The Nazis couldn’t destroy the French fashion industry, though not for lack of trying. When the Germans invaded Paris in 1940, the bad guys ransacked the headquarters of the French fashion syndicate, confiscated all of its archives and began making plans to transform Berlin into the world’s new fashion capital—those pilfered archives would come in handy—with Vienna serving as fashion’s secondary city. As president of the French fashion syndicate, couturier Lucien Lelong groveled to convince the Nazis that this was a lousy plan, but the Germans closed Madame Grès and Balenciaga anyway, and many other fashion houses shut their doors in anticipation of the worst. The remaining designers nervously gathered with aides, and in hushed tones discussed which sides they’d take. Louis Vuitton and Coco Chanel famously sided with the Nazis, with the latter even taking an enemy lover at Hotel Ritz Paris. But most houses were shuttered. Those who tried to make a comeback after Liberation struggled to stay afloat, let alone regain their former glory (Lelong among them). Fortunately, there were new kids in town to pick up the slack. Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior worked in Lelong’s atelier, and they’d grown weary of their boss’s tyrannical attitude and what they deemed inferior skills. The good friends considered opening a house together, but ultimately sought independence, and on this day in 1946, the House of Dior opened in an early 19th-century salon at 30 Avenue Montaigne Paris B.
Balmain did just fine on his own, but Dior kicked off his new business with the sartorial equivalent of an Atom Bomb. His “New Look” was an extravagant and excessive throwback to decadent times, when ladies were happily fettered by corsetry and had money to burn on yards and yards of the world’s most luxurious fabrics and embellishments. Dior’s inspiration? The styles came to him upon glimpsing “the heaving hipline of a female Paris fishmonger,” he admitted later, but there was more to it. Dior, essentially, sought to erase the horrors of the war through fashion.
“The styles [during the Occupation] were incredibly hideous and I couldn’t wait to do something better,” Dior recalled in 1957. “I revived the ripe bosom, the wasp waist and the soft shoulders, and molded them to the natural curves of the feminine body. It was a nostalgic voyage back to elegance.”
Never in the history of fashion had a designer caused such an uproar in his first showing. “God help the buyers who bought before they saw Dior,” said Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow after the designer’s groundbreaking show on February 12, 1947, and promptly coined his “Corelle” collection “The New Look.” As for the designer himself, he was stunned by his own success. In the midst of congratulatory kisses, he burst into tears, crying, “My God, what have I done?”
Dior’s success was all the more surprising given the fact that he was an unknown. A lengthy 1957 essay about Dior in Time magazine describes the designer’s entrance into the fashion world as fortuitous. In 1935, Dior had only a burgeoning interest in embroidery to divert him from the fact that he was broke. According to Time, “A friend taught him to make fashion sketches and, to Christian’s astonishment, succeeded in selling several to a fashion house for 120 francs.” Dior found work with designer Robert Piguet and then Lelong, before another friend introduced him to Marcel Boussac, the owner of France’s most prestigious textile mills. Boussac was concerned that the current Paris fashions—ones still adhering to wartime fabric rationing—would be the downfall of the French economy. Perhaps this unknown designer could “inject fresh vitality into Paris’ sluggish salons,” aka, make dresses with bigger skirts and longer hemlines?
With Boussac’s financing, Dior established his house on December 15, 1946, and spent just 15 days sketching the “Corolle” designs that would become the New Look. And a star was born.
Even more surprising than his lightening fast rise to fame is the abbreviated length of his career. Dior died unexpectedly—and somewhat mysteriously—while vacationing in Montecatini, Italy, on October 23, 1957. His youngest assistant designer, Yves Saint Laurent, was promptly put in charge of the most famous and important couture house in the world. Laurent was rudely replaced by designer Marc Bohan in late 1960, and that man stayed on until Gianfranco Ferre took over in 1989, who was then succeeded by John Galliano in 1996. With just five designers in 64 years, the House of Dior certainly carries an aura of majesty, a magical place that is larger than life. —Ali Basye
Photographs: Top: Christian Dior by Bellini, archives Christian Dior. Second from top: Dior at work on a sketch by Maywald, archives Christian Dior. Third from top: Seamstresses by Bellini, archives Christian Dior. Bottom: Bar suit from the New Look collection, 1947, ADAGP Archives, Paris 1996; Archives Christian Dior.