The House of Dior
The House of Dior was founded by Christian Dior (1905-1957), the most influential fashion designer of the late 1940s and 50s. Dior developed the famous 'New Look', with its voluptuous hourglass silhouette. He also created a new business model within the fashion industry by turning Dior into a global brand. Dior’s client list included such luminaries as Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich and Princess Margaret, and he was courted by Parisian society. However, Dior himself was so shy that he could barely bring himself to bow to his audience at the end of each couture show. Fastidious in the extreme, he refused to receive any man who was not wearing a tie, yet was so superstitious that he consulted his clairvoyant before making any major decision.
Christian Dior was born in 1905 in Granville, a seaside town in Normandy. He longed to become an architect and moved to Paris in 1910, but his father insisted that he enrol at the prestigious Ecole des Sciences Politiques in Paris to study politics. In 1928, his father gave him enough money to open an art gallery - on condition that the family name did not appear above the door. Dior named his venture Galerie Jacques Bonjean, and it soon became an avant garde haunt. Finally he found a job as an assistant to the couturier, Robert Piquet.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Dior was offered a job in Paris by the couturier Lucien Lelong, who was lobbying the Germans to revive the couture trade. Dior spent the war dressing the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators. When hostilities ended, Dior acted on his theory that the public was ready for a new style. He developed a luxurious ‘new look’ based upon a sumptuous silhouette and billowing skirts. This proved so successful that the house of Dior was able to employ 85 people, and moved into a modest mansion at 30 Avenue Montaigne which was decorated in Dior’s favourite colours of white and grey.
The Paris couture trade had dominated international fashion since the late 18th century, but was in a precarious state during the immediate post-war years. It needed an injection of new ideas, and Dior delivered this in a collection of luxurious clothes with soft shoulders, wasp-like waists and flowing skirts intended for what he called ‘flower women’. The first Christian Dior couture show was held on 12 February 1947. The New Look was reminiscent of the Belle Epoque ideal of long skirts, tiny waists and beautiful fabrics that his mother had worn in the early 1900s, yet it was absolutely appropriate for the post-war era: this highly traditional model of femininity suited the political agenda. During the war, women had been mobilised to work on farms and in factories. In peacetime, those women were expected to return to passive roles as housewives and mothers, leaving their jobs free for the returning soldiers. The ideal of post-war womanhood was a capable, caring housewife who maintained the home for her husband and children. Dior’s ‘flower women’ exemplified this official paradigm.
The House of Dior attracted glamorous clients: Rita Hayworth chose an evening gown for the première of her film Gilda; the ballerina Margot Fonteyn bought a suit. American couture clients came back in force for the autumn 1947 collections and Dior was invited to stage a private presentation of that season’s show for the British royal family, although King George V forbade Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret from wearing the New Look, which he feared would set a bad example at a time when rationing was still in force.
Dior also had sound commercial instincts. A US hosiery company offered the enormous fee of $10,000 for the rights to manufacture Dior stockings, but the couturier proposed waïving the fee in favour of a percentage of the product’s sales. He thereby introduced the royalty payment system to fashion. At the same time, Dior was highly superstitious. 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. Likewise, Dior never began a couture show without consulting his tarot card reader.
The house was run along rigidly hierarchical lines. Each of the sales assistants had their own clients and were expected to nurture friendly relationships with them. The models (or mannequins as they were 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. However, Dior’s middle-aged clients were so conservative that when Dior created the ‘Jean-Paul Sartre’ suit in honour of the radical philosopher, no one bought it.
Dior attracted talented assistants. Pierre Cardin was Dior’s star assistant in the late 1940s, before leaving to start his own business. The gifted young Algeria-born designer Yves Saint Laurent joined in 1955 from the Chambre Syndicale fashion school. Dior died of a heart attack after choking on a fishbone. The first Christian Dior collection after Dior’s death was a sensation. Designed in just nine weeks by the 21 year-old Yves Saint Laurent, the clothes were meticulously made and perfectly proportioned, but they were softer, lighter and easier to wear. Emboldened by his success, Saint Laurent’s designs became more daring. This culminated in the 1960 ‘Beat Look’ inspired by existentialist philosophers in the Saint-Germain des Près cafés and jazz clubs. Saint Laurent was conscripted into the army, but after demobilisation he opened his own couture house.
Curiously, the British singer Morrissey recorded a track entitled 'Christian Dior'.