Fashion History Lesson – Dior’s New Look Wasn’t New and Chanel Didn’t Like It.

The classic idea of 50s fashion is the New Look.  I’ve read a lot of fashion history books lately (and will do a post on the best ones soon) but here is a little of what has been on my mind. Did you know Christian Dior, credited with the New Look which changed women’s fashion was sponsored by a cotton magnate?

He was the lead designer at Lucien Lelong from 1941 to 1946. The Spring 1945 collections couldn’t be sold abroad under the Utility standards in Britain and American Limitation orders which limited how much fabric could be used in clothes. Dior met with cotton magnate and owner of Galston, Marcel Boussac in 1945. He was offered Galston, but wanted his own atelier and explained that he wanted to make clothes he remembered from his youth, when his mother wore long skirts and petticoats. Boussac must have seen the francs piling up – longer, fuller skirts used more fabric and therefore made more profits for him. A Dior full skirt contained 18 metres (20 yards) of pleated and gathered material. Dior agreed to complete the 1946 collections at Lelong before going his own way, launching the collection dubbed The New Look by the press in 1947.

All of this information comes from the brilliant book “Forties Fashion” by Jonathon Walford (click the picture to buy it from Amazon). To quote it directly:

In reality, Dior’s silhouette was far from new. The style was heavily influenced by fashions of the mid-1910s and before. The basic elements of a tiny waist, soft shoulders, full long skirts and prominent bosom had been introduced, mostly for evening dresses, just before the start of hostilities in 1939. In 1943 and 1944, Parisian couturier had tried making fuller skirts and tighter waists, to the extent that their fabric allowances would allow…

This is illustrated with a suit by Balenciaga from 1939 on the right and a Christian Dior from 1947.

From Forties Fashion by Jonathon Walford

I’m with Coco Chanel when it comes to wearable fashion. To achieve the Dior silhouette corsets were reintroduced. Chanel’s pre and post WW1 years were devoted to fashions which allowed comfort and movement. From “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life” by Justine Picardie:

I make fashions women can live in, breathe in, feel comfortable in and look young in.”

– Coco Chanel in 1930’s said to Vogue Editor Bettina Ballard

Chanel was apparently infuriated by Dior’s success in reintroducing the constrictive corsets that she had swept away.

Of the two books quoted, I heartily recommend Forties Fashion. It covers fashion in Europe, The UK, US, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. It has the right balance between pictures and text, which is actually something a lot of books fail at. Too few pictures to illustrate what is described or too little text and lots of pictures, is pretty normal for fashion books.

The second book “Coco Chanel – The Legend and the Life” ( click the picture to see it on Amazon) doesn’t lack and details when it comes to any man Chanel had an affair with, but fails to give enough details of her early years in fashion. It rushes along from 1910 when she opens a milliners, then she’s selling clothes which are boyish and made from jersey, then in 1913 opens a shop in Deauville, then it’s 1915 in Biarritz. The clothes are descibed as sleek and simple, designed to be worn without corsets, with simple jersey jackets, straight skirts and unadorned sailor blouses. This is all the information from these years and I really wanted more illustrations and facts about the clothes, after all this is when a real revolution in what women wore happened. Much more space is given to her personal life. On the whole it’s a good book, but not a book about fashion.


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