The New Look before 1947

I love this picture of Elsie de Wolfe’s party in Paris from July 1939 because it shows how the postwar ‘New Look’ silhouette was already underway before the war stymied style and forced a different direction in fashion for the duration of the conflict:

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:

Forties Fashion – From Siren Suits to the New Look

(Originally blogged October 29, 2008)

Cover of English language edition

Forgive the blatant self-promotion with this post as I herald the release date of my latest book. I have always found the Second World War a fascinating topic but our connection to that period of history dissipates as that generation passes away. Although I came from a family who were too old or too young for military service, their wartime stories never bored me. An aunt who had married a Norwegian ship captain was caught by the unexpected Nazi invasion of Norway and ended up living most of the war in a ski cabin while her husband worked for the underground. A great aunt, who had worked as a nurse during the Great War, was living in Honolulu when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred; she volunteered her services to help the injured sailors. My father, who was a teenager at the time, worked in the kitchens of a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers who were labouring as lumberjacks in Northern Ontario for the duration.

Cover of French language edition

My calling is fashion history, so rather than write a general book about World War II, my interest is in uncovering the story of fashion during the war. What I felt was lacking was a book that showed how civilian fashions varied because of wartime restrictions in designs and materials. The war experience differed according to who and where you were – women in Paris, London, Berlin, and New York were dressing in different ways because of how the war was affecting them and which materials they were limited to using.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to the postwar reconstruction of the fashion industry and how the New Look myth was born. I was never a fan of the New Look gospel. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly admire Christian Dior’s work, but his 1947 silhouette was not the earth shattering revelation as is often reported.

The book uses original garments, period fashion illustrations, and accounts from those who were there to bring to life the varied experiences of fashion in a time of crisis. I hope you enjoy the book and make it a Christmas gift to all your friends!

Some nice reviews: