The French couturier Christian Dior (1905 – 1957) was born in Granville, France. Descendant of a manufacturing family of the Norman bourgeoisie, Dior spent his early childhood in the comfortable surroundings of the family villa, Les Rhumbs, located on the Channel coast in Granville, which now houses a museum dedicated to his memory. At that time the little port was celebrated as a fashionable seaside resort, and in summertime it was transformed into “an elegant Paris neighborhood.” The family moved to Paris in 1911, to the new bourgeois neighborhood of Passy, near the bois de Boulogne.
Following his father’s wishes, Dior registered at the École de Sciences Politiques in Paris after passing his baccalaureate. He eagerly followed Parisian artistic developments and met various writers, painters, and musicians, befriending, among others, Pierre Gaxotte, Maurice Sachs, Jean Ozenne and his cousin Christian Bérard, Max Jacob, and Henri Sauguet. In 1927, after his military service and with his father’s support, he opened an art gallery at 34, rue de la Boétie. Because his parents refused to have their name on a commercial sign, the establishment was given the name of his associate, Jacques Bonjean. The gallery exhibited the works of such contemporary artists as Giorgio de Chirico, Maurice Utrillo, Salvador Dali, Raoul Dufy, Marie Laurencin, Fernand Léger, Jean Lurçat, Pablo Picasso, Ossip Zadkine, Georges Braque, and Aristide Maillol.
Christian Dior’s carefree youth soon came to an end: in 1931 his brother was institutionalized, his mother died, and his father was completely ruined financially. “In the face of this accumulation of tragedies,” Dior reacted by a “flight to the East.” He was “naively impelled by a desperate search for a new solution to problems that this crisis of capitalism had made acute,” embarking on a study trip to the Soviet Union with a group of architects, only to find on his return that his associate was also ruined. His impoverished family abandoned Paris, retreating first to Normandy and later taking refuge in the village of Callian, near Cannes. Dior stayed behind in Paris, closing his first gallery and later joining the gallery of Pierre Colle on the rue Cambacérès. He thus went from “losses to forced sales while continuing to organize surrealist or abstract exhibitions that drove away the last art lovers.” In 1934 he had an attack of tuberculosis, and his friends took up a collection to send him for treatment. The following year he found himself in Paris with no income and no place to live. He survived on the sale of one of his last canvases, Le plan de Paris of Raoul Dufy, which the designer Paul Poiret had sold to Dior when he was in similar destitute circumstances.
Couture and Costume
Jean Ozenne, who was designing for couture houses, introduced Dior to the fashion world and to his clientele. At the age of thirty, Dior devoted himself to studying fashion drawing, referring only to what he knew and appreciated of Edward Molyneux, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Jeanne Lanvin. He managed to sell his first sketches of hats and then of dresses. His clients were fashionable hat makers and couture houses but he “also sold ideas to foreign buyers.” Publication of his drawings in Le figaro produced his first public recognition. In 1937 the couturier Robert Piguet selected four of his designs and asked him to produce them for his “half-collection” (midseason collection). Christian Dior was just thirty-two, and these were, he said, the “first dresses that I really created.”
In June 1938 Robert Piguet offered him a position as a designer in his couture studio located at the Rond Point of the Champs Élysées. There he designed three collections in a row. The second contained his “first wide dresses,” inspired by dresses worn by young heroines of the French second empire children’s literature “les petites filles modèles” (well-behaved little girls). They were characterized by a “raised bust, round width starting from the waist, petticoat of English embroidery.” As the creator of a successful design called “English coffee,” he was introduced to Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar. In 1939 his last prewar collection for Piguet launched the line of what came to be called “amphora dresses” marking the “beginning of rounded hips.” In parallel with his work as a designer, Dior designed theater costumes for individual clients. He dressed, for example, the actress Odette Joyeux in Captain Smith by Jean Blanchon (at the théátre des Mathurins, December 1939) and in The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan (at the same theater, February 1940).
