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.”