AT 10.30am on 12 February 1947 the House of Christian Dior launched its very first collection, at its salon at 30 Avenue Montaigne, Paris. The collection was called Corolle because of the way the skirts fanned out like petals from a stem-like waist, but it was almost immediately renamed the “New Look” by the American press. Next year the Imperial War Museum will mount an exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of a look that caused a sensation throughout the world and provoked women to attack each other on the streets of Paris and picket fashion shows in the US with placards screaming “Burn Mr Dior”.
The Imperial War Museum may seem an odd choice for an exhibition about fashion, but Dior’s New Look wasn’t just about fashion. It was a social representation of the end of the war, during which it was the Government that decided how much money fashion could take up.
What mattered then was the cost and ease of making-up of a garment; the amount of fabric used was strictly controlled. Fashion was practical and basic to go with the jobs that women were called upon to do. Silhouettes were boxy, hard, and masculine. And then along came this French designer, whom Cecil Beaton likened to a “bland country curate made out of pink marzipan” who thought nothing of using 25 yards of fabric to make a skirt.
Harper’s Bazaar described the Corolle collection as the “first major post-war fashion … every line is rounded, there are no angles … shoulders are gently curved … The big story is a curving, opulent day silhouette that is the most elegant fashion for decades”.
Dior had always hated wartime fashions, calling them “hideous and repellent”. Later, in his memoirs, he confessed that he had enjoyed wreaking his revenge against ugly wartime clothes.
Not everyone shared his joy. In the autumn of 1948 in the Rue Lepic in Paris, the photographer Walter Carone captured a scene that was later shown throughout the world: a young woman literally had her clothes torn offby older women, who better remembered having to “make do and mend” during the war and were outraged at what they saw as the obscene waste of fabric in her New Look skirt. The President of the Board of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps, slammed his fist on his desk and shouted “There should be a law [against such waste]!”
To Dior, this “waste” was a symbol of youth and hope. He did not only make his skirts full (so full they could stand up by themselves) but they also skimmed the ankle, and were lined with tulle, with a layer of silk against the skin to prevent stockings snagging. His arrival in Chicago in 1947 was greeted by women with banners exclaiming “Mr Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor”.
Dior’s critics did not deter him. His second collection in July 1947 was even more extreme: more fabric was used as skirts got even longer. For Dior, “war had passed out of sight. When hearts were light, mere fabrics could not weigh the body down”.
Such emotion attached to “mere” fashion is what makes the Imperial War Museum so excited about the proposed exhibition. Angela Godwin, Keeper of Marketing and Trading at the museum, says: “This exhibition is not just about fashion. The clothes will all have a story behind them.
“It shows how war affected people as a whole. It is a social history of war and people and not war and machines.”
The exhibition will cover fashion from the late Thirties andForties, which is essential to understanding just why the New Look was so revolutionary and how its effect reverberated into the decades beyond.
New Look garments are scarce, hence their appeal. A New Look coat 50 years ago would have cost pounds 1,000, which is tantamount to winning the lottery today.
It is hard now to imagine the hoo-ha caused by a skirt or a dress. During the war people did not lose interest in fashion, they just responded to it in a different way. When you are used to having a dress made out of a German flag captured by your soldier husband in Austria (as happened to one lady who donated her dress to the Imperial War Museum for a previous exhibition), it must be rather difficult to come to terms with a skirt using enough fabric to make 10 others.
The New Look made Dior a star for years to come; even the press fell into line. On 27 July 1953, just as the Daily Express was going to press, a messenger delivered the news that Dior had raised his hemlines to just below the knee. The next day Dior commanded four columns across the paper’s front page.