Christian Dior

Christian Dior books and biography

Christian Dior

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Christian Dior (January 21, 1905 – October 23, 1957), was an influential French fashion designer. He was born in Granville, Manche, Normandy, France.

Dior boutiques can be found in numerous cities around the country with their main flagship stores in New York, Beverly Hills, Waikiki, Boston, and San Francisco


Early life

Under his parents' wishes he attended his parents Ecole des Sciences Politiques from 1923 to 1926. The family had hopes he would become a diplomat, but Dior only wished to be involved in the arts. After leaving school he received money from his father so that in 1928 he could open a small art gallery in Paris. Under his father's compromise for the money, the family name did not appear on the gallery. The walls were covered with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Max Jacob. After a family disaster he was forced to shut down the gallery. In 1929 Dior had a son that he named John Christian Dior. In the 1930s Dior made a living by doing sketches for Haute Couture Houses. In 1938 he worked with Robert Piguet. In 1945 he designed for Marcel Boussac. Boussac, a man who had made his fortune from fabric, was interested in Dior's new idea that involved using lots of layers of extravagant fabrics. Dior's first collection, Corolle Line, premiered in 1947. He established his main fashion house in 1949; Christian Dior New York, Inc.

The New Look

The actual phrase the "New Look" was coined by the powerful editor-in-chief of Harpers Bazaar, Carmel Snow. Dior's hello voluptuous than the boxy shapes of the recent World War 2 styles. Dior is quoted as saying "I have designed flower women." His look employed fabrics lined predominantly with percale, boned, bustier-style bodices, hip padding, wasp-waisted corsets and petticoats that made his dresses flare out from the waist giving his models a very curvaceous form. The hem of the skirt was very flattering on the calves and ankles, giving a beautiful silhouette. At first, there was some backlash to Dior's genius form because of the amount of fabrics used in a single dress or suit, but as soon as the wartime shortages came to an end, opposition ceased. His designs represented consistent classic elegance, stressing the feminine look. The New Look revolutionized women's dress and reestablished Paris as the center of the fashion world after World War 2.

The Dior years

The New Look was absolutely appropriate for the post-war era. Dior was correct in assuming that people wanted something new after years of war, brutality and hardship. His new look was reminiscent of the Belle Epoque ideal of long skirts, tiny waists and beautiful fabrics that his mother had worn in the early 1900s. Such a traditional concept of femininity also suited the political agenda. Women had been mobilised during the war to work on farms and in factories while the men were away fighting. In peacetime, those women were expected to return to passive roles as housewives and mothers, leaving their jobs free for the returning soldiers. The official paradigm of post-war womanhood was a capable, caring housewife who created a happy home for her husband and children. Dior’s flower women fit the bill perfectly.

His couture house was inundated with orders. Rita Hayworth picked out an evening gown for the première of her new movie, Gilda. The ballerina Margot Fonteyn bought a suit. Dior put Paris back on the fashion map. The US couture clients came back in force for the autumn 1947 collections, and Dior was invited to stage a private presentation of that season’s show for the British royal family in London, although King George VI forbade the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret from wearing the New Look lest it set a bad example at a time when rationing was still in force for the general public.

Behind the scenes, Jacques Rouët built up the Dior business. The old Paris couture houses were small operations making bespoke clothes for private clients. Some couturiers had diversified into other products, notably Chanel and Jean Patou into perfume, and Elsa Schiaparelli into hosiery. Rouët realised that the future lay in diversifying further afield into more products and international markets. Eager to capitalise on the publicity generated by the New Look, he opened a fur subsidiary and a ready-to-wear boutique on New York’s Fifth Avenue as well as launching a Dior perfume, named Miss Dior with the US market in mind.

