One of the most influential fashion designers of the late 1940s and 1950s, Christian Dior (1905 to 1957) despite a short career dominated the world of fashion after World War II with the hourglass silhouette of his voluptuous New Look. He also defined a new business model in the post-war fashion industry by establishing Dior as a global brand across a wide range of products.
Christian Dior was born on 21 January 1905 in Granville, a lively seaside town on the Normandy coast, in France. He was the second of the five children of Alexandre Louis Maurice Dior, the latest heir in an established family business of fertiliser manufacturers, and his wife Isabelle. The family lived in a pretty grey and pink house perched high on a cliff with spectacular views over the sea. They moved to Paris in 1910 returning to Granville for holidays each summer. Dior longed to become an architect but, at his father’s insistence, he enrolled at the prestigious École des Sciences Politiques (nicknamed ‘Sciences Po’), in Paris to take a degree in politics which, his parents hoped, would prepare him for a diplomatic career.
All Dior wanted, however, was to work in the arts. In 1928, his father gave him enough money to open an art gallery on condition that the family name would not appear above the door. Galerie Jacques Bonjean, which Dior opened with Bonjean, soon became an avant-garde haunt with paintings by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob hanging on walls decorated by Christian Bérard. Disaster struck in 1931 when the death of Dior’s older brother was followed by that of his mother and the collapse of the family firm. The gallery closed. For the next few years Dior scraped a living by selling fashion sketches to haute couture houses. Finally he found a job as an assistant to the couturier, Robert Piquet.
World War II
Dior continued to work for Piquet until he was called up to the Army following the start of World War II. He served for a year, before being demobilised after France’s surrender. Once out of the military he joined his father and a sister on a farm in Provence. To make a living in this period, Dior first worked in the farm and then, inspired and with the help of various friends, he sold sketches to couture houses, milliners and magazines until he was offered a job in Paris at Lucien Lelong. Like other French couturiers during the War, Lelong took on as clients the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators as a way to survive the conflict. Despite all efforts, France emerged from World War II in ruins. Half a million buildings were destroyed. Clothes, coal and food were in short supply. Yet there were ample opportunities for new business ventures and fashion was no exception.
Creating the House of Dior
Through George Vigouroux, a childhood friend from Granville, Dior was offered to become the artistic director at the house of Philippe et Gaston. This was a struggling clothing company owned by Marcel Boussac, then known as the‘King of Cotton’, a businessman with an empire of racing stables, newspapers, and textile mills. Surprisingly, instead of accepting Boussac’s offer, Dior proposed a different plan. He suggested that Bousacc should help him open his own fashion house: an establishment ‘where everything would be new, from the state of mind and the staff to the furniture and premises’. Boussac agreed to launch the new couture house in style with a then-unprecedented budget of 50 million. Jacques Rouët, a young civil servant, was appointed as its administrator. The house of Dior and its 85 employees moved into a modest mansion at 30 Avenue Montaigne which was decorated in Dior’s favourite colours of white and grey.
The First Show and the New Look
The first Christian Dior couture show was scheduled for 12 February 1947. At that time clothes were still scarce and the Paris couture trade, which had dominated international fashion since the late 18th century, was in a precarious state. What was needed was excitement and Christian Dior delivered it in a collection of luxurious and feminine clothes with soft shoulders, waspy waists, rounded hips, and full flowing skirts, intended for what he called the ‘flower women’. Dior’s propositions famously impressed the audience. ‘It’s quite a revelation dear Christian’, pronounced Carmel Snow, the editor of American magazine Harper’s Bazaar. ‘Your dresses have such a new look’. That phrase famously came to identify Dior’s first collection and the ‘New Look’ designs resonated with the clients’ sensibilities during the grim post-war era. Dior foresaw that women might appreciate something new after years of conflict, brutality, hardship, and clothing restrictions. Despite initial resistance to skirts’ lengths and the incredible amount of fabric that was required to make a New Look garment (between 15 and 25 meters), these designs became a sensation.
