Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and America

Christian Dior’s “New Look” heralded the end of the austerity imposed by World War II and started a fashion revolution that extended into the 1950’s. Dior’s vision of female elegance, however, was impractical for working women, reflecting instead a version of fashion that treated women primarily as decorative objects.

Summary of Event

Born in 1905 to a well-to-do family, Christian Dior always remembered his mother as a woman of great elegance. His father liked things English and dressed little Christian in sailor suits. He had governesses and tutors until age eleven, when he was sent to school at Gerson, France. During his teen years, Dior excelled at dressing up for costume events and suggesting ensembles for schoolmates who took part in amateur theatrical productions. Intended by his father for a career in politics, Dior attended the École des Sciences Politiques (school of political science), where he earned his degree in 1926. He then went on to complete his military service. [kw]Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and America (Spring, 1947)[Diors New Look Sweeps Europe and America]
[kw]Sweeps Europe and America, Dior’s “New Look” (Spring, 1947)[Sweeps Europe and America, Diors New Look]
[kw]Europe and America, Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps (Spring, 1947)[Europe and America, Diors New Look Sweeps]
[kw]America, Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and (Spring, 1947)[America, Diors New Look Sweeps Europe and]
“New Look” (Dior)[New Look (Dior)]
Fashion;”New Look”[New Look]
“New Look” (Dior)[New Look (Dior)]
Fashion;”New Look”[New Look]
[g]Europe;Spring, 1947: Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and America[02010]
[g]France;Spring, 1947: Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and America[02010]
[g]United States;Spring, 1947: Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and America[02010]
[g]Canada;Spring, 1947: Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and America[02010]
[c]Fashion and design;Spring, 1947: Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and America[02010]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Spring, 1947: Dior’s “New Look” Sweeps Europe and America[02010]
Dior, Christian
Piguet, Robert
Lelong, Lucien

Politics did not suit Dior; nor did he want to enter the family fertilizer-manufacturing business. Dior did not want to abandon the artistic interests he had forged during his teenage years. In his first foray into the art world, Dior formed a partnership with Jacques Bonjean Bonjean, Jacques to open an art gallery. Their gallery featured young artists; Dior and Bonjean were among the first to exhibit works by Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Raoul Dufy, Maurice Utrillo, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso. Of them all, perhaps only Utrillo, with his gentle cityscapes, eventually influenced Dior’s designs. Dior learned fashion drawing from his friend Jean Ozenne and for a time supported himself as a fashion illustrator. Another friend, Max Kenna, taught him about color and balance.

Soon, Dior began to sell his designs to established fashion houses. By designing the costumes for productions of several plays, he kept his interest in theater alive. Robert Piguet employed Dior as a designer in 1938. With Piguet, Dior learned the exacting standards of haute couture. Women’s fashion leaned toward romanticism then; the major Paris designers decreed the use of soft, flowing lines and frilly decorations. Dior, though, credited Piguet with teaching him the virtue of simplicity.

Fashion does not exist in a vacuum; world events shape even the width of a hem. Adolf Hitler’s march to power and program of world conquest exerted enormous influence on the fashion world. When German forces occupied France France;German occupation in World War II, the Germans rationed clothes. The wives of German officers wanted Paris fashions, however, so the Germans excluded haute couture from rationing. Paris did not suffer from the bombing raids that the Germans inflicted on much of Europe, so the business of fashion went on almost as usual. Of course, not many fabrics could be obtained, and the war influenced design. Square shoulders, to-the-knee skirts, and a vaguely military look dominated the fashion scene.

When Germany had invaded France, Dior had again found himself in the army. Once France surrendered, the army disbanded, and Dior was forced to take a job on a farm. In 1941, though, he joined the design house of Lucien Lelong and once again worked in the vocation that he loved.

When the war ended, Parisians turned their attention back to fashion. The fashions designed during the postwar years, however, did not meet the standards of Paris’s professional fashion critics. Many called these fashions vulgar and even ugly. It was in this climate, in 1946, that Dior opened his own salon. His largely female staff adored him and devotedly worked long hours. The exquisite fit needed for the clothes he designed required long hours from both his expert fitters and his clients. Even the most simple of Dior’s styles needed at least two hundred hours of hand-finishing.

Dior wanted to make a name for himself; he thus looked for something different, something special. Going back to the softer silhouette of the 1930’s, Dior made some essential changes. These changes were incorporated into Dior’s spring, 1947, collection. The collection was a success, drawing rave reviews from the critics. Fashion writers dubbed it the “New Look.”

In Dior’s new designs, shoulders rounded gently. Ladylike sleeves fitted neatly into narrow armholes. Waists followed natural lines, and skirts stopped just above the ankle. Dior chose gentle, subdued colors for his innovative collection. He used sumptuous fabrics, including thick velvets, fine wool, and sinuous silk. Evening gowns featured strapless bodices, meticulously hand-beaded embroidery, and extravagantly flowing skirts. (Although the New Look was terrifically popular, an anecdote of the day recounted that one man complained that he had difficulty telling his Dior-clad dance partner from a bird cage.)