Dior was mobilized at the outbreak of war in 1939 and then joined his family in the unoccupied zone of France after the 1940 armistice. Piguet, still in Paris, asked him to resume his prewar position, but Dior was late in replying and found the position already taken by Antonio del Castillo in the fall of 1941. Dior then went to work for Lucien Lelong, together with another young designer, Pierre Balmain. The two shared design responsibilities throughout the war: “Balmain and I never forgot that Lelong taught us our profession in the midst of the worst restrictions,” said Dior. The personality of Lucien Lelong, the clever president of the Chambre syndicate de la couture parisienne (association of haute couture) throughout the German occupation of France, deeply influenced the future couturier. After his study trip to the United States in 1935 and the launch of his Edition line, Dior had developed an interest in foreign markets and high-end ready-to-wear. In contrast, he saw fashion under the German occupation as “appalling” and exclaimed: “With what vengeful joy did I do the opposite later.”
It was nonetheless a productive period for him: films (Le Lit a colonne by Roland Tual , Lettre d’amour  and Sylvie et le fantôme  by Claude Autant-Lara, Échec au roi by Jean-Paul Paulin , and Paméla; ou, L’énigme du temple by Pierre de Hérain ) and Marcel L’Herbier’s play Au petit bonheur (at the théátre Gramont, December 1944) gave him the opportunity to escape from the textile rationing that governed ordinary clothing and to conceive, often for Odette Joyeux, historically inspired costumes full of long dresses and extravagant designs.
After the Liberation, Dior’s colleague Pierre Balmain opened his own couture house in 1945 on rue François 1er and encouraged Dior to do the same. Marcel Boussac, a major French textile manufacturer and president of the cotton-marketing syndicate, offered Dior the artistic direction of the Gaston firm (formerly called Philippe et Gaston) on rue Saint-Florentin. Considering the business outmoded, Dior suggested instead that he start a couture house “where everything would be new, from the state of mind and the personnel to the furnishings and the premises,” in view of the fact “that foreign markets, after the long stagnation of fashion due to the war, were bound to demand really new fashions.” Marcel Boussac invested sixty million francs in the project.
The House of Dior
In 1946 Dior chose a private mansion located at 30, avenue Montaigne as the site of his own firm, which was established on 8 October 1946. The enterprise had four models and eighty-five employees, sixty of whom were seamstresses. The management team, in addition to the head couturier, included a financial director (Jacques Rouet), a studio head (Raymonde Zehnacker, who came from Lelong), a head of workshops (Marguerite Carré, who came from Patou), and an artistic adviser and head of high-fashion design (Mitzah Bricard, a designer from Molyneux). The couture house itself included two workshops for dresses and one for suits (whose head was Pierre
Cardin, then twenty years old). From the outset, it also had, on the ground floor, a shop selling articles and accessories not requiring fitting. Salons and shops were decorated by Victor Grampierre in tones of white and pearl gray and furnished in neo-Louis XVI style.
The opening was widely publicized: “When the summer 1946 collections came out, everyone was talking about Christian Dior, because an extraordinary rumor was spreading that the financial assistance of Marcel Boussac, the French king of cotton …would enable him to create his own house.” Even before it was seen, Dior’s first collection thus made news, and he won the support of the editors of Vogue, Le figaro, and Elle. The newcomer among couture houses, Christian Dior finally unveiled, at the conclusion of the winter shows, his first collection for spring 1947. Considered the opening shot for the New Look, it immediately gained notoriety for the couturier at the age of forty-two. “The first season was brilliant, even beyond my hopes,” he said. The second, in which the couturier carried “the famous New Look line to its extreme,” achieved “breathtaking” success and was accompanied by the launch of his first perfume, Miss Dior.
With this impetus, Dior spent the last ten years of his life developing his couture house and extending his influence on world fashion. (In 1955 the Dior firm had one thousand employees in twenty-eight workshops and accounted for half the exports of the French couture industry.) For his first collection, Dior received the Neiman Marcus Award in 1947. From his trip to the United States, he learned, as he put it, that “if I wanted to reach the large number of elegant American women … I had to open a luxury ready-to-wear shop in New York.” The following year, he set up the subsidiary Christian Dior New York, Inc., at 745 Fifth Avenue. He repeated the process in Caracas in 1953 (Christian Dior Venezuela), in London in 1954 (Christian Dior, Ltd.), and later in Australia, Chile, Mexico, and Cuba. These companies custom-made styles from Paris and sold accessories. But it was not until 1967 that a real line of ready-to-wear was distributed, under the label Miss Dior.
