Post-WW2 recovery of the fashion industry was not easy in France.
The geography of fashion has distant roots, and world capitols rely on a large accumulation of materials from around the world in order to grow. As a Nazi-occupied island, isolated from the rest of the world, Paris lost its monopoly on fashion, with competition growing stronger in New York, London and Italy. In order to recover, French ateliers returned to the haute-couture stage, but with innovative cooperation between the fashion and textile industries.
The Theatre de la Mode was a traveling exhibition of more than 150 wire-frame dolls, each about 70cm tall, dressed in miniature couture clothing (see photo, above). These small sizes were used to save on expensive materials, while still demonstrating the tangible qualities of the garments’ designs and construction. More than 50 French couture houses participated in the exhibition.
In 1946, Christian Dior (1905-1957) came on the scene, opening his own couture house. He was contacted by the French Minister of Fashion (what a title!), a man named Lucien Lelong, and asked to partner with French textile tycoon, “The Cotton King” Marcel Boussac, in order to reinvigorate the fashion and textile industries of France on a global scale. Jacques c, a young civil servant, was hired to serve as business administrator. Dior launched his first collection in 1947 in cooperation with Boussac. The collection embraced the “New Look”, which recalled the formerly popular S-shaped silhouette without the underlying cage. Dior abandoned the masculine look, and emphasized luxury and opulence. The look was indeed new after years of the plain, shapeless ration dresses of WW2, and came with huge amounts of layered textiles and embroideries. Dior and Boussac used their marketing skills to promote the extensive use of fabrics (promoting the textile industry) and opulent details and construction (promoting the fashion industry) by playing to the optimism that followed years of suffering.
No one person can change fashion- a big fashion change imposes itself. It was because women longed to look like women again that they adopted the New Look.” Dior, 1947
There was a backlash to the New Look in the States in 1946-7, when people thought it inappropriate to display such opulence after such great suffering, and for women to bind themselves again after working in the place of men and revolutionizing their fashion in accordance. They weren’t the only ones speaking out against the New Look.
Coco Chanel re-emerged and gave many interviews against Dior, saying that his design was an easy dress to impose on women, but that they needed to be able to be comfortable in their daily lives and be able to move independent of assistance. She remarked, “A woman should do her shopping without being teased by the housewife. Whomever laughs is always right.” (Ironically, the North American market would become Dior’s biggest by the mid-50s.)
Over time, Rouët worked to extend the brand into a range of licensed items, exploiting the financial rewards of export deals and licensing contracts. Dior understood and exploited the promotional value of press coverage, and frequently made headlines while catering to Hollywood’s best and brightest, and by giving headline-generating names to each of his collections.
For a more in-depth look at the life and work of Dior, check out his biography at the Design Museum site.
You can also read more about the birth of luxury conglomerates, exemplified by Christian Dior and LVMH, here.