Oppulence, femininity and feminism: celebrating 70 years of Christian Dior

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Harriet Hall
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Christian Dior is one of the most esteemed names in the world of luxury fashion. Founded on 16 December 1946 by the eponymous haute-couturier, from the very off the name Dior has been synonymous with glamour and femininity. Throughout the decades, the house has broken boundaries whilst also maintaining a staunch fondness for tradition, producing breath-taking fairytale couture gowns that celebrate and embrace the female figure. On the house’s 70th birthday, Stylist’s Harriet Hall charts five defining moments of the brand’s history.

1947: The New Look

Unveiled as the ‘Corolle’ line on 12 February 1947, Dior’s first-ever collection for Spring/Summer became one of the most pivotal moments in dress history.

Dubbed ‘The New Look’ by fashion journalists, the collection symbolised a return to historicised romanticism and femininity in dress, following the strict fabric regulations and rationing of war time.

The look, exemplified in the ‘Bar Suit’ of the collection, laid emphasis on the curves of the female form, nipping in at the waist and flowing out at the hips in a peplum, over full, large skirts that waved goodbye to the straight, utilitarian lines of the wartime silhouette.

But – gender roles following the war were a contentious issue, and the New Look sharply divided female opinion.

For some, the line symbolised a return to Belle Epoque visions of subservient femininity, with its corseting and seemingly impractical wide skirts. Chanel, in particular, denounced Dior for creating such a cumbersome ensemble, saying “How, dressed in ‘that thing’, could they come and go, live or anything?” Protestors in Chicago held up slogans that read: “Mr. Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor”. Others, meanwhile, deemed it tasteless for a designer to offer a dress that required such large yardage of fabric so soon after the end of rationing, and street vendors were reported to have torn the dresses off models in the streets of Paris.

But others adored the New Look, hailing it as a return to femininity after the utilitarian sartorial styles of the war. The abundance of fabric was considered a celebration following years of austerity. And, more than anything, supporters were thrilled that the look marked the return of Paris as the ruler of fashion, following the reign of American Sportswear during the war. Dior himself wasn’t fussed by the criticisms, saying: “I would rather receive a pounding in three columns on the front page than get two lines of congratulation somewhere on the inside.”

Whatever people’s opinions, the look was wildly successful, leading to a visible change across across the board, and defining the silhouette of the fifties.

Within two years of launching, Dior was dominating Parisian fashion exports, and went on to dominate Hollywood, too. Marlene Dietrich requested he dress her for her role in Hitchcock’s 1950 picture, Stage Fright, and he went on to dress stars from Sophia Loren to Elizabeth Taylor. To this day, Dior is a red carpet staple.

1957-1960: Yves Saint Laurent’s Trapeze

Christian Dior died suddenly of a heart attack in 1957, aged only 52, and his replacement was to become one of the most esteemed names in fashion history.

Algerian Yves Saint Laurent, aged only 21, had been working for the house in a junior role when he took over as Artistic Director. His first collection for the house for Spring ’58 was a resounding success and saved the company from the brink of financial ruin.

Called the ‘Trapeze line’, it was a softer take on the New Look that continued the wide skirt, but removed the nipped-in waist, presenting a strong A-line silhouette created by precise darting and expert craftsmanship.

Other items in the collection saw narrow-shouldered dresses with gently flared skirts. In contrast to Dior’s own work, Saint Laurent’s was minimalist and removed most decorative features. Soon enough, everyone was wearing the style: a pre-cursor to the simple shift dresses of the 1960s.

Unfortunately, after the resounding success of the Trapeze, Saint Laurent’s later collections for the house were not met with the same approval, with one collection showing skirts so tight around the knees they became laughed off as ‘hobble skirts’ by the media.

Another collection, the ‘Beatnik line’ of Spring 1960, shocked the Dior staff and alarmed the press. Consisting of biker jackets and turtlenecks inspired by popular street styles, the brand felt the designer had misunderstood their target audience.

But, just as Dior before him, Saint Laurent brushed off the criticism, saying: “indignation is a good sign, it means fashion is alive and well.” And his savvy awareness of what was happening on the streets foretold of the future bubbling up of trends from the sidewalk to the catwalk.

Saint Laurent left Dior when he was conscripted for military service in Algeria in 1960.