Among this first collection titled ‘Corolle’, was the iconic ‘Bar suit’ which became one of the most popular designs of the line. Dior’s couture house was inundated with orders. Rita Hayworth picked out an evening gown for the première of her new movie, Gilda. The ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, bought a suit. Starting with his first collection Dior helped to put Paris back on the fashion map. The US couture clients came back in force for the autumn 1947 collections. Dior was also invited to stage a private presentation of that season’s show for the British Royal Family in London, although King George VI forbade the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, from wearing the New Look lest it set a bad example at a time when rationing was still in force for the general public.
Constructing and Expanding the Brand
Behind the scenes Jacques Rouët helped manage and built up the Dior business. The traditional Paris couture houses were small operations making bespoke clothes for private clients. Some couturiers had diversified into other products: notably Chanel and Jean Patou into perfume, and Elsa Schiaparelli into hosiery. Both Boussac and Rouët realised that a lucrative move forward would be for the House of Dior to diversify further afield into more products and international markets. Eager to capitalise on the publicity generated by the New Look, they opened a luxury ready-to-wear boutique on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and another branch dedicated to selling furs on Avenue Montaigne. When a US hosiery company offered the House of Dior the then-enormous fee of $10,000 for the rights to manufacture their stockings, the foot of which was designed by Dior himself, the couturier proposed waiving the fee in favour of a percentage of the product’s sales, thereby introducing the royalty payment system to fashion. Remarkably Dior had soon reached his dream of being able to fully dress a woman, even providing undergarments. In this respect Dior even launched a perfume, named ‘Miss Dior’, allegedly a tribute to his sister Catherine who had survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The only item Christian Dior did not design himself were shoes, for which he eventually turned to Roger Vivier.
The newly wealthy Dior bought and converted the Moulin du Couder at Milly-la-Forêt, near Fontainebleau outside Paris where he could indulge his love of art, antiques and gardening. Shortly thereafter he also bought a small house on Boulevard Jules Sandeau in Passy. Still shy, he left socialising to Suzanne Luling, his vivacious and talented sales director, and he grew even more superstitious with age. Every collection included a coat called the ‘Granville’, named after his birthplace, and at least one model wore a bunch of his favourite flower, lily of the valley. Moreover Dior never began a couture show without having consulted his tarot card reader.
Throughout the 1950s Christian Dior was one of the more successful haute couture houses in Paris. Although there were other fashion designers that rivalled Dior, among which were Pierre Balmain, and Cristóbal Balenciaga, neither of these designers could count on the strategic support system and structure available to Dior As well as Jacques Rouët and Suzanne Luling mentioned above, Dior had the ‘three muses’ who worked with him on the collections: Raymonde Zehnacker who managed the studio; Marguerite Carré, head of the workrooms; and Germaine Bricard, the glamorous hat designer.
The house was run along rigidly hierarchical lines. Each of the vendeuses (sales assistants), had their own clients with whom they were expected to nurture friendly relationships. The ateliers, or workrooms, were staffed by seamstresses, many of whom had worked there since leaving school. During the twice-yearly haute couture shows in late January and early August, some 2,500 people filed in and out of the Dior salons to see the new collections. Each show included up to two hundred outfits and lasted as long as two and a half hours. The models, or ‘mannequins’ as they were then called, came from the same privileged backgrounds as the clients and were hired in different shapes and sizes to show how the clothes would look on different women. The biggest clients were North American: Hollywood stars, New York socialites and department store buyers who bought the exclusive rights to individual designs to be made up by their own seamstresses. Marshall Fields, the Chicago store, had nine couture workshops and a marble-lined salon, ‘The 28th Shop’. Discount clothing chains, like Ohrbach, were allowed to attend the shows on condition that they bought a minimum number of outfits, which they were then allowed to copy stitch for stitch into ‘knock-off’ lines.
