Couture Clash

Editor’s Choice: How Dior’s and Balenciaga’s competing visions of style and women revived high fashion

On an icy mid-morning in February 1947, after seven seedy years of privation and shame, Paris and its most important industry came exuberantly back to life. In what remains the most famous fashion show in history, the new House of Dior presented its inaugural collection in its Louis XVI salon. In steady tempo, model after model swirled in dresses and suits in neutrals and luscious colors with tight bodices and wasp waists, their long, profligately full, elaborately pleated skirts scattering the audience’s cigarette ashes as they flared open. Adopting the silhouette and requiring the intricate dressmaking art—and layers of underpinnings—of the Belle Epoch, the “New Look,” as Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, dubbed it on the spot, was in fact a defiant anachronism. But fashion instantly and effortlessly changed direction: the New York buyers who’d left for home before Dior’s launch had to turn around and sail back to France to put in their orders (“It took one swish of the hips and America was won,” the writer Colette said). More important, as several new books elliptically show, the New Look ushered in haute couture’s waning but most glorious era, even as Dior’s triumph—winsome and lovely in itself—helped take fashion and femininity down what has proved to be a pernicious path toward the frivolous and jejune.

The new edition of Marie-France Pochna’s intelligently illustrated, thorough 1993 biography, Christian Dior draws heavily on the designer’s own memoirs to elucidate two contradictory facets of his short career (he died just 10 years after the debut of the New Look): his almost religious dedication to nurturing the then already antiquated craft of Parisian dressmaking; and his revolutionary creation of an international luxury-goods empire comprising lucrative licensing, a global chain of boutiques, and ready-to-wear lines. In Dior’s formula, both facets depended on media attention, which he secured through regular, often nonsensical changes in the direction of his designs. Dior generated the once-popular fixation with ever-changing hemlines, and each year, as his fellow couturier Hubert de Givenchy explained, the market demanded a “new New Look, because his styles became too quickly too Seventh Avenue.”

Paradoxically, this media-stoked frippery revived haute couture, an essentially 18th-century industry whose products were made inch by inch by a mighty force of cutters, seamstresses, embroiderers, and other hand workers skilled in the production of buttons and ribbon and in the application of beads, paillettes, and pearls (two out of five French workers were employed in dressmaking and allied trades in the mid-1950s). A single dress could take 200 hours to make; a couture house’s seasonal collection could take more than 100,000 hours. Couture was nearly equally labor-intensive for the customer: in one season Barbara Hutton ordered from Balenciaga 19 dresses, six suits, three coats, and a negligee, each of which required at least three lengthy and intricate fittings. An art form, the most finely wrought expression of femininity ever devised, and a vital if obscenely inefficient source of national pride and foreign exchange (in 1949, two years after its first collection, the House of Dior accounted for a full 5 percent of France’s export sales, mostly with ex–quisite handmade dresses), couture reached its apogee in the postwar years—even as its participants and devotees knew it to be doomed.

This poignant and brilliant flowering was probed in a highly touted exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum this fall and in the text-heavy, exceptionally pretty, intelligent, and well-written companion volume, The Golden Age of Couture. Although the book occasionally looks askance at the excesses and legacy of Dior, it insists that he was the era’s defining force (the period it covers, 1947 to 1957, spans his entire career in couture; cognoscenti will notice that its white cover with gold lettering and pearl-gray ribbon bookmark match the colors of the original interior of the Maison Dior). Thus it all but ignores the other design houses that characterized couture’s renaissance, including that of Coco Chanel, who made her famously triumphant comeback in 1954, and those quintessentially Parisian houses Balmain and Lanvin.

The one figure given equal treatment is Cristóbal Balenciaga, whom Dior, as generous as he was self-promoting, acknowledged as “the Master of us all.” Aloof and ascetic, Balenciaga (1895–1972) shunned the publicity, commercial deals, and social whirl Dior depended on, refusing to be photographed by the press and granting only one interview, three years after his retirement. Repeatedly offered a fortune to develop a prêt à porter line, he invariably answered: “I shall never prostitute my art.” A man once rumored not to exist, he can never be the subject of the kind of chatty, conventional biography Pochna has written of Dior. But his oeuvre has been covered in a number of books, most discerningly by Lesley Ellis Miller and by Marie-Andrée Jouve and her co-author Jacqueline Demornex. Balenciaga Paris, published in late 2006 to coincide with an exhibition at the Louvre, mines the House of Balenciaga’s archives year by year, collection by collection. It affords the most rigorous, richly detailed examination of the evolution of the couturier’s lines.

Balenciaga’s seamstress mother taught him to sew at 3, and he was apprenticed to a tailor at 12. Strongly influenced by English tailoring—its marriage of ease and refinement, and its stress on precise cutting—he was, with his incredibly nimble fingers, the prime craftsman of his collections, each of which included a dress made entirely by him. He alone, according to Chanel, was “a couturier in the truest sense.” She added, “Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand. The others are simply fashion designers.”

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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