The Image that Launched a Thousand Misconceptions

I hate this image. It appears in numerous fashion history books as an example of Dior’s debut collection from spring 1947 – the same collection that U.S. Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow said had such a “New Look.” The image was taken by German fashion photographer Willy Maywald, but the problem is that this image is not from 1947, it’s from 1957.

The same suit as in the above photo. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London owns the actual suit that appears in this image. Cecil Beaton requested Christian Dior for an example of the New Look on the museum’s behalf and in 1960 received this suit from the Christian Dior company in Paris. It turns out that the suit had been made up in 1955 for Christian Dior to use at a lecture at the Sorbonne. The design was based on the Bar suit from 1947 but it’s actually very different.

The real bar suit, spring 1947

The original Bar suit jacket had a shawl collar and six button closure with the jacket closing in front, girdling the hips in the padded silk coattails. The jacket in the Maywald image has a notched collar, five button closure, and the front doesn’t close correctly in front, but instead sticks out more like a peplum. (added May 26 – an email I received from Lynne Kranieri noted that the original design from Dior’s design book in Paris defines 5 buttons for the jacket, so the 6 button jacket shown to the right must be an alteration from the original design, probably for the jacket to fit right on a longer-waisted model.) The skirt is also wrong. The original skirt was made up of yards and yards of knife pleated wool, whereas this version is just a very full A-line skirt (although the V&A image appears to use something that more closely resembles the original skirt than what was worn in the Maywald photograph.) The original hat was also flatter and black, not baskety in shape and texture. And most of all, the shoes are nothing like what was worn in 1947, or 1955, when the suit was made.

Christian Dior and Renee, spring 1957

This image must have been taken in 1957 in honour of Christian Dior’s tenth anniversary. Although the Dior company had kept sales slips, design details, production notes and some toiles and patterns, they did not keep an archives of dresses. Ironically, many of the highest prices paid for vintage couture at auctions the past few decades came from the houses that created those fashions in the first place as Givenchy, Chanel, Dior and others, bought back examples of their early work.

Renee modelling Dior, spring 1957

There is some controversy over whether this New Look image is from 1957 or 1955, but I am quite sure its 1957 for two reasons. Firstly, the baskety hat is typical of ‘My Fair Lady’ Edwardian style big hats, which were popular from fall 1956 to spring 1958. Millinery shown with earlier Dior garments are frequently wide brimmed, but flatter and not as heavy looking. And secondly, the shoes. The pointed toe, stiletto heel was the hot trend of 1957. Roger Vivier, the shoe designer for Dior, had been at the forefront of popularizing this footwear fashion. And if you don’t believe me, then look at other pictures of the same model.

The model is Dior house model Renee. She was also Dior’s favourite model in 1957 and appeared in a photograph standing next to Dior in spring 1957 wearing what appears to be the same shoes and earrings. Another fashion image, also from spring 1957, shows the same shoes. Unlike today, house models had a limited shoe wardrobe of basics for photography and fashion shows, and I would not be surprised if in fact they are the exact same shoes in all three photos. There is no doubt in my mind that this image is from 1957, and was taken to recreate (although imperfectly) the New Look style of 1947 as a marketing image for the tenth anniversary.

Here’s a close up of the shoes of Dior house model Renee in the Bar suit image on left, and a dated spring 1957 fashion image of the same model in the same shoes:

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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23 Responses to The Image that Launched a Thousand Misconceptions

  1. Pingback: Blog of the week | theuniversalcabinet

  2. Sergio Rodriguez says:

    Great post! There are still many doubts about it.
    This is an excerpt of the book “Christian Dior” from the exhibition about Dior held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art written by Richard Martin and Harold Koda.

    “Bar” suit. Jacket. Spring-summer 1947.
    Beige silk shantung. Gift of Mrs. John Chambers Hughes, 1958 (CI 58.34.30).
    Day skirt. Executed in 1969 from a 1947 design. Black wool. Gift of Christian Dior, 1969 (CI 69.40)

    “The relationship between designer and client is dynamic in the couture, often
    allowing for modified versions of the original design. Some of these are ultimately
    more or less sanctioned; others are ostracized and not publicly acknowledged
    by the House. Documents in the Dior archives demonstrate that the original
    version of the “Bar” suit employed a notched collar. This variation with a shawl
    collar, perhaps the result of a client’s demand, was officially photographed by
    Dior at the time of its creation, indicating the imprimatur of the House of Dior.
    Although Dior created many notched collars, he was a fervent advocate of shawl
    collars and curved necklines. Arguably, the shawl collar plays effectively with
    the curvaceous forms Dior articulated at the shoulders and hips.”

