from Grandville, Les Fleurs Animés, 1867
The Eternal Feminine
“My dream was to save women from nature.”
The gallant Monsieur Dior set out to rescue women, like a knight — with one interesting difference. He compassed his chivalric intention by putting the ladies themselves into armor. The models who introduced the New Look in 1947 were amply upholstered in defensive plate. Their hips were emphasized by pads and layers of petticoats, while their waists were nipped in by severe, idealizing boned corsetry. Over this hardy infrastructure came skirts interleaved with stiffened muslin and finally lined with taffeta. Even the sloping “natural” shoulders of the New Look were achieved with specially shaped pads.
As a result, a New Look dress looked immediately good on virtually every woman. How different from the situation today! Now a woman must strive to make an outfit out of separates, in a sartorial balancing act that camouflages all the areas where nature has been stingy with her gifts.
The 1947 Bar suit, icon and archetype of the New Look,
still new, still compelling after more than half a century
Dior’s creations didn’t just follow the body, they stood out from it, with built-in curves. If you didn’t have the breasts to live up to the New Look, you wore falsies. Each garment required two or three fittings, and about two hundred hours to complete in its glove-like perfection. Also bear in mind the New Look’s sheer yardage. The dresses required a meter of cloth for the bodice and around twenty meters per skirt.
The visible side of all this engineering was a long pleated skirt, widening steadily to a point beneath the knee, but narrowing upwards to a nipped-in waist. Above this was a tight little bodice, often with basques (short skirtings), gracefully rounded shoulders sometimes emphasized by raglan sleeves (sleeves that aren’t sewn on at the shoulder, but which extend to the collar, like the sleeves on a baseball shirt). These were the signature features of the New Look, most famously exemplified by the Bar suit.
Bar suit from the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute
Dior’s own description of the look is:
. . . I molded my dresses to the curves of the female body, so that they called attention to its shape. I emphasized the width of the hips, and gave the bust its true prominence; and in order to give my models more ‘presence’ I lined nearly all of them with cambric or taffeta, thus reverting to an old tradition.
Dior didn’t actually originate any of the New Look’s elements, all were to be met with elsewhere in the design of the previous ten years, and some of them, as we shall see, dated back to the Second Empire and Empress Eugénie. But only Dior combined them all decisively into a single succinct and absolutely convincing image, which he accessorized into further elegance with high pumps, sleek gloves, cocktail hats, and umbrellas (evoking the parasols ladies carried at the end of the previous century).
Another Belle Époque
The 1947 New Look cannot be fully understood without its historical context. Little high fashion had continued in France under the occupation, and that little consisted of retreads of thirties styles, produced as trophies for the German elite. For everyone else, wartime cloth shortages, and the practical demands of the jobs imposed on women while the men were away, resulted in government-regulated dress styles. The British called these “utility fashions,” a name which conveys their look admirably. For women, this meant boxy, square-shouldered jackets with short (knee-length) skirts — essentially, a civilian version of the female army uniform.
After six years of French high fashion in stasis and regulated privations for the allies, Dior’s New Look was immediately and globally embraced. Dior said:
In December 1946, as a result of the war and uniforms, women still looked and dressed like Amazons. But I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts.
The New Look succeeded despite some inconvenient, reactionary and uncomfortable features: dresses that restricted movement, corsetry that constricted the body, and skirt lengths suggested an outmoded standard of female decorum.
Diffusion of Dior: New look sewing patterns advertised in the May 1953 Everywoman’s Magazine
Its appeal can in part be understood from the desire to put the memory of the war years behind one, but there is more. Now that the men were back home, most women were making motherhood the height of their ambition and wished to appear traditionally feminine. The New Look, with its elegant and vaguely erotic contour, was the costume of the immense fertility festival that created the baby boom.
In its first year alone, the New Look comprised seventy-five percent of France’s fashion exports. But this was not solely due to the way it fit in with the psychological needs of the post-war world.
All the way up to the thirties, haute couture had only concerned the wealthy. The war created internationally the habit of, and capacity for, clothing production on an undreamed of scale. Dior’s backer, the French cotton magnate Boussac, was the first to realize the global potential for mass produced, made under license, high-fashion ready-to-wear, along with related products like stockings and perfume. The conquering omnipresence of the New Look perhaps owed as much to Boussac’s commercial vision, manufacturing might and force of distribution, as it did to the intrinsic appeal of Dior's creations..
Dior ubiquitous: new look dress in a soap ad from the April 1953 Everywoman’s Magazine. Not only the cut, but also the polka dots, the emphasis of the bosom with a bow, and the narrow belt are pure Diorisms.
