12 February 1947, an international success
It is the story of a quip which, thanks to a magical moment, forged a legend. On 12 February 1947 at 10.30 a.m. Christian Dior, aged 42, presented his first collection to the press in the salons of 30 avenue Montaigne, strewn with flowers by Lachaume. The editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar Carmel Snow strongly believed in the couturier's talent, which she had already noted in 1937 with the Café Anglais model that he designed for Robert Piguet. At the end of the fashion show, having seen those unique silhouettes, those lengths, those volumes, those tiny waists and devilishly sexy busts, she exclaimed, "It's quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have such a new look!" A correspondent from Reuters seized the slogan at once and quickly wrote it on a note that he threw from the balcony to a courier posted on avenue Montaigne. The news travelled to the United States that very day! Before France, whose newspapers had been on strike for a month...
The American journalist, who cabled the brilliant slogan to her editor, did not know how right she was. The newness of which she spoke caused shock waves on both sides of the Atlantic. Just two years after the end of the war, Dior, with this collection in his own image, definitively turned the page of restriction, gloom, rationing, gravity and uniforms. With the utmost seriousness he wanted to give back to women their taste for light-heartedness, the art of seduction: he had known since his childhood that they always kept it hidden somewhere within them, even in the most dramatic of circumstances. He learnt this in Granville during the Second World War, by observing women looking at the Parisian magazines that it was so difficult to get hold of: excited, then shocked by the "fashionable dresses", they raced to have them made as soon as they closed the magazine.
The Bar suit, an icon of the New Look
With his revolutionary New Look, Christian Dior wrote a new chapter in the history of fashion. Furthermore, in order to write it he literally constructed it with his own hands. The would-be architect had to hammer away at a Stockman mannequin that was too tough and unyielding to bear the preparatory canvases of his visionary wardrobe, says his friend Suzanne Luling: "And so, with big, nervous blows of the hammer, he gave the mannequin the forms of the ideal woman for the fashion that he was to launch." His aim was clear; his hand did not tremble. "I wanted my dresses to be "constructed", moulded on the curves of the female body whose contours they would stylise. I accentuated the waist, the volume of the hips, I emphasised the bust. In order to give my models more hold, I had nearly all the fabrics lined with percale or taffeta, renewing a tradition that had long been abandoned."
Thus, on 12 February 1947 at 10.30 a.m., the announcer introduced "numéro un, number one". The first model was worn by Marie-Thérèse and opened the show during which the astounded audience saw ninety silhouettes file past belonging to two principal lines: En Huit and Corolle. Bettina Ballard, fashion editor at Vogue, had returned to New York a few months earlier after fifteen years covering French fashion from Paris, thinking that European fashion was heading for a dead end. But she was a good sport and she, too, had to bow to the innovative genius of Dior: "We have witnessed a revolution in fashion at the same time as a revolution in the way of showing fashion. "
The Bar suit, immortalised by the famous photo by Willy Maywald, signed this collection with its cream shantung morning coat with rounded tails that closely followed the curves of the bust and its large black pleated skirt that flared out, giving the gait an elegant swing that had never been seen before. It was all cleverly completed by a little black pillar-box hat perched cheekily on the head, gloves and fine slender shoes in complete contrast to the square-toed shoes with wedged heels worn by those who had come to view the fashion show. One by one, as you would pluck the petals from a daisy, it was possible to pick out the major pieces of this manifesto-collection that demonstrated the style and state of mind of a rigorous and joyful man.
There was the Passe-Partout suit in navy-blue wool crepe with its crew-neck jacket, pockets on the chest and the tails and pencil skirt that outlined the irreproachable En Huit line. The Corolle afternoon dress in black wool closed with five large buttons on the bust and its skirt with aptly-named miraculous pleats. The Jungle sheath dress and its panther motif, the Soirée dress with two layers of superimposed pleats in navy-blue taffeta... In short, from Rita Hayworth to the average woman on the street that couture did not normally touch, but who learnt during the postwar period to work miracles with her sewing machine, everyone now wanted to adopt this new look that Christian Dior himself was later to describe as "the return to an ideal of civilised happiness."
A short time after the fashion show, Elle magazine printed a photo of Marlene Dietrich's calves, the "most beautiful legs in the world", advising its readers to take a good look because they were never likely to be seen again – the star had just ordered ten New Look dresses whose hems would now cover her up! Dior became "the most famous Frenchman in the world", according to the headline of the L'Aurore newspaper. A photo showed two women tearing apart the New Look outfit of a third woman in the middle of the street, shocked by those lengths of fabric and that indecent sensuality. It was to misunderstand the motivation of Dior who, in designing "flower women, soft shoulders, blossoming bosoms, waists as slender as creepers and skirts as wide as corollas" only wanted to make them happy. Which he succeeded in doing.
Over six decades after its creation, the New Look revolution and its spirit continue to inspire Dior. It is there, in the imagination of François Demachy, Dior's perfumer-designer, who paid homage to Christian Dior's flower women with the perfume for the New Look 1947 Private Collection with its rose, jasmine and iris notes. It is there, in the mind of Raf Simons who reinterprets, season after season, the legendary curves of the Bar jacket, dreaming up a bustier version or one with several tails, designing it in woollen denim or adorning it with masculine prints. The New Look is a perpetual revolution.