Despite being a world away from the fashionable salons of Paris, Australian women were among the first to embrace a revolutionary new post-war style of French dressing.
AS FRANCE EMERGED from the gloom of war, foreign occupation and years of deprivation, Christian Dior’s groundbreaking ‘New Look’, unveiled in February 1947, signalled a return to elegance and beauty for a country long regarded as the epitome of style and chic. Shock waves generated by this landmark fashion collection reverberated far beyond the coterie of wealthy society doyennes and style-conscious celebrities who lined the catwalk in Dior’s studio at Avenue Montaigne for that first post-war parade.
Also in Paris that spring season were fashion buyers from Australia’s David Jones, and a few key pieces from the collection made it back to be shown at the upmarket retailer’s flagship Sydney store.With wasp-waisted, full-skirted silhouettes, Dior’s designs reintroduced voluptuous femininity to women’s fashion, which had been missing here since early in the century.
His use of luxury fabrics was welcomed after wartime shortages and enforced rationing, when hemlines on women’s skirts were mandated by law and full-length evening dresses were expressly forbidden. According to Katie Somerville, curator of a major new Dior exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the French couturier was an astute businessman eyeing new markets for his products and saw Australia’s potential. “Here was a fashion market that hadn’t really been impacted in the same way or to the same extent as a lot of Europe and Britain, in terms of the war,” Katie says. “There was a more optimistic attitude towards something different – a real hunger for it, in fact – and that developed into a passion for all things French. A lot of Australian boutiques that opened in that period were all about referencing France or alluding to the French couture industry, even if they weren’t actually a part of it.”
A year after the New Look launch, the 1948 Spring/Summer collection of 50 pieces premiered at David Jones in Sydney, the first time a Dior collection had been shown outside of France. In time, Dior designs would be produced under licence by Australian clothing manufacturers. While his haute couture pieces were reserved for the elite,
Dior’s ideas inspired both local designers and domestic dressmakers as photos of the outfits were widely published in popular magazines such as the Australian Women’s Weekly ( AWW), and sewing patterns became available that referenced Dior.
House of Dior’s special relationship with Australia continued to flourish, and in 1957 the AWW, in partnership with David Jones, arranged to bring us the Autumn/Winter collection – Dior’s last, because he died unexpectedly in October, aged 51.The tour went ahead and seven of Dior’s most famous mannequins flew to Australia on a specially chartered flight with 80 outfits for fashion shows in Sydney and Melbourne.This photograph of the mannequins landing in Australia (right) is featured in the NGV’s exhibition The House of Dior: SeventyYears of Haute Couture, along with more than 140 original garments, including some from the 1947 collection.The exhibition runs 27 August–7 November.