Dior was at pains to frame his business in a modified Louis Seize style, from the décor of his maison on Rue Montaigne, to details on the packaging of his products. But this vague evocation of the eighteenth century, France’s great age of elegance, was more complex than might appear. Dior was evoking the age of Marie Antoinette at two removes — in the version of Louis Seize decorative style which was popular in his childhood, near the turn of the century. (He was born in 1905.) Dior’s chosen ambiance was a nostalgia for the Belle Époque nostalgia for Louis Seize: a dream doubly distilled.
Dior described the décor of his couture house:
. . . in the colors which had dominated my Parisian childhood, and had since gone completely out of fashion. From 1900 to 1914 decoration à la Louis Seize was all the rage in the ‘new’ houses in Passy [a section of Paris]; white woodwork, white enameled furniture, grey hangings, glass doors with square panes and bronze light brackets with small lampshades . . .
. . . I did not want an authentic Louis Seize interior — I wanted a 1910 version of Louis Seize . . .
Finally Dior came to realize that his Louis Seize was for him not so much a style as a state of mind, a place of spiritual equilibrium steady enough to adapt to every change of circumstance. In the last pages of his autobiography, he says
If I had to name my favorite style for a house, I would choose Louis Seize, but it would be 1956 Louis Seize, a contemporary and therefore a sincere version.
1953 Satin and sequin Evening Dress Annapurna from the Tulipe collection.
1954 Cocktail Dress, Cupola, from the Lily of the Valley collection. By their rich shimmering fabric and their cut, the Annapurna and the Cupola both suggest key elements of eighteenth-century dresses: décolletage, “pagoda” sleeves, and a robe opening like theatre-curtains over an ornate petticoat.
Eighteenth-century femininity embodied: Maurice-Quentin Delatour’s Portrait de la Marquise de Pompadour, 1755
Though it may be difficult to share Dior's passion for Louis Seize, which seems to entail accepting silly, ignorant Louis XVI as eternal lord of an archetypal realm, one can hear what Dior had in mind in Lully, Rameau and Couperin. In the music and the clothing, which reflect the spirit and illusions of a period far better than later history or even contemporary poetry, one finds the soul of eighteenth-century France. It was a shining, impossible world, like the Heian Japan of Prince Genji, a poignant, sunlit perfect idyll subtly overcast by erotic regret.
The neo-neo-Louis-Seize, which Dior remembered from the home of his boyhood, evoked, at the time he opened his maison, a pre-war upper class respectability, and conferred a comforting sense of normalcy restored. Also, this flight into the past edited away more recent history, the awkward interlude of Vichy, when Dior had worked under the couturier Lucien Lelong. Lelong supervised the French fashion industry under the occupation, confecting elegant gowns for the German wives and French mistresses of Nazi officers.
But the belling skirts of the Dior’s New Look have nothing in common with the panier dresses of eighteenth century Versailles, which extended broadly on either side but were flat before and behind, so women had to angle themselves sidelong to fit through a doorway.
Still from Sophia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, which more than made up in costume what it lacked in plot and acting.
And the tightly collared, severely buttoned-up bosoms of Dior’s new day dresses were the very opposite of the luscious, cleavage-revealing décolletage sported by Pompadour, which held up an opulent expanse of pale, powdered aristocratic bosom in a frame of silk, lace and ribbon. The New Look, like the Dior décor, actually reproduced key features of the fashions of the late nineteenth century — as he put it,
. . . long, full skirts, with petticoats, like mama wore.
In fact, the wasp waist, the ample skirts, the use of large hats to balance the ensemble — all the features which define the New Look — are streamlined reminiscences of Belle Époque fashion. But before we go into detail about the historical inspiration, let us ponder the personal one. Dior’s dream of femininity was not merely a brilliant reprise of past style — it drew on his memories of his mother for its persuasive charm. Unless we bear in mind the psychological value of the idealization of the mother in gay male psychology, we will fail to understand the emotional warmth, personal conviction, and oblique eroticism of the New Look. More than flawless elegance, it is a nostalgic poem, like Verlaine’s Fêtes Galantes, or a painting by Watteau.
Papa Dior, Mama Dior, and Christian age six
Dior’s idolization of his mother was one of the key psychic elements that took shape in his preteen years. An unathletic boy who didn’t get on with his father, the industrialist who insisted he “make something of himself;” Dior was a delicate child, out of place among his hardy, practical older brothers eager to enter into the family business. As he himself wrote,
My early years were those of a very good, very well-brought-up little boy, watched over by vigilant German maids, and seemingly quite incapable of mingling in the hurly-burly of life.