    The illustration of the Bar in Dior’s notebook has a notched collar. I suppose that was the original design. But then you see all this photographs and illustrations of magazines of the time and they all have a shawl collar. Could it be possible that Dior first designed the jacket with a notched collar, and then he changed his mind and presented a Bar with a shawl collar in the first show, and later maybe he said “Ok, let us go back with the original design”. Mmm… the mind of the designers… what a mistery!

    • Jonathan says:

      Yes, of course there is always the client’s ‘ideas’ that have to be considered in the design too. Alexandra Palmer illustrated that quite well in her book Couture & Commerce with an image of an extant dress and the original sketch from Balmain, and the real dress was hard to recognize from the sketch for the number of changes made under order by the original client!

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  4. Jen O says:

    Awesome article, and I just love the comments–a good read in themselves.
    It’s things like this that makes historical costume/fashion so much fun!

  5. Daniel says:

    Actually, I’m a wee bit confused here about the question of the pleats. The V&A’s Bar suit does have a very densely pleated skirt so replica or not, is the V&A skirt definitely the same as in the above picture? Because it looks like it has more pleats than in Willy’s pic. (I’m guessing there are no remaining original Bar skirts anywhere.)

    • Jonathan says:

      I agree, the Mayald photo looks like a different skirt than the one in the V&A. The Met in New York has an original jacket from 1947, but a reproduction skirt made up by Dior in 1969 to reproduce the Bar suit skirt. Maybe a later reproduction was made for the V&A at some point…

      • Daniel says:

        The V&A replica (which the Museum date as possibly made in 1955) is exactly as it was donated in 1960, as an ensemble with the hat (is it definitely incorrect for 1947? There’s a reference on Collections Online to the hat not being originally shown with the suit in ilustrations in English Vogue (April 1947, p.47-50.). I’ll have to look next time I am in the National Art Library, if I remember.

        I wonder if the peplum effect is actually a mounting error in the 1984 image as I don’t remember it being so obvious in the Couture show – it does look a shade skewed up on the right hip as we look at it, whereas if the peplum were pulled down a bit, the jacket should meet all the way down and it wouldn’t have an uneven hemline. Interesting how modern sensibilities sometimes manifest themselves in mounting, regardless of how accurate the mounter tries to be…

        • Jonathan says:

          I couldn’t tell if the hat that the V&A has is the same one used in the Maywald photo – I think it might be, but its hard to tell from the different angles. However, it really looks more like something from 1957 than 1947, and it doesn’t appear in any of the 1940s images of the suit. Regarding the suit, I think the problem is that because the Bar suit is seen as a prototype for the 1950s full-skirted silhouette that even in the 1955 Maywald photograph it was styled incorrectly using the incorrect crinolines for skirt fullness. Dior’s models were rail thin (postwar Paris wasn’t the place to put on a few extra pounds…) and the New Look clothes were padded to create those voluptuous shapes. I suspect the petticoats worn under the skirt in 1947 were probably ruffled or gathered around the hips, creating thickness through the abdomen so that the jacket encased the model around the hips better – the models may have even worn hip pads. Maywald’s photo already shows a mid 1950s sensibility with an ‘A’ line to the skirt, and a nipped waist, but also a slim, girdled hipline, so the jacket isn’t filled out around the abdomen. I can’t tell what the V&A did when mounting the dress for the image, but it looks half way between the 1947 shape and the 1955 Maywald photo.

          • Daniel says:

            I’ve examined the V&A suit, although it’s been a while now. (this was before Couture show, so several years ago).The peplum of the jacket is very densely padded, which I remember being quite surprised by. The skirt has inbuilt petticoats/boned waist/padding around the hips too – and weighs an absolute ton. If a replica, it is accurate to the working drawings that were published showing the construction of the Bar skirt at the time.

