Christian Dior’s reputation as one of the most important couturiers of the twentieth century was launched in 1947 with his very first collection, in which he introduced the “New Look.” Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and very full skirt, the New Look celebrated ultra-femininity and opulence in women’s fashion. After years of military and civilian uniforms, sartorial restrictions and shortages, Dior offered not merely a new look but a new outlook.
Born and raised in Normandy, France, Dior moved with his parents to Paris when he was ten. After studying political science, he served in the military. His design career did not begin until 1935, when he returned to Paris and began selling sketches. The designer Robert Piguet hired him in 1938. During World War II, Dior served in the south of France, then returned again to Paris in 1941 and worked for Lucien Lelong at a much larger design house. In 1946, backed by textile manufacturer Marcel Boussac, he opened his own house.
Dior helped to restore a beleaguered postwar Paris as the capital of fashion. Each of his collections throughout this period had a theme. Spring 1947 was “Carolle” or “figure 8,” a name that suggested the silhouette of the new look with its prominent shoulders, accentuated hips, and small waist. The spring 1953 collection, dubbed “Tulip,” featured an abundance of floaty, flowery prints. Spring 1955’s “A-line,” with its undefined waist and smooth silhouette that widened over the hips and legs, resembled a capital “A.” Some of Dior’s designs simulated Second Empire and other historical styles, but he was also creating menswear, trompe-l’oeil detailing, and soft-to-hard juxtapositions, making them part of the modern wardrobe. By his final collections, Dior, feeling the need for a more limber silhouette and lifestyle, was designing chemises, narrow tunics, and sari-like wraps.
Together with his partner Jacques Rouet, Dior pioneered license agreements in the fashion business. By 1948, he had arranged lucrative licensing deals for fur, stockings, and perfumes, which not only generated revenue but also made him a household name. While the House of Dior is still a thriving business today, Dior’s untimely death in 1957 left the fashion world without a great dictator of style. Christian Dior designed under his own name for only a decade, but his influence will be felt for many years to come.
Charleston, Beth Duncuff. Based on original work by Harold Koda. “Christian Dior (1905–1957).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dior/hd_dior.htm (October 2004)