Christian Dior created a media sensation by changing hemlines season after season in the 1950s.. [Photo by Roger Wood; source Britannica/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]
Christian Dior exhilarated Paris and its most important industry in February 1947 when he presented his inaugural couture collection. Benjamin Schwartz sets the scene in Couture Clash (Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2008): “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.” Colette wrote, “It took one swish of the hips and America was won.” The editor of Harper’s Bazaar dubbed it the “New Look” even though it nodded anachronistically to the Belle Epoch. Dior’s triumph “ushered in haute couture’s waning but most glorious era,” according to Schwartz , who deems it “the most important fashion show in history.”
Schwartz’s essay reviews four recent books on Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga (see below). It also gives a fashion schnook like me a succinct history lesson in couture’s significance in the life of Paris after World War II:
Paradoxically, [Dior’s] 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.
Books reviewed in Couture Clash: Christian Dior by Marie-France Pochna (Arcade Publishing); The Golden Age of Couture by Claire Wilcox (ed.; Victoria and Albert Museum); Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin and Fabien Baron (Thames & Hudson); and Balenciaga and His Legacy by Myra Walker (Yale University Press).