            Actually, I don’t think the V&A’s Bar suit can be the same one as in the Willy Maynald pic, now I think about the jacket peplums – I don’t think the padding in the V&A jacket would resemble the Maynald picture. If I recall correctly, you’d see a sort of rounded misplaced boob-job effect on the model’s hips if she were wearing the V&A jacket.

          • Daniel says:

            Actually, you can just make out the “breast implants” in the V&A jacket peplum if you know they’re there and what you’re looking for – best way I can describe the padding is like a 18th century false rump.

          • Daniel says:

            http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80002618?img=2 You can also see the same hip-padding in the Met Museum’s pics of their jacket (did you notice it also has six buttons? Maybe it’s the same jacket being worn by the 1947 model – we know Margot Fonteyn had the same vital stats as one of Dior’s models (I can’t remember offhand which one it was – I WANT to say Lucky, but not sure) and could buy clothes literally off that model’s back, including a 1947 “Daisy” suit now in the Fashion Museum, Bath, so I suppose it’s possible that Dior could have done that for other clients too if there was a size match.)

            Sorry to spread this over multiple comments! Anyway, I’m now convinced that neither the jacket or skirt of the V&A suit is that from the Maywald pic, although when that suit was made is a completely separate question.

          • Jonathan says:

            HI Daniel – you should tell the V&A that, because they are the ones that suggested it was the suit from the Maywald image. I agree the skirts don’t look like they match up, but without handling and measuring etc. its really hard to know for sure. But I think you might be onto something!

          • Daniel says:

            For some reason I can’t reply to your last comment. The V&A are pretty careful to put “possibly” after every reference to the remake status so I think they’ve covered their backs on the Collections Online record anyway. (I note they say the Maywald archive says the photograph was taken in 1955.)

          • Jonathan says:

            From what I can tell Maywald didn’t keep very good records and the archivist has dated this image to the 1955 manufacture date of the suit for the lecture given by Dior at the Sorbonne. However, just because the suit may have been made in 1955 doesn’t mean this photo was taken then. I am assuming the V&A received that story about the 1955 manufacture date with the suit when it arrived, in which case its associated provenance – putting ‘possibly’ on the records only covers them in a court of law!

  6. Liz Tregenza says:

    Wow! I cannot believe i did not know about this, I am normally such a stickler for detail. Oops. I had always had questions about those shoes and thought, they look later but dismissed it as them being a strikingly modern pair of shoes for 1947.

    This also relates back to one of my biggest pet hates. Fashion history books using the images that Norman Parkinson took for Cecil Beaton’s 1971 Fashion: An Anthology exhibition as photographs depicting garments when they were originally made. There is o e image featuring Marisa Berenson in a dior ensemble that this is particularly the case for ( I know Lou Taylor mentioned this in one of her books… can’t think whether it was understanding dress history or developments in dress history though)

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  8. Lauren R says:

    Absolutely fascinating! Misconception, indeed! I never thought to question it, but now thanks to you I know the real story. Thank you for posting this!

  9. Miss Meadows says:

    Very interesting! I love Christian Dior’s early designs, and I have seen this pictures MANY times! One of the things that disturbed me a bit though was the fact that I knew the “real” Bar suit had a knife pleated skirt, but that the skirt in this photo doesn’t seem to have so many pleats at all. Now I know why! Thank you! 🙂 xx

  10. Lizzie says:

    You’ve convinced me! This has to be one of the convoluted fashion images ever.

  11. Hello,

    Thank you for delving deeper into this subject. For decades I had always had misgivings about that photo, based pretty much only on the shoes which drove me absolutely crazy every time I saw that photo in a book and labeled as 1947. The shoes were SO not right for late 1940’s, yet even respected sources said they were! I shrugged my shoulders and let it go, but still wondered. A couple of years ago I found out that the photo was indeed taken years later, and I could finally rest about it. But I knew little else of the background of the photo, and now thanks to you I do. Anyone who visits F.I.D.M in Los Angeles, please note that they have a replica of the original bar suit, made by Dior and given as a gift from Marc Bohan to the students/museum at FIDM. I spent about 20 minutes staring at the darn thing, totally entranced at how different it was from “that” photo as I stood drinking in looking at what was, essentially, the “original” bar suit. Astoundingly more beautiful than that adaption in the photo. I enjoy your blog immensely and always learn something new and which often changes my perspective.

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