirts like flowers in bloom…’ – Christian Dior

Silhouettes were transformed through an iconic jacket called ‘ le bar ’ which, with its clean lines and hourglass structure, re-emphasised what femininity could be. This piece Dior created was monochromatic but accentuated waist and alluded to the corset styles of the Victorian and Edwardian eras whilst still retaining a modernist flair. In this sense, Dior’s initial designs were reminiscent of miniature, material pieces of architecture.

An illustration of Dior’s Bar Suit by Christian Berard, 1947
Picture credit: Fluoro

The jacket was intended to be worn during cocktail hour in the bars of grand hotels. By presenting this new way of styling, Dior moved away from the box-shoulders and military-esque silhouettes which had been ubiquitous in the post-WW2 years. Dior’s designs embodied fluidity, elegance and also a hint of grandeur. Waists were tightly cinched, skirts blossomed out and unfurled like delicate peonies and exuded a Parisian air of extravagance.

When hearts were light, mere fabrics could not weigh the body down ’ – Christian Dior

Nevertheless, Dior’s designs were not so easily welcomed during a period of post-war austerity. For how could he justify the expense and excess of fabric used to create a Dior ensemble? Parisians even took to ripping the dresses off of the Dior models in protest in light of fabric rationing during the interwar years.

The Eugenie Dress from the A/W 1958 Haute Couture Collection
Picture credit: ABC News.

Yet Dior’s influence did not divert into a lull in the 1950s and his popularity was revitalised by the patrons of Hollywood. With actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor adorning themselves in Dior Couture for their film roles and premieres, and Grace Kelly, future Princess of Monaco, wearing a Dior gown to announce her engagement to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, and Margot Fonteyn, dancer with the Royal Ballet actually wearing a Dior gown for her wedding in 1955, the glamour and allure of Dior continued to grow.

Dior would go on to influence Parisian couture until his untimely death in 1957; just as Dior found his lucky star two decades previously, we lost ours too soon…

Dior’s Lily of The Valley Muguet Dress from the V&A Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition
Photo credit: Sophie Jones

Post-1957 the fashion house fell into the hands of the very young apprentice to Dior, Yves Saint Laurent. At just 21-years-old it was now down to Saint Laurent to revitalise the brand between 1957-1960. His first collection, the
Trapeze, built upon what Dior had crafted within his ‘ A-line ’ design. Nevertheless, as Saint Laurent continued to adopt revolutionary designs which deeply contrasted the demure, feminine silhouettes of Dior, many of his collections were not as well received. Saint Laurent left Dior in 1960, to pursue the creation of his own brand which still remains at the top of the fashion industry.

Marc Bohan was the couture houses’ subsequent successor. Bohan was already well-versed in the realms of Haute Couture and became the perfect match for the fashion house. Working at Dior for 29 years, Bohan was significant in shaping the brand we encounter today. Although he retained the elegance and feminine silhouettes of Dior’s original New Look, Bohan delved beyond the realms of couture to produce ready-to-wear collections which were more suited to a larger clientele. This meant that the brand was able to exert influence on a global scale, with more women being able to access the brand at Christian Dior-New York and Christian-Dior London boutiques. Continuing Monsieur Dior’s tradition of clothing the very finest stars and Royalty, Bohan worked very closely with Princess Grace of Monaco to design her royal wardrobe, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren all remained loyal to Bohan’s creations.

Since Bohan’s departure in 1989, Dior has been enlivened and revitalised by a flurry of Artistic Directors, from Gianfranco Ferre who introduced an Italian-inspired flair and femininity to the brand, whilst still evoking the theatrical with his Ascot-Cecil Beaton collection inspired by George Cukor’s 1964, My Fair Lady. After Ferre, in 1996, John Galliano broke new ground for Dior, bringing the fashion house into the present moment with his outlandish but mesmerising designs. His most striking pieces drew upon distant epochs, like the French court of Versailles in his Fall/Winter 2007-2008 collection.

Raf Simon’s Miss Dior Dress from the Christian Dior A/W 2012 collection at the V&A Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition
Photo credit: Sophie Jones

Since Galliano’s departure, Dior has encountered the artistic and fresh New Look of Raf Simons who took the brand in a completely original, unique direction whilst still retaining the essential elements which Dior outlined in 1947.

Maria Grazia Chirui, the brand’s first female artistic director, has responded to the strong need for a feminist undertone needed in modern society. She took the daring step to not only conduct her first show as a ready-to-wear, as opposed to haute couture but also featured t-shirts emblazoned with ‘ We Should All Be Feminists ’, the much-quoted title of Chimanda Adiche Ngozi from 2014.

In 2019, the V&A created their own exhibition, Designer of Dreams dedicated to Dior and his predecessors. It was truly fascinating and showcased the intricate details of the brand’s origins and displayed the fashion house’s most coveted pieces.

Maria Grazia Chiuri’s tulle dress from the Christian Dior S/S18 collection at the V&A Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition

The influence of Dior’s designs are ubiquitous, traceable and palpable right back to the emergence of his New Look in 1947 – the flower-like skirt and cinched-in waist are still rendered in Maria Grazia Chiuri’s designs. The final gown of the exhibition was taken from Chiuri’s SS18 collection. Although we are left with a dress which symbolises modernity and appears quite distant from Dior’s New Look 1947, we must remember Dior’s three fundamentals to good dressing – ‘ simplicity, good taste and grooming ’.

Chiuri’s grand, tulle angel wing feature is flamboyant and the dress acquires an otherworldly disposition. However, we must appreciate that the piece incorporates these three foundations. The lines of the garment are clean, well-placed and balanced, the waist and shoulders are emphasised,
the skirt flows out and blooms like a beautiful flower and the colours are neutral; Dior diligently gravitated towards white, nude tones and black which are all timeless shades. It is simple yet utterly mesmerising. Sewn along the front of the frock in a black cursive script is ‘Christian Dior’; they will always be his creations, the predecessors know this in their hearts, the couturier of the past is their guiding star…