In 1948 the Christian Dior perfume company was set up, and it launched the second fragrance, Diorama, in 1949, followed by Eau Fraîche (1953) and Diorissimo (1956); the first lipsticks came out in 1955. Dior opened a stocking and glove division in 1951 and established the Christian Dior Delman company, which made shoes designed by Roger Vivier; finally, the Paris shop added a gifts and tableware department in 1954. The range of products with the Dior label was enlarged thanks to a very innovative policy for licenses, the first of which was granted in 1949. By this means, the label was attached to all the accessories of female dress, from girdle to jewelry, but also, and very early on, to totally distinct articles, such as Christian Dior Ties (1950).
The growth of the house was fostered by a simple and effective public relations policy: little direct advertising but excellent relations with the press, which guaranteed great visibility for the fashions as well as for their creator (who was featured on the cover of Time on 4 March 1957). The couturier gave many interviews, designed disguises for memorable parties (among them, the Venetian ball of Carlos de Beistegui given at the Palazzo Labia on 3 September 1951), and continued to dress stars, such as Marlene Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright in 1950 and Henry Koster’s No Highway in the Sky in 1951 and Ava Gardner in Mark Robson’s The Little Hut in 1956. In Christian Dior et moi (1956), Dior described his career, strewn with Parisian celebrities, pitfalls, coups de théátre, and palm readers’ predictions. In passing, he reassured the reader about the motives for his long-ago trip to the Soviet Union and emphasized his admiration for the entrepreneurial spirit, thus helping to forge the paradoxical myth of the creator of scandals with a reassuring face.
The attention given to the collections was intensified each year by the expectation—followed by the announcement—of a new major change (affecting, notably, the length of skirts). The couturier himself issued descriptive communiqués adopted by the press that frequently took a peremptory tone, such as “No yellow” or “No hats with clean and tailored style,” giving force to the new fashion tendency. The collections, each containing approximately two hundred items, unveiled in succession contradictory lines that imposed on fashion a rate of change never seen before: Corolle and 8 (1947), also known as the “New Look collection”; Zig-Zag and Envol, followed by Ailée (1948); Trompel’oeil and Milieu de Siècle (1949); Verticale and Oblique (1951); Ovale ou Naturelle and Longue (1951); Sinueuse and Profilée (1952); Tulipe and Vivante (1953); Muguet and H (1954), A and Y (1955); Flèche and Aimant (1956); and Libre and Fuseau (1957).
La Belle Epoque Influences on the New Look
Differing in their lines, his creations were always related to one another through the constancy of certain characteristics. Structurally, the dresses came out of the intention to sculpt the silhouette along predefined lines. Whether it was the New Look, the Shock Look (the English name for the Vivante line), or the Flat Look (the H line), the body was always strongly stylized. The waist was displaced, cinched, or unbelted. The hips swelled or shrank thanks to the choice of materials able to express in shapes the energetic and tense designs of the couturier: shantung, ottoman silk, thick taffetas and satins, velvet, organza, woolen cloth, and cotton piqué generally replaced the customary use of fluid woolen and silk crepes. Originator of a style that used a large quantity of material, artifices, and ornaments, Christian Dior stimulated the growth of a number of parallel industries: corset makers, feather makers, embroiderers, makers of costume jewelry, flower designers, and also illustrators. Thus, the image of the creations of Christian Dior includes the shoes of Roger Vivier, the prints of Brossin de Méré, the tulles of Brivet, the fabrics of Rébé (René Bégué) and Georges Barbier, the jewels of Francis Winter, and the drawings of René Gruau. As for furs and hats, they were manufactured in specialized workshops of the couture house.
Stylistically, Dior’s creations were frequently distinguished by ornaments that came directly from pre-1914 fashion. Simulated knots; false pockets; decorative buttons; play with cuffs, collars, basques, and tails; false belts; and bias cuts punctuated his collections with their trompe-l’oeil effects and, from the outset, erased any modernist intentions.