The very idea of business, and particularly his father’s, bored and repelled Dior. The family made its fortune by the industrial production of fertilizer. (Dior’s great-grandfather, a pioneer in the importation of guano, began the concern in 1832.) For nearly a century the Dior family stank up Normandy, to the point where the locals would hold their noses and say “stinks of Dior!” Christian’s mother built herself an olfactory bunker in the form of a greenhouse. Little Christian helped her there, and went to the length of memorizing all the names of the flowers in Latin to please her. He was intoxicated by her perfume and presence, which for him would always be associated with rustling, elegant, voluminous dresses, and the flowers she loved — twin symbols of a furtive childhood paradise. He wrote,
A passion for flowers inherited from my mother meant I was at my happiest among plants and flower beds.
This is something to bear in mind when we note the enthusiasm with which he planted gardens at his retreat in Normandy, the great importance fresh flowers played in the decoration of his maison, and the fact that all his most beautiful and poignant collections were named after flowers. Dior’s highly charged associations for all things floral, including their scent, helps us understand why he named his first perfume, almost autobiographically “Miss Dior.”
Miss Dior in its amphora of Baccarat crystal
The New Look got its name from a characterization by Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Dior himself had called it “Corolla.” In an interview about the genesis of the New Look, Dior said
We were emerging from the period of war, of uniforms, of women soldiers built like boxers. I drew women flowers, soft shoulders, fine waists like liana vines, and wide skirts like corolla.”
Again, in the midst of his austere modernizing period, he will design a number of dresses of breathtaking and pointedly eighteenth-century loveliness in his Lily of the Valley and Tulip collections. (See the Annapurna and Cupola dresses reproduced above.)
It was from the idyll of his childhood at the turn of the century that Dior retrieved the contour of the New Look, a silhouette uncommonly like the shadow of his mother. This period which so shaped Dior’s aesthetic, the Belle Êpoque, corresponds to the late Victorian and Edwardian epochs in England, and is known in America as the Gilded Age. To “save women from nature” Dior had to save them from time as well. As Dior remarked in his autobiography,
We couturiers are like poets. A little nostalgia is necessary for us.
The Bar dress, the archetypal typical New Look garment, is remarkably like the ladies’ riding habits of the late nineteenth century. It has the exaggerated waist, the buttoned-up primness, and the peplum (the short skirting on the jacket which emphasizes the waist). Even the riding crop finds its equivalent in the New Look’s standard accessory, the umbrella. (Dior thought the only suitable materials for a lady’s umbrella handle were leather, wood or bamboo.)
Minnie Pineo, a horse-woman of 1881
[In 1910] I was five years old, a wonderful age to see and retain every impression before the arrival of the depressing logic of the ‘age of reason.’ I thank heaven I lived in Paris in the last years of the Belle Époque. They marked me for life.
The Great Mother
The fullest and most startling realization of Dior’s New Look ideal, modeled on this fetishy equestrian template, appears in his 1947 riding-coat-like day coat Mystère.
1947 day coat, Mystère
Noting its length, we may recall that Dior said more than once that he had lowered hemlines
“. . . to return the legs to all their mystery.”
Here the mystery is clearly that of motherhood. The hips surge forward with a displaced belly swell that opens onto labial folds of green taffeta. It is, with these poignantly Freudian pleats, a veritable high-fashion sheila-na-gig.
The coat itself, of somber, black pragmatic wool, covers the entire body, leaving not so much as a wrist exposed. The sheer extent of the coverage all but overwhelms the gynecological implications the front slit. To the casual glance the coat displays only a nineteenth-century decorum, ostensibly respectable as the portrait of Whistler’s mother.
Dior himself noted he would not have dared to begin so louche a career as that of couturier while his mother was still alive. In this garment, Dior’s observation of the proprieties is as scrupulous as if she were watching him place every stitch. The neckline is rendered permanently modest under the green “scarf” that is actually part of the coat.
Yet at the same time the four buttons seem barely able to keep the garment from spilling open. The hips, already emphasized, are almost boastfully accentuated by the pockets that echo their curvature. Any yet — even this subdued sauciness is rebuked by the mannish, slightly squared shoulders of the top. In addition, the dark volume of the skirting does as much as a nun’s habit would to counteract that vaginal taffeta of exhuberant fertility green.
It is amusing to note that the revelation being discreetly imparted by the barely parted curtains below the waist — which appears to be a green dress worn beneath — is really part of the coat. It is, as it were, a false door, and the actual, seemingly second, dress would be worn beneath. The Mystère is a parable of barriers, an an ode to baffled longing, a poem of adoration for the idealized and unattainable mother.