1996-2011: John Galliano’s theatricality

In 1996, Gibraltan designer, John Galliano, took over from Gianfranco Ferré as creative director of the house.

Having been inspired by his revamp at Givenchy, where he revolutionised the old order brand, turning it into a fashion powerhouse, LVMH wanted him to do the same at Dior.

And they weren’t disappointed.

Galliano’s’ theatrical and flamboyant designs made the move controversial for an established Parisian brand, but he injected just the right amount of controversy into Dior, breathing life back into it.

His carefully crafted designs took inspiration from history, combining old with new and amalgamating the styles of different cultures celebrating sensual femininity – with an “aim to seduce” as he once said. His catwalk shows rejected tradition and became spectacle.

His first collection for the house for AW97 included Chinoiserie, African-inspired necklaces and lingerie-inspired bias-cut slip dresses. The latter sparked a decade-long trend for slip dresses as outerwear (which have proved popular again in recent months).

Both his Haute Couture and ready-to-wear collections received great praise. Galliano also hung out with the cool cliques, boasting Kate Moss as one of his nearest and dearest, and was supported strongly by Anna Wintour.

Galliano was let go by the brand following an anti-Semitic rant by the designer at a bar in Paris in 2011.

2012-2015: Raf Simons’ minimalist femininity

In 2012, Belgian designer Raf Simons was announced as the new head of Dior.

Another controversial appointment by the brand that had become known for keeping the industry on its toes, Simons was known for his minimal aesthetic – a far cry from the opulent theatricality of Galliano.

Previously at sportswear brand, Jil Sander, Simons cited avant-garde designers Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela as influences.

His first collection was the couture collection, which – already a challenge for a ready-to-wear designer – was a tall order, with a mere eight-week deadline. Documented in Frédéric Tcheng’s beautiful ode to fashion, the documentary Dior and I, Simons poured his heart, and passion for contemporary art into the collection was met with huge critical acclaim.

Simons brought a new modernism to Dior, combining references to classic Dior (such as a tuxedo jacket recalling the shape of the New Look ‘Bar jacket’ and fifties-style ballgowns) with a streamlined, pared-back silhouette. He managed to seamlessly remain true to the brand’s history whilst putting his own stamp upon it.

Simons even referenced the late couturier’s fondness for flowers in his set for the catwalk show, which saw floor to ceiling walls of fresh flowers in block colours in each different room of the salon – over a million blooms.

This new moment in the brand’s history attracted celebrity fans including Jennifer Lawrence – who was soon hired as the face of the label – Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o.  And Dior’s profits soared.

2016: Maria Grazia Chiuri’s feminist statement

2016 marked a real milestone in Dior’s history. Following the departure of Simons in 2015, the fashion world was on tenterhooks as to who would replace the outgoing designer.

In July 2016, eight months after Simons left, the brand announced its first-ever female creative director: Maria Grazia Chiuri. Previously at Valentino, Chiuri was the designer behind the studded shoes that drove the fashion world wild, and was also on the team that created the iconic Fendi baguette.

To mark the momentous occasion and celebrate the movement of the moment, Chiuri’s debut collection for Spring/Summer 2017 shouted loud and proud about feminism. The designer put models down the runway in T-shirts that sported slogans reading: We should all be feminists – in reference to Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk. Adichie was even in the audience.

The milestone of a woman heading up one of the most influential fashion houses in the world, not only received praise, but sighs of relief as a woman finally headed one of the most important womenswear brands in the world.

Chiuri made a real statement – with T-shirts that read Dio (R) evolution, using Beyonce’s Flawless as the soundtrack, and putting her models in trainers instead of stilettos – a nod to the trend kicked off by Phoebe Philo. The entire collection was defiant, seeing women in leather and fencing jackets, ready for action.

Taking a turn away from the house’s traditional red carpet glamour, Chiuri’s collection did as Saint Laurent, and took inspiration from the streets – with models in nineties-revival chokers and Calvin Klein-inspired labelled waistbands on underwear and dress straps.

But it wasn’t all new – of course – Chiuri referenced Dior’s big hitters, with sheer feminine tulle skirts and the ‘J’adore Dior’ slogan, snuck onto shoe straps and handbags.

Whomever is at the helm, Dior remains one of the world’s most influential and vital fashion houses.