SPRING’S NEW LOOK
Sixty-five years ago, CHRISTIAN DIOR started a revolution that’s still influencing the designers of today. By Meenal Mistry
The New Look was born in Paris on the very chilly morning of February 12, 1947. It was the last show of the spring haute couture season, and many American buyers had already headed home. Still, a large crowd of interested Parisians gathered outside Christian Dior’s salon at 30 Avenue Montaigne. They were drawn there by rumours that the designer’s debut collection was so magnificent, it might single-handedly revive the dismal postwar state of haute couture. Mr Dior didn’t disappoint. Those lucky enough to be seated inside—a group that included US Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, Richard Avedon, and illustrator and artist Christian Bérard—took in the archly feminine and colourful clothes with their luxuriously full, pleated skirts and impossibly wasp-waisted jackets. Then, it seems, a giddy chaos ensued.
“The end of that show was a riot. Dior was crying. There was sort of an insane ecstasy in the air,” says Penelope Rowlands, who describes that day in detail in her 2005 biography of Snow, A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Arts, and Letters (Atria Books).
58 As fashion legend (and Rowlands’s book) has it, Snow, who was one of the new designer’s staunch supporters, approached him afterward and stated, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look.” Or perhaps she shouted it out the window or even wrote it the next day. Accounts differ, but there’s no doubt that Snow coined the very sticky and definitive bit of fashion nomenclature. “Everyone credits her, and Dior even mentions it in his memoirs,” says Rowlands.
Dior had named the iconic suit, pictured here, the Bar and the collection itself Corolle et En Huit, a reference to the fact that it made women look like flowers and the figure eight. But while it’s hard to imagine them without Snow’s authoritative stamp, it was the newness of those exaggerated womanly looks that outmoded the spartan wartime silhouette and provided the broad strokes for the elegant uniform of the baby-boom era. Tracy Lord and Betty Draper, meet your dressmaker.
Fast-forward 65 years and the New Look is still very much a part of the fashion lexicon. In fact, the term pinged around all over during the recent spring collections, as designer upon designer—including Dior
studio head Bill Gaytten—channelled its refined spirit in varying degrees of full skirts and Cecil Beaton pastels. But it was far from a dusty, retro redux, as each of them gave it a smart spin. At Jil Sander, Raf Simons completed his ‘couture trilogy’ with a sheer-skirted plaid shirtwaist and a perfectly pristine white strapless gown that would have driven Grace Kelly wild but still had a sharp, squeaky-clean edge that clued you into the designer’s minimal, avant-gardist ways.
In his collection for Rochas, Marco Zanini twisted the codes of that golden era into something a bit subversive. “I was thinking about the movies,” says Zanini. “I mean, Hitchcock, of course, but also early John Waters, which had a certain ’50s sensibility in a weird way. All his underground superstars were dressed up in that ’50s look.” There’s something about all that white-picket-fence perfection that implies a dark side just beneath the surface. But when it comes to subverting a ladylike sensibility, Miuccia Prada is the reigning queen. She merged the sweetness of candy-coloured accordion-pleated dresses and skirts with a measured dose of camp, through cowgirl rhinestones and cartoony car motifs.
What’s not subversive, however, is the exquisite way many of these modern- day pieces are constructed. One reason the New Look caused such a ruckus was its go-for-broke luxury. Making one day dress took more than 16 yards of fabric, obscene in the wake of material rationing. That’s definitely a link between Mr Dior and today’s talents. “When you do those lines, there’s always a lot of fabric involved,” says Zanini, whose silk gazar and organza hemlines were among the swingiest. “In some looks, I did a half circle in the front and then a full circle in the back to create more movement and to not make it bulky in the front, and richer and more flowing in the back.” Jonathan Saunders, meanwhile, stitched a band of pintuck pleats on the bottom of his dirndl skirts to give them some heft, likening it to a petticoat-making technique. “The high street is amazing for basics, but as ready-to-wear designers, we have to develop s omething with l uxury and elegance,” says Saunders. “That’s what the New Look was about, wasn’t it?” The new looks of Spring might officially be prêt-à-porter, but inside them beats the heart of haute couture.
Over at Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs turned out boxy suits and puff-skirted dresses in sugary layers of organza and broderie anglaise. At Dior, Gaytten took a back-to-roots approach, reminding us all where
Rochas much of what we’d seen had started. He widened the neckline of the Bar jacket and paired it with an update of almost-tulipshaped skirts to the knee. “Monsieur Dior’s collection was a remarkable return to femininity, hence its continued relevance,” he says. “It revealed his love of the female form, which remains a touchstone in fashion.”
But why now? Does 2012 look like 1947? We’re not quite postwar (and it’s hard to tell when we might be), but there is a sense of women craving a bit of optimism and maybe a trace of tradition. “We were delighted to see the retro femininity,” says Lane Crawford fashion director Sarah Rutson, who cites Jil Sander and Prada as particular favourites. “With so much uncertainty in the world, to have that sense of lightness just seemed so right.” “Dior said that the forward thrust of the hips was a way for women to advertise their childrearing abilities, so he was certainly tapping into the emergence of the baby boom,” says Timothy Long, the costume curator at the Chicago History Museum. “But there’s no surprise that that whole idea of hyperfemininity is going to continue.” Long is the force behind the current exhibition Charles
James: Genius Deconstructed which sheds new light on the unique way that the American couturier—said to have influenced Dior— crafted his dresses. It’s open through April 16, and quite a few designers have shown interest in the show, an indication that this trend might see at least another season. And if it doesn’t, you can still bet that it will boomerang back.
“Something about that silhouette always attracts women,” says Zanini. “That tight waist and full skirt, it connects with the princess in every woman. It’s always a winner.” Gaytten concurs: “The Corolle line emphasised the bust, the waist, and the hip. The house of Dior will always celebrate women.” Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière
Dior’s cover moment, 1953
The Bar suit, Paris, Spring 1947
Richard Avedon and Carmel Snow in Dior’s front row, 1955