In my discussion of the New Look I have so far confined myself to the day dresses. The practical demands put upon these by everyday life address real design problems — whence their interest. Now something needs to be said of the evening gowns, particularly those of the Trompe l’Oeil collection.
1949 ball gown, Junon
The contours of Dior’s ball gowns remain fairly conventional until late in his oeuvre, but it is worth remarking the occulting of the breasts which is one of Dior’s ongoing projects. Despite the mandatory décolletage, the bosom, cruelly corsetted, is rendered relatively invisible by such glittering distractions as the 1949 ball gown Juno’s mountain of dirty snow, or the sequined silk-net cascade of marine gleamings in the 1949 Venus ball gown.
Venus ball gown, 1949
These are admittedly the most spectacular instances of the diversionary tactic, but the same strategy may be seen to some degree whenever the lateness of the garment’s intended hour of wear required bare shoulders.
Dior’s habit of downplaying the bosom even as he emphasizes it, by buttoning it up or distracting from it, is in contradiction with his avowed project of emphasizing full feminine busts. We will return to this conundrum later when we discuss his ambivalence to women.
As much as with the riding-habit like Bar dress, we are, with the ball gowns, still firmly in the style canon of the Belle Époque. The archetypal Great Mother of this mode was Empress Eugénie, queen of crinoline, patroness of Worth.
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Eugénie. 1854
Eugénie, wife of Napoleon the Third (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew), confirmed the European fashion for rich, oversize crinoline dresses. These were made, exactly as Dior’s ball gowns were, from multiple layers of stiff petticoat and underskirt. The principal difference between the nineteenth century gowns and Dior’s creations are the latter’s simplified, bare-shouldered bodices, and the more theatrical decoration of the skirt. Dior abstracted the style with wit and artifice, while gowns such as Eugénie favored depended entirely on opulence. But having acknowledged Dior’s updatings, we must also also avow that Dior succeeded in making 1947 echo 1847.
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Elisabeth, 1864
The term Great Mother, psychologically precise, also touches on the religious element in Dior’s work. From the Neolithic, men have expressed the archetype of fertility in abstracted female forms.
Neolithic goddess figurine, Stara Zagora, Bulgaria
The result is frequently quite New Look, as in the goddess figures of ancient Crete.
“Snake Goddess” from the palace at Knossos, Crete
In corroboration of this parallel, we should note that these stylized fertility goddesses are frequently depicted with wild animals, particularly the big felines.
Cybele, Roman, 2nd Century BC
The iconography may be followed from the bronze age, through Cybele in the classical world to the Durga of traditional Hindu art.
Durga on her Tiger, contemporary Hindu popular religious art
A secularized, erotic version of the archetype is to be found in the Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, and may perhaps be identified as well in the 1950 Gruau poster for Dior’s first perfume, Miss Dior.
Gruau, Miss Dior, 1950
In his Little Dictionary of Fashion, a book of dressing tips written in the blandest, friendliest style possible, Dior makes a remark whose humor may now appear:
But to wear leopard you must have a kind of femininity which is a little sophisticated. If you are fair and sweet, don’t wear it.
Dior’s illustrator Gruau deserves a detour here, since he divined so much that was implicit in Dior’s work. To begin with, his compositions clearly reference the burlesque show posters of old Montmarte, best known from the work of the great carny Fauve Toulouse-Lautrec.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, poster, Troupe de Mlle Églantine, 1896
Gruau, 1960 poster for Dior’s gaine (corset). Here he positively surpasses his master Lautrec in the scintillating disclosure of ladies’ undies.
Gruau introduced a hint of earthier, heterosexual desire to the Dior mystique, and recognized the subtle element of fur and foot fetishism in Dior — admittedly a mere trace element, but for all that quite traceable. And not entirely surprising when we recall Dior’s autobiographical revelation that in his earliest schooldays he annoyed some of the teachers
. . . by my habit of covering my school-books with innumerable outlines of a woman’s leg in a high-heeled shoe.
Gruau, 1952 advertisement for Dior Bas (stockings)
Interestingly, stockings were the first product Dior had mass-produced under license.
Slyboots, 1951, A beige shantung spencer (short jacket) worn over a sheathe dress with a lacquered belt. Fetish Dior at his most droll. Here the New Look is already slimming down toward the androgyne profile of later Dior. The spencer with its high-contrast horseshoe neck makes the bosom seemingly disappear, while the two self-fabric buttons demurely suggest flat, abstracted nipples, like those on a male chest. The veil, gloves and umbrella subtly tilt the image in the direction of equestrian dominatrix.
end of part one
continue to part two
Return to Caligula