|V&A Museum: Wikimedia Comons
Christian Dior is synonymous with the full skirted, nipped-in-waist fashion revolution launched in 1947 and christened the New Look by American journalist Carmel Snow. At a time when fabric was severely rationed and clothes were plain to the point of austere, his billowing skirts took up to 17 yards of material, required taffeta linings to create their shape and made (in Dior’s words) “flower women” out of the “square-shouldered boxers” uniforms and wartime restrictions had created. Nancy Mitford described the “magic potion” effect of these dresses which were constructed with padding and false hips to give women made thin by rationing the required hourglass shape. Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth were devotees and Dior hosted a private showing of the seminal 1947 collection for the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The iconic dress he designed for the Princess’s 21st birthday is part of the current exhibition.
|Carmel evening gown, Andrew Stawarz, Flikr
|Hitler in Paris
Germany’s desire to supplant France as the world’s fashion leaders pre-dated WWI. The fall of France in 1940 was seen as the perfect opportunity for this ambition to be finally made good: the first edition of Die Mode, published in January 1941, stated that “the German victory over France has an incisive meaning for fashion.” Other articles continued this theme: the trade publication Manufaktur was quite clear that “the fashion of the past was Paris – the fashion of the future lies with Greater Germany.” The Nazis’ plan, to be put into immediate operation in 1940, was to merge the French couture industry into the German one by physically relocating its ateliers and workers to Berlin and Vienna. Lucien Lelong, in his role as head of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the industry’s official body) was informed of both this and its alternative: the total suppression of the industry. Lelong, argued, and kept arguing, that the industry’s 20,000 workers and fragmented supply chain could not be uprooted and transported and survive. For whatever reason – whether (as he claimed) it was Lelong’s persuasive skills or the pressures of the Battle of Britain and the opening Russian Front – the Nazis dropped their demands and the French fashion industry was left to be just that.
|Dior's New Look Paris 1947
It is not surprising that Dior, the dreamer and magician, would launch a collection with such a romantic view of the world; it is not surprising a glamour-deprived world, largely, fell in love with it. It is the V&A’s choice to stage an exhibition where context is outside the remit. But it’s a shame. Fashion doesn’t exist in a bubble: from dandies to punks it reflects the world it comes out of and its story runs deeper than simply paying homage, no matter how beautiful the dresses might be. For anyone wanting to read wider than the skirts, can I recommend Nazi Chic by Irene Guenther which tells the story of both Germany and Paris and makes fascinating reading.