As a prestigious Paris couture house, over the years Dior also attracted talents. One was Pierre Cardin, an Italian-born tailor who was head of department at Dior in the late 1940s before leaving to begin his own business. Another was Yves Saint Laurent, a gifted young Algeria-born designer who joined in 1955 as the star graduate of the Chambre Syndicale Fashion School to become Dior’s first ever assistant. As timid as Dior himself, the young Saint Laurent flourished at the couture house and contributed a remarkable thirty-five outfits for the autumn 1957 collection. When all the fittings for the collection were finished, Dior took off for a rest cure at his favourite spa town of Montecatini, in Italy, some say hoping to lose weight in order to impress a young lover.
Ten days later, on 24 October, Dior, only 52 years old, died while still on his vacation in Italy. (The cause of death has attracted many speculations. Some say the couturier had died after suffering three heart attacks, but others sustain he had choked on a fish bone at dinner, while others yet point to a ‘strenuous sexual encounter’ as cause of death.) . News of Dior’s death sparked many reactions. For example the French newspaper Le Monde hailed him as a man who was ‘identified with good taste, the art of living and refined culture that epitomises Paris to the outside world’. Marcel Boussac sent his private plane to Montecatini to bring Dior’s body back to Paris. Some 2,500 people attended his funeral including all his staff and famous clients led by the Duchess of Windsor. A fortnight later Jacques Rouët called a press conference to announce the new structure of the house of Christian Dior. ‘The studio will be run by Madame Zehnmacker, the couture workshops by Madame Marguerite Carré’, he announced. ‘Mitza Bricard will continue to exercise her good taste over the collections. All the sketches will be the responsibility of Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent.’
The House of Dior After Dior
The first Dior collection after Christian Dior’s death was a sensation. Designed in just nine weeks by the 21 year-old Yves Saint Laurent—as he was called after dropping his middle name ‘Mathieu’—the clothes were as meticulously made and perfectly proportioned as Dior’s in the same exquisite fabrics, but their young designer made them softer, lighter and easier to wear. Saint Laurent was hailed as a national hero. Emboldened by his success, his designs became more daring culminating in the 1960 Beat Look inspired by the existentialists in the Saint-Germain des Près cafés and jazz clubs. Marcel Boussac was furious and, in spring 1960, when Saint Laurent was called up to join the French army, the Dior management raised no objection.
Saint Laurent was conscripted in the army and, after demobilisation, he opened his own couture house. He was replaced at Dior, in 1961, by Marc Bohan, who instilled his conservative style on the collections until 1989 when Gianfranco Ferré became the new artistic director. Ferré remained at Dior until 1996, and then the iconoclastic John Galliano, was appointed chief designer of Christian Dior by the company’s new owner, the LVMH luxury goods group.
Galliano worked at Dior for 15 years (between 1996 and 2011), before being fired from the company due to a public anti-Semitic incident. Dior’s designer Bill Gaytten oversaw the collections at the fashion house as a new creative director was being appointed. In April 2012 Raf Simons, a Belgian furniture designer who in 1995 turned fashion designer by launching his menswear collection, was announced as Dior’s new Creative Director. Despite having produced successful collections for Dior, in October 2015 Simons stepped away from his engagement with the Parisian fashion house. In July 2016, eight months after Simons' departure, Italian fashion designer Maria Grazia Chiuri was announced new Creative Director becoming the first woman to design womenswear for Dior.
(Portrait) Photograph of Christian Dior, Courtesy of Dior.
Silk velvet pork-pie hat with a rolled brim, designed by Christian Dior, Paris, 1953-1954. Given by Mrs D.M. Haynes and Mrs M. Clark. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
'New Look' coat of silk, designed by Christian Dior, Paris, 1947-1948. Given by Mrs J. Wates. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Detail of Book Cover, 'Dior: New Looks' by Jérôme Gautier is published by Thames & Hudson.