Dior did not specify the origin of his stylistic borrowings. In particular, he expressed only elliptical intentions to justify the inspiration for his New Look: “I have a reactionary temperament, a characteristic that is too often confused with the retrograde; we had barely come out of a deprived, parsimonious era, obsessed with tickets and textile rationing. My dream therefore naturally took on the form of a reaction against poverty.” Hence, it is in the context of the presentation of his shows that we should look for an explicit expression of his historical inspiration. Speaking of the renovation of the mansion on the avenue Montaigne, the couturier asserted that he was striving “to prepare a cradle in the style and the colors of the years of [his] Paris childhood” and described “this neo-Louis XVI, white paneling, lacquered white furniture, gray hangings, glass doors with small beveled panes, bronze wall lamps, and small lamp shades that ruled from 1900 to 1914 in the ‘new’ houses of Passy.” He displayed a “crystal chandelier and a proliferation of palms,” while the shop, on the advice of Christian Bérard, was given a hanging of cloth of Jouy “in the tradition of notion shops of the eighteenth century.”
In parallel with this nostalgic neo-neo-Louis XVI style, a veritable mirroring of pastiche, Christian Dior seemed throughout his career to draw the material artifice of his pleated, draped, corseted, and decorated effects from the clothing vocabulary of the Belle Époque. “I thank heaven that I lived in Paris during the last years of the belle époque . . . whatever life has granted me since then, nothing will ever be able to equal the sweet memory of those days,” he wrote. But by choosing as his favorite period one in which taste was eclectic, the designer avoided the domination of a single style in order to free himself to adopt all possible reinterpretations of the past.
Neither the structural artifices nor the proliferation of appliquéd ornaments interfered with the readability of the line. Paradoxically, Dior’s creations attracted primarily through their sobriety. As evidence of an eclectic sensibility, the ornamental resources derived from turn-of-the-century fashion were effectively deployed with a concern for modernity hostile to the composite. The conception of each model seemed to be guided only by emphasis on a single effect at a time. From one model to the next, one’s attention was shifted, for example, from the emphasis of a cut to the shimmering of a pattern or to the luxuriance of the embroidery. The directed gaze, channeled by the erasure of the superfluous—by the notorious choice of uniform and subdued colors when the cut was to be emphasized or, on the contrary, the choice of a simple cut to emphasize the fabric—guaranteed the visual impact of each model and pointed up its strong identity. It thus was beyond the individual model and only in the course of the show that the succession of appearances enabled the presentation of an aesthetic of the whole, both composite and romantic.
The constancy of stylistic borrowings from the past revealed a veritable postmodernist stance on the part of this man who was so admirably ensconced in his century. As Dior himself said:
It is strange that in 1956 people applied the names avant-garde and aesthetic of the future to the works and the masters that we had admired between the ages of fifteen and twenty and who had already been famous for ten years among the most aware of our elders, guided by Guillaume Apollinaire.
But for Dior, “the new at all costs, even to create the absurd, is no longer the essential area of exploration.” Far from the aspirations of prewar surrealism, he confided the origin of his first collections: “After so many years of wandering, weary with consorting with only painters and poets, couture wished to return to the fold and rediscover its original function which is to adorn women and to beautify them.” As a result, his haute couture, while remaining a privilege of the wealthy, appeared comprehensible to everyone. Christian Dior thereby gave his signature to the first democratization of taste, if not of fashion.
By conforming the feminine silhouette to design, by dictating the choice of accessories and the circumstances appropriate for every outfit, the couturier left little room for personal expression, risk, and feminine fantasy. On the other hand, the steadiness of his “total look” guaranteed his popularity. It enabled him to satisfy an enormous public, who saw in Christian Dior, whatever their national or individual clothing cultures, the label of a guaranteed elegance. In the end, Dior’s conception of a wearable fashion was also that of an exportable fashion.
Christian Dior was, in succession, an avant-garde amateur, an artisan of a kind of return to order, and, finally, a manufacturer of elegance. The first superstar couturier, he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-two in Bagni di Montecatini, Italy. The financier Marcel Boussac thought at the time of closing the house, but in the face of pressure from license holders, he appointed the young assistant Yves Saint Laurent as artistic director, and in this way the label survived its founder. When Yves Saint Laurent left in 1960, Marc Bohan took his place and held it until Gianfranco Ferré took over in 1989. Their designs upheld the image of a couture distanced from the multiple challenges and manifestos of contemporary fashion. The classicism of Christian Dior was not shaken until the arrival in 1997 of John Galliano, who revived the active media exposure established by Dior himself.
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