JAN­UARY 21, 1905 – OC­TO­BER 24, 1957

The New European - - Eurofile - BY CHAR­LIE CON­NELLY

The Euro­pean win­ter of 1946-47 was the cold­est in decades. As the con­ti­nent emerged trau­ma­tised from six de­bil­i­tat­ing years of war, tem­per­a­tures plum­meted and Bri­tain came to a vir­tual stand­still.

Food and fuel short­ages pro­voked civil un­rest in both Den­mark and the Nether­lands and peo­ple froze to death as far south as Mi­lan.

This com­bi­na­tion of post-war aus­ter­ity and arc­tic me­te­o­rol­ogy was an un­likely a con­text for ar­guably the defin­ing mo­ment of 20th cen­tury fash­ion but 41-year-old Chris­tian Dior was un­daunted. With the fi­nan­cial back­ing of Mar­cel Bous­sac, the rich­est man in France at the time, Dior had launched his own fash­ion house in De­cem­ber 1946 and on Fe­bru­ary 12 1947, as the mer­cury stayed stub­bornly at the bot­tom end of the scale, pre­sented in Paris the first Dior col­lec­tion.

Its of­fi­cial ti­tle was Corolle but the show and its wares would go down in fash­ion his­tory as the New Look, a name coined by the ap­pro­pri­ately-named ed­i­tor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow.

With bal­le­rina-style skirts, nar­row shoul­ders, thin waists, padded hips, bead­ing, em­broi­dery and sump­tu­ous pleats, Dior’s col­lec­tion de­lib­er­ately looked back to look for­wards. There was a con­scious nod to more os­ten­ta­tious times, a de­ter­mi­na­tion that women’s clothes should move away from the prac­ti­cal makedo-and-mend aus­ter­ity cul­ture that had de­vel­oped dur­ing the re­cent con­flict.

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the show may have been but the war-weary women of France were hardly unan­i­mous in their praise, many com­plain­ing that the in­de­pen­dence they’d earned dur­ing the war, par­tic­u­larly in the work­place, was com­pro­mised by sti­fling corsetry and im­prac­ti­cal ruf­fles and flour­ishes. Wartime fab­ric ra­tioning had led to the lib­er­at­ing de­vel­op­ment of knee­length skirts and sim­ple, un­re­strict­ing blouses and here was Dior cloth­ing women in hem­lines that brushed the floor and rib-crush­ing bodices that many be­lieved were gone for­ever. “Dior doesn’t clothe women,” com­plained Coco Chanel, “he up­hol­sters them.”

For the de­signer him­self, how­ever, “it was as if Europe was tired of drop­ping bombs and now wanted to let off a few fire­works in­stead”.

Such a com­mo­tion did Dior’s col­lec­tion cause that its re­ver­ber­a­tions were felt be­yond the Paris fash­ion world, even reach­ing seats of Euro­pean govern­ment. The then pres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Board of Trade Harold Wil­son even for­bade the Bri­tish edi­tion of Vogue to men­tion Dior, let alone pub­li­cise styles that might pro­voke in­tense pub­lic pres­sure to ease Bri­tain’s reg­u­la­tions on fab­ric use.

When some early adopters of the new range in France, Bri­tain and even the US found them­selves abused in the street for their ap­par­ent profli­gacy with scarce fab­rics, Dior de­fended what he saw as fu­tile re­sis­tance to an in­evitable shift in the pub­lic mood.

“A golden age seemed to have come again,” he wrote in 1948. “War had passed from view and there were no other wars on the hori­zon. What did the weight of my sump­tu­ous ma­te­ri­als, my heavy vel­vets and bro­cades mat­ter? When hearts were light, mere fab­rics could not weigh the body down.”

He had an­other good rea­son to look for­ward to a post­war fu­ture rather than dwelling in the past. Con­scripted into mil­i­tary ser­vice prior to the Ger­man in­va­sion un­til France’s sub­se­quent de­feat, Dior was re­leased back into civil­ian life and the fash­ion in­dus­try in which he was be­gin­ning to de­velop a rep­u­ta­tion.

Con­tro­ver­sially, he worked dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion for Lu­cien Le­long, who de­signed clothes for the wives of Nazi of­fi­cers and French col­lab­o­ra­tors. The Le­long en­ter­prise was far from alone in this – many of the Paris fash­ion houses that re­mained in busi­ness did so in or­der to sur­vive – but Dior’s sit­u­a­tion was thrown into sharper fo­cus by his sis­ter, a key player in the French re­sis­tance, be­ing sent to the Ravens­brück con­cen­tra­tion camp. Cather­ine Dior had been a vi­tal mem­ber of a Re­sis­tance in­tel­li­gence­gath­er­ing net­work un­til her ar­rest in 1944 and was despatched to Ravens­brück on one of the last trains out of Paris be­fore the lib­er­a­tion of the city.

