Some revolutions start with a bang. This one started with a silhouette.
In order to understand what made Christian Dior’s “New Look” silhouette the fashion revolution that it is still lauded to be, we must hop in a time machine and head back to the year 1941. At the time, parts of Europe and Asia followed the death march of totalitarianism, and a shadow of fear fell over the entire world as a result. World War II began in 1939, but it wasn’t until 1941 that the United States joined the fight, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Not only did restricted imports have a rapid effect on the fashion of the time, but so did rationing, which was also imposed in 1941.
Women everywhere gave up silk and other pricey materials, fasteners, boning for corsets, and zippers in order to supply the military, and were forced to adopt simpler garments – including trousers – for the first time ever. In Britain, “austerity” standards were imposed that forbade clothing from the extravagances of extra pockets, metal or leather buttons, braids, embroidery, or lace. Meanwhile, Paris – the world’s epicenter of fashion – was condemned to isolation as war raged on its streets and shores, forcing top ateliers like Chanel to shutter its doors. Since fashion reflects events happening in the world and society’s reaction to them, it only takes one look at the plain, unadorned garments that were worn during World War II to understand just how bleak times were.
The war ended in 1945, but it wasn't until February 12, 1947, that Christian Dior restored a beautiful, harmonious idea of femininity to women who had been ravaged by poor standards of living. In his autobiography, he remembers his impetus for creating the "New Look", stating, "We were just emerging from a poverty-stricken, parsimonious era, obsessed with ration books and clothes coupons. It was only natural that my creations should take the form of a reaction against this dearth of imagination."
To an awed crowd gathered at his salons of 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris, Dior unveiled his revolutionary 'En Huit' and 'Corolle' lines, both of which featured the "New Look" silhouette. By freeing women from the binding grip of corsets, but shaping his silhouette with impeccable tailoring and fabrics lined with either stiff percale or taffeta, Dior’s "New Look" became the benchmark for feminine, wasp-waisted perfection. Dior’s lifelong obsession with flowers, inspired by the gardens that encircled the grounds of Granville where he grew up, informed his designs. In his autobiography, he wrote, "In December 1946, as a result of the war and uniforms, women still looked and dressed like Amazons. But I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts."
To say that the "New Look" caused a stir would be an understatement. In fact, women around the globe either embraced the designs or snubbed them because of the "wasteful" amounts of fabric they used. Although it was a divisive proposition at the time, no one can deny the long-term effects that this silhouette had on the fashion world at large. As magazines seized Dior's collections for editorials, even the women who originally scorned the look came around in its favor. Soon, from Beijing to New York City, society's obsession with Dior took hold en masse. The reason was simple: after the war, women longed for frivolity in dress due to a psychological desire to distance themselves from the austerity and pragmatism of wartime garments and civilian uniforms.
To this day, Dior's "New Look" silhouette can be found in fashion. Modern examples include the specific homage to the design that Raf Simons made in his first collection for the maison at his Fall/Winter 2013 Couture show; the designer’s vision embraced a more relaxed version and was emphasized by padded hips. Meanwhile, throughout Maria Grazia Chiuri's tenure at the house, she has continued to find new ways to reinvent the silhouette while keeping in mind the needs and tastes of the modern woman.