FASHION FOR REAL WOMEN
Christian Dior and His Enemies
Feb 17, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 22 • By PIA CATTON
On February 12, 1947, Christian Dior rescued fashion from utilitarianism and wartime thrift. With the New Look, his debut collection of dresses and gowns, Dior asked Paris to reclaim its standards for fashion. This month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute has marked the show's fiftieth anniversary with an exhibit of Dior's work. And fashion historian Marie- France Pochna has published a new biography, Christian Dior: The Man Who Made the World Look New. The title fits. It's not that luxury and taste were unknown before 1947; it's that they had been forgotten for so long that they indeed seemed new.
The New Look was not so much a "new look" as a throwback to the Belle Epoque, inspired by the femininity and grace Dior associated with his mother. New Look dresses had a few key components: a long, full skirt, a tight nipped- in waist, and a neckline cut to emphasize the decolletage. Pochna describes the look as "woman incarnate -- unashamedly flirtatious in her nonchalant disregard of the stir she was causing, sensual, sensational, crazily chic and, above all, supremely sure of herself."
With dramatic speed, this buxom look replaced the wartime style of short, straight skirts and boxy jackets. It ignored economies -- some of the dresses used twenty yards of fabric, at a time when the average dress used three. Dior was a master marketer who changed the line of his collections every season -- the H-line, the A-line, the Y-line, the Tulip, the Arrow -- and soon entered the field of fashion accessories, which today are even better known than his dresses. But he also saw himself as locked in a crusade for elegance. His assistant Jacques Rout described Dior's overriding goal as "to spread the French idea of elegance and good taste while being pragmatic about the degree to which standards of living had developed in different parts of the world." That is, Dior was seeking to overthrow the anti-beauty of the wartime years.
In today's styles -- loose, casual, unkempt -- anti-beauty is back with a vengeance, and without a global military conflict as an excuse. In the very midst of all the commemorative homage to Dior, devotees of contemporary style view him and his New Look as old-fashioned and foolish. Such influential critics as Amy M. Spindler of the New York Times have been brutal. "The New Look is the antithesis of sexy," Spindter wrote in a recent column, "its stern matronly form the shape of the uncompromising mother nobody wants." Spindler is being shallow here, and has sexiness confused with exhibitionism. Dior can be faulted for designing uncomfortable clothing that does not meet our standards of brashness. He cannot, however, be accused of making un-sexy clothing.
Spindler is only reflecting what is conventional wisdom in magazines, on runways, and in the writings of the leading fashion critics. Today's high fashion celebrates anti-beauty similar to that which Dior fought. Top models look malnourished, sickly, and strung out. Designers who do create for real- life figures are stuck on minimalism or obsessed with androgyny. The pernicious role of Calvin Klein in spreading this look was made plain when Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, a former Klein publicist, got married in a dress that could have been mistaken for a nightgown. Gucci, too, has been a particular offender. For its 1997 spring collection, the house sent its models out looking like they had been in a bar fight and lost half their clothes on the way home.
It's doubtful the ultrafeminine virtues of the New Look could be revived today. The dresses were expensive and notoriously uncomfortable. Some evening gowns were so heavy that women couldn't dance in them. With the return of the corset, women needed an extra pair of hands to fit themselves into the dresses.
But there is a happy medium here. Dior's colleague Coco Chanel was among the first to seek it, turning away from sixty-pound dresses to pantsuits. Chanel, however, unlike most contemporary designers, refused to compromise on femininity and suggestiveness as Dior would have understood them. It was Chanel, after all, who once said, "I like fashion to go down into the street. But I cannot accept that it should originate there."
Pia Catton is a reporter at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.