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┬áin 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: