# 72 CHRISTIAN DIOR
JANUARY 21, 1905 – OCTOBER 24, 1957
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
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.”
KING OF FASHION: Christian Dior with models in 1954