Christian Dior too had sound commercial instincts. When a US hosiery company offered Rouët the then-enormous fee of $10,000 for the rights to manufacture Dior stockings, the couturier proposed waiving the fee in favour of a percentage of the product’s sales, thereby introducing the royalty payment system to fashion. Dior’s approach to design was equally pragmatic. Resisting the temptation to experiment, he adhered to his luxurious look with the structured silhouette of padding, starch and corsets, which was so flattering to his middle-aged clients. So conservative were those clients that when Dior called a suit the “Jean-Paul Sartre” in honour of the radical philosopher, no one bought it, and he stuck to ‘safer’ names in future. He even adhered to the same commercial formula for each collection: one third new, one third adaptations of familiar styles and one third proven classics.

The newly wealthy Dior bought an old mill near Fontainebleau outside Paris and a flower farm at Montauroux in the heart of Provence, where he could potter around with Bobby, his dog, and indulge his love of art, antiques and gardening. Still shy, he left socialising to Suzanne Luling, his vivacious sales director, and he grew even more superstitious with age. Every collection included a coat called the “Granville”, named after his birthplace. At least one model wore a bunch of his favourite flower, lily of the valley, and Dior never began a couture show without having consulted his tarot card reader.

Throughout the 1950s, Christian Dior was the biggest and best-run haute couture house in Paris. The closest rivals were Pierre Balmain, and the enigmatic Spanish designer, Cristobál Balenciaga. Yet neither had the same support structure as Dior who, as well as Jacques Rouët and Suzanne Luling, had the “three muses” who worked with him on the collections: Raymonde Zehnmacker who ran the studio; Marguerite Carré, head of the workrooms; and Mitza Bricard, the glamorous hat designer and chief stylist.

The house was run along rigidly hierarchical lines. Each of the vendeuses, or sales assistants, had her own clients with whom she was expected to nurture friendly relationships. The ateliers, or workrooms, were staffed by seamstresses, many of whom had worked there since leaving school. During the twice-yearly haute couture shows in late January and early August, some 2,500 people filed in and out of the Dior salons to see the new collections. Each show included up to two hundred outfits and lasted as long as two and a half hours. The models, or mannequins as they were called, came from the same privileged backgrounds as the clients and were hired in different shapes and sizes to show how the clothes would look on different women.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, May 11, 1962. Mrs. Kennedy wears candy pink silk-dupioni shantung gown designed by Guy Douvier for Christian Dior.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, May 11, 1962. Mrs. Kennedy wears candy pink silk-dupioni shantung gown designed by Guy Douvier for Christian Dior.

The biggest clients were North American: Hollywood stars, New York socialites and department store buyers who bought the exclusive rights to individual designs to be made up by their own seamstresses. Marshall Fields, the Chicago store, had nine couture workshops and a marble-lined salon, “The 28 Shop”. Discount clothing chains, like Ohrbach’s, were allowed to attend the shows on condition that they bought a minimum number of outfits, which they were then allowed to copy stitch for stitch into “knock-off” lines.

As the most prestigious Paris couture house, Dior attracted the most talented assistants. One was Pierre Cardin, an Italian-born tailor who was Dior’s star assistant in the late 1940s before leaving to begin his own business. Another was Yves Saint Laurent, a gifted young Algeria-born designer who joined in 1955 as the star graduate of the Chambre Syndicale fashion school. As timid as Dior himself, the young Saint Laurent flourished in the feminine atmosphere of the couture house and contributed thirty-five outfits for the autumn 1957 collection. When all the fittings for the collection were finished, Dior took off for a rest cure at his favourite spa town of Montecatini in northern Italy hoping to lose weight in order to impress a young lover.

Ten days later Dior died of a heart attack after choking on a fishbone at dinner. The French newspaper Le Monde hailed him as a man who was “identified with good taste, the art of living and refined culture that epitomises Paris to the outside world”. Marcel Boussac sent his private plane to Montecatini to bring Dior’s body back to Paris. Some 2,500 people attended his funeral including all his staff and famous clients led by the Duchess of Windsor.

External Links

  • J'Adore Dior

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