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Essay: Christian Dior's Revolutionary Fashion: from New Look To Raf Simons' Design

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  • Published: 1 January 2021*
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In 1947, Christian Dior became a revolution after World War II, after he founded his haute couture empire the year before. He designed a collection which included ballerina-length skirts, narrow shoulders, hand-span waists, embroidery, beading and silk which came to be known as the New Look (Grant, 2007). It was a revelation of beauty and luxury with long, full, fluid skirts, cinched-in waists and soft shoulders (Palmer, 2009) the anthiesis of militaristic wartime fashions. Dior designed for two types of women; the ‘sophisticated’ women and the ‘ingénue’. The ‘sophisticated’ who has always been the erotic object and a “historically based figure” and also known as a “clandestine prostitute” or a woman who was above or divorced from the daily duties of housewifery (Palmer, 2009). The dresses designed for the ‘sophisticated’ women were commonly detailed, long and well structured (see Figure 4).

The second woman Dior designed for was the sweet ‘ingénue’, who are young Frenchwomen who represented new knowledge (Palmer, 2009), as well as linked to new technology and promised a good and modern future. Dresses for the ‘ingénue’ were shorter and fuller, this gives the dresses created a fresh and young feel (see Figure 5).

Christian Dior’s collections were not well received as protesters criticised Dior as his designs shocked those who suffered after the war. It became a shock when society found that Dior began to use excessive amount of materials to design for just societies wealthiest woman’s (Dior, 1957) when food and goods were still being highly rationed. Women believed that long skirts appeared old-fashioned and represented a backwards step for women who worked during the war, therefore held place-cards which wrote words such as ‘We Abhor Dresses to the Floor’ and ‘Christian Dior Go Home’ (Dior, 1957) (see Figure 6).

Christian Dior dubbed wartime fashions as “hideous” (Dior, 1957), during this time women’s fashion was made from simple materials and based on wartime uniform and did not highlight a woman’s figure. In Dior’s autobiography (1957), he said that hats were too big, skirts too short and jackets too long. Dior put an end to an austere and masculine style and replaced it with a return to triumphant femininity (Benaïm and Müller, 2015). Dior elevated the beauty of the feminine figure with vivid swirling lines which celebrated a seductive power when he launched his first couture collection. His extravagant dresses concentrated on the body shape of a mannequin and Carmel Snow from Harpers Bazaar dubbed the style as the ‘New Look’. The New Look focused on Dior’s obsession with flowers (Chenoune, 2013), rather than the shapeless dresses that we’re being worn at the time. Dior put emphasis on highlighting the waist by excess layering of materials, so it exaggerated the hourglass curves; which also shows a flower like shape the waist being the stem and skirt the petals (see Figure 7).

Christian Dior’s debut couture collection ‘Corolle’ was highly inspired by the reign of Louis XIV. The foundations used within his collection such as the focus on the fullness of the hips and tightness of the waist was common in the 14th century fashions (Koda, 1996). Dior described it as ‘neo-Louis XIV’. Throughout his career, Dior used materials that pleated, draped, corseted and decorated effects from the Belle Époque. Dior avoided the domination of a single style in order to free himself to adopt all possible reinterpretations of the past (Pujalet-Plaà, n.d.) this led him to develop diverse ways to expand hemlines by using farthingales, panniers, bum-rolls and petticoats.

Petticoats and farthingales were used to expand the hips and naval area, although farthingales were stiffer and made from materials like whalebone, metal, buckram, wire and cane (Koda, 2001). Farthingales showed a “conical silhouette” (Koda, 2001) and gave the skirt and stiff and structured shape (see Figure 8). Pannier hoop was developed in the late 1700’s and was made from wood, metal or cane to form a cage which formed a dome underneath the skirt to keep it expanded. Bum-rolls was then developed and produced to hold out the skirt which was a thick, bolster-like bustle’ that tied around the waist (Koda, 2001). Dior includes all these elements from pass dress history into his collections; wide skirts included panniers and petticoats underneath the material (see Figure 9), his corsets copied the bodices worn by Marie Antoinette (see Figure 10) was widely used throughout his career and can be seen in his ‘Corolle’ collection. The use of bodices and corsets made sure that waists looked slim and synched.  

In 2012, Raf Simons took the role of creative director for Dior. After his three previous ready-to-wear collections hinted Simons’ interest in couture shapes and mid-century modernist designs – the period when Dior was founded (Fox, 2012). Although people were apprehensive to Simons’ joining Dior, the New York Times critic, Cathy Horyn explains that “Raf wasn’t the obvious candidate… people said, ‘oh he’s a minimalist’” (Dior and I, 2014). He managed to adapt to the Dior tradition and intergrade his previous studies as an industrial designer.

The S/S 2012 collection shows a noble example of Simons’ taking influence from Dior’s past historical context in his own creations. This first piece of design focuses on the ‘ingénue’ woman. This short dress includes a wire pannier underneath which was also used in past history to form this silhouette (see Figure 11). The pannier expands the hemline, making the skirt fuller. The top of this dress is inspired by the Bar Jacket (see Figure 10), the waist is tightened with a belt rather than a corset giving it the same silhouette that accentuates the hips. This shows that Simons’ can adapt the heritage of the brand and able to challenge the design.

This design also conveys Dior’s love for flowers as you see it creates the illusion of a flower when turned upside down. This design is unique and light, Palmer (2009) states that the ‘ingénue’ was known for representing new technologies and this is evident in Simons’ own work as new technologies has been used to create this see-through dress. In this design Simons’ used his past influences and has kept this design minimalist by using only black, white and straight lines and no extravagant detail. It focuses on geometric shapes the way the dress is cut and layered.

The second piece of design is focused the ‘sophisticated’ women and uses a corset to define the waist to again accentuate wider hips and longer legs (see Figure 12). You can tell that in this design a pannier or a petticoat was used to keep the dress wide and full. The fabric coats over each layer also making the top by the hips to look larger and gives the dress more volume to form this silhouette. The use of red for this garment emphasises that the ‘sophisticated’ women is sexy and erotic and Simons’ conveyed Dior’s passion for flowers and the female body by creating his designs to show flower like silhouettes by focusing on small waists and wider hips. In this collection, Simons’ merges his own style by keeping it minimal and not using a lot of embellishment which Dior would have used.

To conclude, Simons is able to interpret the two types of Dior women effectively using cut and colour. The red brings out a sexy, ‘sophisticated’ woman, whilst the short, white dress indicates a young, fresh ‘ingénue’ woman. Simons includes Dior’s personal inspirations; his love for the female body and flowers by creating garments with flower-like silhouettes which accentuates small waists and wider hips. Simons was able to include his own style into his designs in this collection by keeping it minimal by using less embellishments and not too much colour.

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