The New Look in Vogue

Condé Nast Archive

Examining the origins and importance of Christian Dior’s hourglass silhouette, 70 years after its debut. By Laird Borrelli-Persson

Paris, and fashion, received a heartwarming early Valentine on February 12, 1947.

The sender was an unlikely Cupid named Christian Dior. What he delivered was a romantic, rounded silhouette, based on a flower, which was dubbed the New Look.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Dior’s history-making debut collection was its timing. Dior’s hothouse imaginings—he drew “femmes-fleurs,” the designer would later say—were introduced during fraught times.

Postwar Paris, still under rationing, was in the process of getting back on its feet and rediscovering its voice. The weather, moreover, was proving no ally to recovery: The Spring collections were presented during the worst winter in Europe since 1870. In those circumstances, Dior’s triumph took on mythic proportions.

“The opening of Christian Dior's new Paris couture house,” noted Vogue in its April 1947 issue, “not only presented an extraordinarily beautiful collection; it gave the French couture a new assurance in its own abilities; and because the luxury trades are economic necessity in France, Dior's flashing success was, in Paris, more than fashion. It was on a par with current political and economic news. Here—once again—things were done on a grand scale.”

Dior himself was an unlikely hero. No young buck, he was 42 when, backed by the textile magnate Marcel Boussac, he founded his own house. Gentle-mannered and jowly, Dior, a child of privilege, had been a gallerist before turning to fashion. In 1945 Vogue noted that he was working alongside Pierre Balmain chez Lucien Lelong.

Despite his mild appearance, Dior had an unbending vision and strength of will, qualities that were the bedrock of his empire, one in which past and present coexisted. "The maintenance of the tradition of fashion is in the nature of an act of faith,” the designer said. “It is the outward sign of an ancient civilization, which intends to survive.”

The past was very much alive in Dior’s nostalgic New Look, despite its appellation.

Reviewing the show, Vogue described this “Paris sensation; his new silhouette” as “the market-woman shape, a direct steal from the heavily padded canvas-stiffened skirts the women wear in Les Halles near Notre Dame.”

His hats, the magazine noted, borrowed from “the era of Madame Bovary.” The New Look’s corseted curves might have recalled, too, Dior’s embellished memories of his Belle Epoque maman.

Dior’s New Look was not sui generis, but connected to more recent history.

His securely corseted looks picked up a thread left dangling since 1939, the year that Horst P. Horst took one of the most famous images ever to appear in Vogue—of a partially laced Mainbocher corset, seen on a model, with her head down and shadowed and her back to the viewer.

“It was the last photograph I took in Paris before the war,” Horst would later say. “We all felt that war was coming...This photograph is peculiar—for me, it is the essence of that moment. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.”

The New Look also reflected postwar developments in fashion. Vogue categorized the Spring 1947 season as one in which designers made “new use of fashion themes that have been crystallizing for seasons past, and which now look fresh and inviting.”

In fact, in its May 1945 issue, the magazine had published a piece titled “What’s the New Look in Paris? It’s ‘hanché’—full-figured, definitely hippy.” These antecedents are mentioned only to give a place Dior’s singular achievement.

The New Look, suggested Vogue at the time, was “the most legible fashion change in over a decade.”

Three years later, the magazine summed up its (symbolic) importance, imagining the silhouette being worn by a woman named Centura. “Nowhere about her is a trace of skimp or skeleton to be seen. Her bosom, her shoulders, and her hips are round, her waist is tiny as her grandmother’s, her skirt’s bulk suggests fragile, feminine legs beneath. By these means, she and Christian Dior announce to the world that peace is at hand, and parsimony past, and every woman’s a woman again.”

In Dior’s hands, a dress was more than a dress; with the New Look, the designer gave form to his stated belief that “fashion is one of the last repositories of the marvellous.”

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