The New Look?

I've written a lot (a lot) about why it's wrong to put Chanel, and even Chanel plus Poiret, up on a pedestal as the pivot(s) of a sharp turning point in fashion, but I've only touched on Dior and the New Look once or twice. Just like the earlier narrative compresses time to juxtapose frothy Edwardian gowns against the short, narrow dresses of the mid-late 1920s, the centering of Christian Dior as the inventor of stereotypical 1950s fashion in 1947 is a big oversimplification.

Women's fashion for much of the 1930s was streamlined: the overall emphasis was on a sleek line from shoulder to ankle. At the beginning of the decade, the tubular figure of the 1920s was still common, but within a few years dresses and skirts were being worn with waistbands and belts at the natural waist. By 1935, it was common for jackets to be made with built-up or padded shoulders, turning the silhouette into a long, slender carrot shape

"Afternoon suit: solid-colored silk dress, trim and 7/8-length overcoat in printed silk", 1937; NYPL

In 1938, however, the skirt was shortened to hit below the kneecap, while high fashion in 1939 added  flare to the hem. The width of the outfit at the shoulders and knees was balanced by a narrow waistline - the silhouette was an hourglass.

"Vestee Suit", Pearl Levy Alexander for André, Sept. 1939; NYPL - very similar to a design by Dior for Piguet in 1938!

Clothing was regulated during the war years, in order to ensure that there was enough fabric to go around for the war effort, and as a result fashion "froze" - and even moved back, to some extent.

The US War Production Board announced strictures regarding yardage, number of buttons and pleats, amount of stitching, etc. allowed on a garment in April 1942. Clothes rationing in the UK had been announced in June 1941, allowing hardly more than one new outfit or garment per year, and commercially-made clothing had to follow similar regulations, as did homemade and bespoke clothes after May 1942. Even neutral Ireland introduced rationing for clothing in June 1942, and fashions generally followed the lines of British "utility dress". In France, fabric was hard to come by from the beginning of the war, causing the spring/summer 1940 collections shown in Paris to be somewhat skimpy, and in January 1941 (under the occupation), a very strict rationing system was introduced.

Not everyone followed the regulations: there are numerous examples of extant American clothes from the war years that show supposedly banned notions like fabric-covered buttons and zippers. Still, the shape of the fashionable skirt changed across the West to have less fullness, something more like the silhouette of 1938 but still with a slight flare at the knee. The fashionable jacket of the period was typically long, often with the hips emphasized by patch pockets and the waistline tailored in - also similar to late 1930s styles.

"Pinstripe and herringbone suits", 1942; NYPL

These restrictions lasted beyond the length of the war in Europe: Irish clothing rationing would not end until 1948, and British rationing until 1949. The haute couture industry, however, bounced back relatively quickly. Its needs had bypassed rationing, although it had never flaunted that fact by showing designs based on a silhouette that was wildly inaccessible to the average person, and it was needed to encourage the wealthy to keep adding to the economy. While many of Paris's fashion houses had shut down during the occupation due to a lack of customers, the couturiers returned in 1944-45 to produce the Théâtre de la Mode, an opulent traveling fashion show done at a doll scale.  Following the production, the couturiers re-dressed the dolls for 1946 and sent them abroad. (They are now at the Maryhill Museum, which has a video showing many of them dressed and posed.) The Parisian fashion industry then went back to full-scale, twice-yearly fashion shows and regained its prominent place in the market.

A display of Théâtre de la Mode dolls at Maryhill Museum in 2011, by GlenBledsoe; Wikimedia Commons

What is particularly important about the Théâtre de la Mode clothing is that the designers stepped back to 1940, picking up where fashion had paused as governments regulated the sweep of a skirt and the fullness of a sleeve. These garments - the collaborative work of more than fifty couturiers, including Dior, who was working for Lelong - very frequently show the luxuriously wide hemlines (as well as very narrow ones) that would become everyday dress in the coming years.

Christian Dior's first fashion show under his own name was in February of 1947, not very long after the Théâtre. This is the show where he premiered his Corolle and En Huit lines (the former with full skirts and the latter with pencil skirts), which contained the famous black and white Bar Suit and is said to have prompted Carmel Snow to declare that he had created a "new look".

 Photo of the Bar Suit by Dior, 1947       Bar Suit with reproduction skirt, Dior, 1947            
via Jonathan Walford's blog                           Metropolitan Museum of Art             
Note that the blog post makes a very good case for                                                                            
the more famous photo of the suit having been taken in 1957,                                                                          
with styling appropriate to that year rather than 1947.                                                                            

Another suit from Corolle, photographed by Kerstin Bernhard, 1947; Nordiska Museet

(Here is another blog post with several photos from the actual show itself, and here are several pages from the April 1947 Vogue with a number of photos of the collection.)

But the Corolle designs were not a complete break from what was being worn before, as they're often represented. The overall cut of the long jackets, with built-up but not-too-broad shoulders, had been fashionable in 1946: the major innovation was the way the peplums were stiffened and shaped. The skirts also were made with more fabric, either knife-pleated like the Bar skirt or box-pleated like the one above, and were several inches longer, but were still worn in a long A-line shape. And as suggested by the fact that the collaborating couturiers came up with similar designs in miniature in 1945, Dior was not alone in shifting away from the wartime standards in early 1947, as this suit by Balenciaga and this suit by Charles James show. His work did stand out as belonging to an excellent newcomer, but as the Vogue linked above states,
... almost all of the new Paris collections have this in common: they start no revolutions, but rather make new use of fashion themes that have been crystallizing for seasons past, and which look fresh and inviting.
Something I've discussed before when it comes to the early 1920s is the popular tendency to take primary sources at face value. If a columnist in the London Times in 1921 complained that young women were going out at night barely dressed, this is often taken as meaning that young women in 1921 could not get less covered up, when in fact there was still room to keep going in that direction - it's just that commentators were coming from a different context and couldn't see the future. Likewise, the changes that occurred between 1945 and 1955 get squished into this one fashion show in pop culture because commentators in early 1947 described the changes occurring as major, as they obviously couldn't tell that styles would continue to develop in the same direction to an extreme. They called the fuller skirts of 1947 "bouffant" because they were puffed out in comparison to the earlier straight ones, but the skirts that are bouffant by our standards, springing out from the waist in a wide froth of petticoats, did not come in until late 1951. The shoulders of suits and dresses in the 1947 shows were less wide than in the war years, but their sleeve heads were still usually well out on the shoulder and often padded or structured to give a firm counterbalance to the skirt and draw straight, diagonal lines down to the waist. This also lasted for some time, eventually phasing out as more and more dresses were made with wide necklines and/or without sleeves.

"Aladin", Dior, f/w 1947; National Gallery of Victoria

A few sources - good reading!

Diamond, Hanna. Women and the Second World War in France, 1939-1948: Choices and Constraints. (Routledge: 2015)

Fitzpatrick, Orla. "Coupons, Clothing and Class: The Rationing of Dress in Ireland, 1942–1948", in Costume. (2014, vol. 48, no. 2)

Font, Lourdes. "Dior Before Dior", in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture (2011, vol. 18, no. 1)

Mower, Jennifer M. and Elaine L. Pedersen. "'Pretty and Patriotic': Women's Consumption of Apparel During World War II", in Dress (2013, vol. 39, no. 1)



Remember, I've reopened my Patreon! As of its reopening, I've changed it to pay per post rather than per month, so something like an automated tip jar. The posts that will count as paid will be those that include a pattern of an extant garment or are based on research, like this one. Posts about sewing projects, translations, or attending events will continue to be published without charge.

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