“When I grow up I want to be Christian Dior”, said once Christian Lacroix. Christian Dior is one of the few Fashion Designers of all times that best represents the ‘zest’ (short name for the German word zeitgeist), the capacity to adapt to the current times, embrace its spirit and evolve with it. “There is no beauty that is attractive without zest”, stated himself in many interviews.
Dior, quite rebel during his teen and first adult years, decided soon that it was more important to accept the rules of the bourgeoisie and build up a solid career, proving back then the power of Marketing and Public Relations, than following his more left-oriented and avant-garde taste. A few years before his death, he stated that elegance “must be the right combination of distinction, naturalness, care and simplicity. Outside this, believe me, there is no elegance. Only pretension”. Some, like his petit prince, as he used to call him, Yves Saint Laurent, saw in that a zero ‘zest’, just the perpetuation of an old and obsolete social and political system.
Nonetheless, Christian Dior was a one of the most revolutionary designers in the History of Fashion. Concise, disciplined and amazingly creative, he conceived the revolutionary ‘new look’: a new style for a woman in post-war times who should be the perfect, feminine and elegant housewife who holds the home together. Those dresses also made them feel beautiful and full of the desire to enjoy life again.
Christian Dior was born in 1905 in Granville, a lively seaside town on the Normandy coast. Second of five children, his father was a fertilizer manufacturer, so he grew up in a wealthy family. They moved to Paris in 1910. Dior dreamt of becoming an architect and although he enrolled the Ecolé des Sciences Politiques because of his father’s insistence, all he wanted was to work in the Art fields.
In 1928, his father gave him enough money to open an art gallery on the condition that the family name would never appear on the door. The Galerie Jacques Bonjean soon became an avantgarde gem with paintings by Georges Braque, Picasso and Max Jacob.
After Dior’s mother and older brother died in 1931, the family firm went bankrupt and the gallery had to close. However, the amazing and lovely passion of Christian for Arts was there. He struggled to sell his fashion sketches to haute couture houses and finally found a job as the assistant to the couturier Robert Piquet.
When in 1939 World War II began, Dior served as an officer until the France surrender. He joined his father and sister on a farm in Provence until he was offered a job in Paris by the couturier Lucien Lelong. He spent the rest of the War dressing the wives of Nazi officers and their French collaborators.
When France emerged from World War II in ruins, Dior was invited to revive a struggling clothing company owned by Marcel Boussac, the ‘’King of Cotton’’. Dior’s stardom, in 1945, was just about to begin.
According to Art History books, in 1946, Dior talked to Boussac about his new and revolutionary vision for fashion, the so called ‘new look’: a sumptuous silhouette and billowing skirts, a new woman to be reborn after the War. With a budget of 60 million francs and 85 employees, Dior opened the house of Dior. One year later, he presented his first couture show: soft shoulders, waspy waists and plenty of flowing skirts intended for what he called ‘flower women’. That collection gave birth to one of the most iconic fashion garments of all times, the bar suite, with an hourglass silhouette, straight shoulders, sharply defined waist and extremely flared skirts.
“It’s quite a revelation dear Christian. Your dresses have such a ‘new look’”, wrote Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazar US at the time.
Dior’s ‘new look’ was a reminiscent of the Belle Epoque ideal of long skirts, tiny waists and beautiful fabrics that his mother had worn in the early 1900s.
Dior put Paris back on the Fashion map. Behind the scenes, Jacques Roüet built up the Dior business. While the old Paris couture houses made bespoke clothes for private clients and some brands like Chanel and Jean Patou started diversifying into other products like perfumes, Roüet realised that the future was opening in international markets. As a smart and visionary business man, Christian Dior opened in 1948 his first prèt-a-porter boutique on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Next year, he launched the perfume ‘Diorama’, creating what it’s still nowadays crucial: the licensing system.
In 1955 Yves Saint Laurent joined Dior as an assistant designer. He contributed with thirty-five outfits for the autumn 1957’s collection. After the launch of it, Dior went to his favourite spa town in Montecatini, in the northern Italy, where he planned to rest and take care of himself for next seasons. Ten days later, he died of a heart attack after choking on a fish bone.
The French newspaper Le Monde hailed him as the man who was “identified with good taste, the art of living and refined culture which epitomized Paris to the outside world”. 2.500 people attended his funeral.
Dior’s customers were people from wealthy families and high society: celebrities, royalty and big North American clients as well as Hollywood stars, New York socialites and department store buyers who bought the exclusive designs to be cut by their own seamstresses. We are talking of Rita Hayworth, Elisabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, the British Royal Family and Eva Peron among others.
He had, due to his business side, so conservative that when he called a suit “Jean-Paul Sartre” in honour of the Liberal philosopher, no one bought one of them. From that moment ahead, his collections had the following formula: one third new, one third adaptation of familiar styles and one third time-proven classics.
Dior was the biggest and best-run haute couture house in Paris. All through his life, the ‘three muses’ worked with him on the collections: Raymonde Zehnmacker, who ran the studio; Marguerite Carré, head of the workrooms; and Mitza Bricard, the glamorous hat designer and chief stylist. Each of the sales assistants had their own clients with whom they were expected to nurture friendly relationships.
Each show included up to two hundred outfits and lasted as long as two and a half hours. The models came from the upper-society as well and were hired in different shapes and sizes to show how the clothes would look on different women.
Christian Dior left one of the golden rules of Fashion: “Simplicity, good taste and grooming are the three fundamentals of good dressing”.
Text by Anna Tomàs