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.”
Dior, a charming if exceedingly plain-looking dilettante, came to couture late and by chance through his skill as a draftsman. Whereas a joshing glamour characterized the atmosphere at the House of Dior, silence and intense concentration governed the House of Balenciaga. “It was like entering a convent of nuns drawn from the aristocracy,” Marie-Louise Bousquet, the Paris editor of Harper’s Bazaar, remembered. It’s often facilely argued that Dior’s and Balenciaga’s strikingly different styles—the former fanciful, the latter austere—sprang from the designers’ opposing temperaments. It would be more accurate to say that the differences emerged from their opposing approaches to their craft. For Dior, the dress evolved from sketches; for Balenciaga, it evolved from the fabric (an indifferent sketcher, he would often design by draping cloth over his models’ bodies). Dior made the fabric conform to his vision, by having his workrooms stiffen, line, and back the cloth using the traditional methods of dressmaking; Balenciaga’s innovations in cutting techniques allowed him to respect the fabric’s inherent qualities.
Most important, behind the differences in their conceptions of design lay profound differences in their conceptions of women. An intensely romantic and nostalgic vision of femininity impelled Dior’s New Look. But that Platonic ideal required a notorious if finely crafted armature—padded hips, underwire bustiers, horsehair petticoats, girdles, and built-in corsetry. To achieve the pretty, youthful “new softness,” women reshaped their bodies to fit the requirements of the dress. One model told Snow: “It is the most amazing dress I have ever seen. I can’t walk, eat, or even sit down.” In contrast, one of Balenciaga’s “absolute pronouncements,” as Givenchy recalls in an essay in the recently published collection Balenciaga and His Legacy, was “The dress follows the woman’s body; it’s not the woman’s body that follows the dress.” He designed for a time and a society in which young women strove to look 20 years older, a time that valued attributes that came only after 35: a sense of style and an intelligent beauty dependent on what the great fashion writer Kennedy Fraser called “a kind of nerve-end understanding that life is often very sad.” His garments, in their legendary range of grays, browns, and blacks, and influenced by the clean lines of ecclesiastical dress, were supremely beautiful, never pretty. They weren’t for the undeveloped, for they projected assertiveness, authority, and sexuality. His streamlined styles—the tunic, the chemise, the empire—flattered both the svelte and those with curves and a stomach (“M. Balenciaga likes a little stomach,” one of his fitters famously said), since they overlooked the waist. With wit and a graceful, vaguely exotic convex line, his elegant, superlatively comfortable “semi-fitted” suit—his most- imitated creation—banished Dior’s wasp waist. His shift barely skimmed a woman’s body; his barrel dress enveloped it. His skirts, usually somewhat gathered into the waistband at the front, accommodated no-longer-flat stomachs. What Yves Saint Laurent defined as “the ease of Balenciaga” was based on what was universally recognized to be his unrivaled knowledge of the female body (“he builds clothes for the Woman, not for the Headlines,” Snow wrote)—a fact that makes his clothes deeply erotic, especially for the woman wearing them.
The Dior who emerges from Pochna’s chronicle and from The Golden Age of Couture is at worst a winning operator and at best a delightful genius of commerce with an eye for pretty things. By all accounts, Balenciaga—severe, uncompromising, taciturn—is couture’s Soup Nazi. As his friend and Vogue’s fashion editor, the high-born and high-minded Bettina Ballard, wrote, “His life is his work … It rarely seems to give him a sense of fulfillment, as it never reaches the perfection he desires.” For all his Gallic charm, Dior had no interest in women, the cynosure of his career. He was interested in publicity, and so hired only young, beautiful models. Balenciaga’s art emerged from his sympathy with women. He knew, for instance, that he had three generations of women to dress, and so always had some older models. Ernestine Carter, fashion editor of The Times of London, was spot-on in her evocation of his favorite model and the muse for many of his early masterpieces, the notoriously unpleasant Colette (not the writer): “her Dracula walk, her big head low like a bull ready to charge, her shoulders hunched down, … and a look of almost violent hatred on her face.” She wouldn’t have fit in at the House of Dior, where woman was ornament, but she was extremely useful to Balenciaga’s customers: “Any woman could wear Colette’s clothes—one of those tricks of proportion.” No woman was Dior’s muse. He simply kept up a stir, and so his creations from collection to collection have an untethered and empty quality.
By contrast, as Balenciaga Paris shows, Balenciaga developed a line over time, and returned to and refined an idea. “Make it new” would have been anathema to him; the assemblage contains no gimmicks to surprise or impress customers or the press, but there is a progression that somewhat gives the lie to Balenciaga’s much-commented-upon “timelessness.” Gradually, as form increasingly follows function, his shapes become cleaner, purer, more severe. By 1968, the year he abruptly retired, this archtraditionalist (he was a lifelong practicing Catholic and probably a monarchist to boot) seems to have embraced a modernist— or is it a monastic?—aesthetic.