Dior tried un­suc­cess­fully to use con­tacts in his list of clients to se­cure the re­lease of his sib­ling but she sur­vived the war to be­come a dec­o­rated hero of post-war France. When Dior re­leased his first per­fume in 1947 he named it Miss Dior in her hon­our.

In the decade that fol­lowed the un­veil­ing of the New Look, Dior’s for­tunes sky­rock­eted be­yond his wildest ex­pec­ta­tions. He was al­most sin­gle­hand­edly re­spon­si­ble for restor­ing Paris to its po­si­tion as the cen­tre of the fash­ion world ahead of New York and Rome but he looked out­wards too, es­tab­lish­ing an em­pire with branches in New York, Lon­don, Cara­cas, Cuba, Canada and Chile.

Hav­ing started Mai­son Chris­tian Dior that freez­ing win­ter with a staff of 85, by the time of his death in 1957 from a heart at­tack at the Tus­can spa re­sort of Mon­te­ca­tini – some say dur­ing a game of canasta, oth­ers that he was in bed with two young men at the time – Dior’s Paris op­er­a­tion alone em­ployed more than

1,000 peo­ple.

The son of a suc­cess­ful fer­tiliser man­u­fac­turer from Granville, a sea­side town in Nor­mandy, Dior had grown up in Paris and on leav­ing school looked set for the diplo­matic ca­reer his fa­ther had al­ways cov­eted for him. Dior was a gifted artist and had nursed early am­bi­tions to be an ar­chi­tect (he would later say of his fash­ion de­signs, “I think of my work as ephemeral ar­chi­tec­ture glo­ri­fy­ing the pro­por­tions of the fe­male body”) and by the time of his grad­u­a­tion in 1928 with a de­gree in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence Dior se­nior had to con­cede that his son’s tal­ents lay in a more artis­tic di­rec­tion than in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

In­stead he helped him es­tab­lish a small art gallery in Paris on con­di­tion the fam­ily name did not ap­pear any­where near the busi­ness. While the gallery ex­hib­ited work by Ge­orges Braque, Pablo Pi­casso and Sal­vador Dali, by the time it closed in 1931 Dior had suf­fered in quick suc­ces­sion the loss of his el­der brother and mother while his fa­ther’s busi­ness had col­lapsed as a re­sult of the world­wide re­ces­sion fol­low­ing the fi­nan­cial crash of 1929.

Faced with sud­denly re­duced cir­cum­stances, Dior took a va­ri­ety of jobs (he as­sisted a fair­ground for­tune teller for a while whom he later claimed told him, “You will suf­fer poverty but women are lucky for you and through them you will achieve suc­cess, make a great deal of money and travel widely”) but it was the door-to-door sell­ing of his fash­ion sketches that even­tu­ally se­cured Dior a job as an il­lus­tra­tor at the mag­a­zine Fi­garo Il­lus­tré. From there he was hired in 1938 by Paris cou­turier Robert Piguet as a de­sign as­sis­tant and, his brief spell in the French mil­i­tary aside, his as­cent to the undis­puted throne of ‘King of Fash­ion’ was un­der­way.

His ap­pren­tice­ship had been long but suc­cess came quickly: a month after pre­mier­ing his New Look col­lec­tion a Dior dress was on the cover of the US Vogue and in July Hol­ly­wood su­per­star Rita

Hay­worth wore a Dior dress to the pre­miere of her film Gilda. By the end of 1949 Dior prod­ucts made up 5% of France’s en­tire ex­port rev­enue.

His pe­riod at the pin­na­cle of the in­dus­try lasted only a decade be­fore his death but Dior’s vi­sion, in­put and de­vo­tion to a time­less sense of el­e­gance ce­mented an ex­tra­or­di­nary legacy. The com­pany he founded to­day has out­lets all over the world and is worth a shade over £9 bil­lion.

“In a ma­chine age,” he once said, “dress­mak­ing is one of the last refuges of the hu­man, the per­sonal, the inim­itable. In an epoch as som­bre as ours, lux­ury must be de­fended inch by inch.”

Photo: Ull­stein Bild via Getty Im­ages

KING OF FASH­ION: Chris­tian Dior with mod­els in 1954

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