Christian Dior and the New Look
A Childhood on the Channel
On January 21, 1905, Christian Dior was born into a well-to-do family in the city of Granville, on the French side of the English Channel. His father was from a line of industrials known particularly for having invented a household detergent called Saint-Marc. After obtaining his high school baccalauréat, Christian Dior enrolled in a political sciences school, with hopes of embarking on a diplomatic career. He frequented artistic circles and cosmopolitan creators, and took full advantage of post-war liberties and temptations. During this period, he would form lasting friendships with Christian Bérard, the talented theatrical designer, with poet/playwright Jean Cocteau, and musicians Henri Sauguet and Francis Poulenc, among others. In addition to other artistic endeavors, he opened an art gallery specializing in contemporary paintings from those of Max Jacob to Giorgio de Chirico. Located on rue La Boétie, this venture would not survive the economic crisis that followed the 1929 financial crash. Christian Dior was forced to liquidate his stock. At just over 25 years old, he found himself out of work. In addition, his father was ruined. What to do?
The dark years
These were very difficult times. Morale was at an all-time low and unemployment on the rise throughout the country. And Christian Dior was not spared. He led a meager existence, often taken in by friends, before leaving for the army. And, the height of bad luck, he suffered from tuberculosis at a time when it was quite common to die from this illness. For him, however, this misfortune opened the door to an opportunity. All the same, it was an opportunity that had to be recognized and seized. It was during his stay at the sanatorium that Christian Dior began designing on a regular basis. Geometric motifs, widely varied compositions, as well as fashion accessories such as hats and then women’s clothing. His creations brought him to the attention of fashion designers, and he was subsequently hired by talented couturiers of the period, such as Robert Piguet, then Lucien Lelong, where he developed a friendship with Pierre Balmain.
A Decisive Encounter
La war, naturally, slowed down the fashion industry. Christian Dior was called into military service and then took up residence in the south of France with his father and sister. When France was liberated, he was 40 years old. The post-war period was full
of intimidation, but also rich in potential. Once again, Christian Dior played his cards well. Marcel Boussac, a powerful textile manufacturer, inventor of airplane canvas, future newspaper tycoon, and owner of a stable of race horses, hoped to revive a maison de couture. Christian Dior, whom he met in July of 1946, convinced him to do much more: to launch a new one, with new blood and fresh ideas to forget the sad garb of the war years. The
industrialist, convinced by Dior’s plan, did not skimp: he invested 60 million francs and the Maison de Couture Christian Dior was created on October 8th, 1946.
Finally, Avenue Montaigne…
On December 16th of the same year, the Maison de Couture moved to what remains its headquarters today: 30 Avenue Montaigne. Recent discoveries following research in local public registers reveal that this charming private mansion was constructed between
1865 and 1868 by the Count Walewski (1810-1868), illegitimate son of Napoléon I and the beautiful Polish Countesse, Marie Walewska. His cousin Napoléon III appointed him to several diplomatic posts. He served as Ambassador to Italy, Spain, and England, and would become minister of Foreign Affairs before ending his career as President of the Legislative Council. The interior decoration of the showroom in Louis XVI style, with grays and whites, was the work of Victor Grandpierre. Among the 90 employees in the three workshops, a certain Pierre Cardin held the primary post in the tailoring workshop.
A totaly “New Look”
The true revolution came the following year. On February 12, 1947, the first Christian Dior Spring-Summer collection was presented in the showroom at 30 Avenue Montaigne.
The lines “Corolle” and “En Huit” had an immediate international impact. In the now famous words of Carmel Snow, Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, “It’s such a New Look.” She even went so far as to make a rather daring comparison: Just as the taxis of the Marne saved France during the war, Christian Dior had revolutionized couture! It was like a bombshell after the restrictions and strict clothing of the war years. The year continued at a heady pace: July marked the first presentation of his collections abroad (in Sydney, Australia). That September, Christian Dior received the fashion “Oscar” in Dallas. Finally, December 1 marked the international launch of Dior’s first perfume, Miss Dior.
A Planetary Success
Success was assured. Christian Dior dressed the greatest stars (Marlène Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright”, 1950, Ava Gardner in Mark Robson’s “The Little Hut”, 1956), and royalty (the Princess Soraya for her marriage to the Shah of Iran on February 12, 1951). For the famous Charles de Beistegui ball in Venice’s Labia Palace in September 1951, Christian Dior created a tableau vivant with Salvador Dali. At this time, five years after its creation, the maison boasted 900 employees, ten times more than when it was founded. In 1954, its activity accounted for half of the total turnover from exports of
French haute couture. New boutiques opened, including one at the corner of Avenue Montaigne and the Rue François Ier in 1955. In March 1957, at the height of his glory, Christian Dior made the cover of Time magazine. He died of a heart attack a few months later on October 24th in Montecatini, Italy. The creative flame was taken up by Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferrè and John Galliano, who today perpetuates the myth: the maison has just celebrated its 60th anniversary.