A pair of orange silk satin Dior shoes, 1960s. Given by Jillian Ritblat. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Detail of Book Cover, 'Dior' by Francoise Giroud and Sacha Van Dorssen, published by Thames & Hudson, 1987.
A pair of peach silk satin Dior evening pumps, ca. 1960. Given by Baroness Philippe de Rothschild. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Chrisitan Dior was born on 21 January 1905 in Granville on the Gulf of St Malo on the Normandy coast, as the second of five children of a wealthy fertiliser manufacturer.
Dior's family moves to Paris.
To please his father, Dior studies at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques (Sciences Po’) to prepare to join the diplomatic corps.
Dior opens a modern art gallery along with the eponimous partner—Galerie Jacques Bonjean—thanks to financial backing from his father.
The Dior family business folds in the depression. Forced to close the gallery, Dior scrapes a living by selling sketches to couturiers and magazines.
The couturier Robert Piguet employs Dior as a design assistant at his new couture house.
When World War II begins, Dior is called up into the French Army, but is demobilised after a year when France surrenders and joins his family on a farm in Provence.
In December he returns to Paris to work as a design assistant to Lucien Lelong.
After World War II ends, Dior persuades the industrialist Marcel Boussac to back him in the opening of his own couture house to be managed by the civil servant Jacques Rouët.
On 12 February Dior presents his debut couture collection, which is an instant success dubbed the ‘New Look’ for its voluptuous silhouette and luxurious fabrics. Dior names his debut fragrance Miss Dior as a tribute to his sister. The perfume is launched in December of that year.
Dior and Rouët open a ready-to-wear boutique in New York and, over the next few years, launch new perfumes and negotiate the licensing rights for Christian Dior hosiery, ties and other products.
Designs a dress for Marlene Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright and, the following year, a suit for Dietrich in No Highway in the Sky.
After years of variations on the New Look, Dior unveils his new direction, the French Bean Line or Flat Look.
Yves Mathieu Saint-Laurent joins Dior as a design assistant. The Grande Boutique opens on Avenue Montaigne and Dior launches a cosmetics range.
Designs over a dozen dresses for Ava Gardner in The Little Hut.
Christian Dior dies while on a rest cure at a spa in Montecatini, Italy. Dior’s funeral in Paris is attended by more than 2,500 people. Yves Saint Laurent is named as Dior’s successor aged 21 and unveils his first collection in January 1958.
Timeline of Maison Dior
Christian Dior with the generous financial support of Marcel Boussac open Maison Dior on 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris.
On 12 February Christian Dior shows his first collection which will become known as the New Look. The 'Miss Dior' Perfume is also launched this year.
In November Christian Dior-New York is opened. The atelier sells luxurious ready-to-wear clothes and is based on 5th avenue.
In selling Dior stockings in the USA the House of Dior adopts a licencing system.
Christian Dior Furs opens in Paris.
Christian Dior Models Limited is opened in London.
Dior and Cartier open a joint boutique in Caracas. During this year, Dior starts a partnership with shoe designer Roger Vivier.
Dior presents his 'Flat Look'.
Yves Saint Laurent becomes the first and only assistant of Christian Dior. Saint Laurent is only 19.
Dior dies whiles on vacation at Montecatini, Italy. Yves Saint Laurent is appointed as the new artistic director of Maison Dior.
Saint Laurent launches his first collection for Dior, on 30 January.
Saint Laurent leaves Dior. He is succeeded at Dior by Marc Bohan, who, two years earlier, had joined the Dior firm in London.
Shoe designer Roger Vivier leaves Dior and open his own firm.
Bernard Arnault gains control of the Agaxche Group, who have owned the Dior firm since 1978 following a compulasory liquidation of the Marcel Boussac Group.
Arnauld becomes the chairman and managing director of the Maison Dior.
Bohan leaves Dior and Gianfranco Ferré becomes the new artistic director.
Johan Galliano is appointed as artistic director at Maison Dior.
Raf Simons is named artistic director at Dior.
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