Dior’s seemingly simple silhouette relied on clever seaming and complicated darts. Boning, stiffening, waist cinchers, hip padding, and tailoring contributed to the garments’ “hanger appeal,” meaning that the clothes looked almost as good on the hanger as they did on a woman. By 1948, versions of the New Look could be found in stores on both sides of the Atlantic. Women’s magazines gave hints on how to buy an original Dior: Stay at only the best hotels, they said. Drive up in a Rolls-Royce; if a woman did not have one, they advised, then she should rent one. Last but not least, a prospective buyer was advised to bring pockets full of money, because an original Dior did not come cheaply.


British and European teenagers immediately tried to make the New Look their own. Shortages of fabric, and even thread, made these girls invent ingenious new ways to use the mend-and-make-do techniques they had learned during the war to achieve the look. They used Dior’s novel fashion designs as a means to forge their independence and to reject their parents’ generation.

The British government appealed to women’s patriotic impulses when asking them not to adopt the New Look during a time of shortages and rebuilding. Princess Elizabeth Elizabeth II (later Queen Elizabeth II), however, wore the New Look on her state visit to France. Her sister, Princess Margaret, chose Dior to make the gown she wore to her twenty-first-birthday ball; after that, nothing could stop British women from embracing the Dior fashion craze.

Not everyone liked the New Look. Women in the workforce found it difficult to wear. It took time to achieve the look, moreover; a woman had to don a push-up bra, a waist cincher, several stiffened petticoats, and very high heels. A small flowered hat with a veil and pristine white gloves topped off the New Look. Women in the legal and medical professions grumbled, saying they found the fashions almost impossible to wear. Secretaries could not fit the style’s voluminous skirts into their chairs. Women in the upper echelons of the business world, too, felt that they did not look serious in Dior-inspired designs.

During the war, women had joined the workforce in large numbers, making vital contributions as they kept factories turning out weapons and civilian necessities. When the war ended, most were expected to give up their jobs and go back to hearth and home; many women, however, did not want to do that. In the context of the time, therefore, many women protested that the New Look turned women into decorative stereotypes and hindered them from keeping their positions in the workplace.

Some who disliked the New Look formed “Just a Little Below the Knee” Just a Little Below the Knee clubs clubs and vowed not to wear the look. Club members picketed Dior’s hotel room in Chicago, bearing signs urging others to join them in the fight for freedom in manner of dress. Dior, however, pursued his own vision of women. He saw them as flowers, and he thought that their legs should be shrouded in mystery. Dior retained his prewar sense of life and of style; some critics claimed that he imagined a carefree and happy life that had never really existed. Moreover, Dior expected women to shape their bodies to his clothes. He “packaged” women for male consumption and subscribed to the old-fashioned religious view of women as temptresses.

Designer Coco Chanel Chanel, Coco thought that Dior’s New Look embodied all the worst aspects of clothes designed for women by men. She disliked Dior’s fashions so much that she reentered the fashion business, and critics agree that she produced her best work during this period. Chanel’s actions raised an important question: Should men be the final, if not the sole, arbiters of what should be created for women to wear? Before the nineteenth century English dressmaker Charles Frederick Worth Worth, Charles Frederick , women had designed for women. The Industrial Revolution, however, revolutionized the fashion industry along with all the others, as what had before been made by hand was mass-produced by machine. Worth gained fame as a couturier during this transitional period; some say he created haute couture single-handedly. He insisted that he could dress women more elegantly than anyone else could. Soon, men took over the couture industry. In time, women were performing only the handwork without contributing much to fashion designs.

The fashion world changed dramatically from the 1960’s onward, on both sides of the drawing board. Dior’s New Look, however, influenced designers for decades, both as a model to emulate and as one to eschew. Dior developed separates, “little girl” day dresses, tight sheaths, cocktail and dinner suits, and cotton as a fashionable fabric. His innovations and their presentation helped define the nature of postwar fashion and set a standard for both his competitors and his successors. “New Look” (Dior)[New Look (Dior)]
Fashion;”New Look”[New Look]

Further Reading

  • Bayle, Françoise, ed. Christian Dior: Homme du siècle. Versailles, France: Museé Christian Dior, 2005. Catalog of the 2005 centennial exhibition of Dior’s designs. In French, but full of illustrations of the designer’s work.
  • De Marly, Diana. Christian Dior. New York: Holmes & Meir, 1990. A very readable biography, liberally sprinkled with Dior’s fashion sketches and pictures of his designs.
  • Giroud, Françoise. Dior: Christian Dior, 1905-1957. Translated by Stewart Spencer. New York: Rizzoli, 1987. A biography filled with sumptuous pictures of Dior’s homes, his workrooms, and his clothes. An absolutely must-see book.
  • Rethy, Esmeralda de, and Jean-Louis Perreau. Christian Dior: The Early Years, 1947-1957. New York: Vendome Press, 2001. Examination of Dior’s first ten years of success, beginning with his New Look collection of 1947. Bibliographic references.
  • Robinson, Julian. Fashion in the Forties. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976. A detailed account of French, British, and American fashion, especially during World War II, that helps one understand the evolution of Dior’s New Look.
  • Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. A look at the fashion industry through the eyes of a sociologist and historian.
  • Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow, 1991. A cogent study of the fashion and beauty industry from a feminist’s point of view. Whether fashion aficionados or not, readers will find this book provocative and instructive.

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