Inside Christian Dior's "New Look"

 

"I wanted my dresses t be constructed, molded upon the curves of the feminine body, whose sweep they would stylize," Christian Dior proclaimed in his autobiography. This concept was the Paris designer's aim when, in the spring of 1947, he launched a new line of women's clothing that stunned and delighted the rest of the fashionable world. "Corelle," Dior dubbed the line of post-war clothing (naming it after the botanical term for the frail petals at the center of a flower), though fashion magazines in Europe and the U.S. quickly and adeptly nicknamed the Dior collection "The New Look."

It was Dior's belief that women were fed-up with the uniforms and unadorned clothing of WWII. A new lady-like charm was being adopted by post war women--who were mimicking screen idols such as Grace Kelly. The New Look took women back to the more simple, traditional days of their great-grandmothers; Vogue described The New Look as being "from the era of Madame Bovary…wasp-waisted Gibson Girl shirtwaists, pleated or tucked…slow-sloped, easy shoulders…wrapped and bound middles--barrel (almost hobble) skirts--longer, deeply shaped shadow-box décolleté-padded hips…" And while Dior's New Look was received with excitement by post-war women, the Look didn't last past Dior's death in 1957--perhaps because the design proved impractical for the growing number of women; however, the look of the 1950s can certainly be looked upon as a less extreme version of Dior's New Look.

A Peek Inside

If the vintage clothing enthusiast of costumer wishes to re-create The New Look, however, she will be disappointed to discover there no patterns available that re-create a true New Look garment (although, thankfully, the major pattern companies have begun to publish wonderful patterns from the 1950s). So, unless you're fortunate enough to discover a period New Look pattern in your grandmother's attic, you'll need to rely on your own resources to re-create the Look. The first step toward doing so is uncovering patterns that are as similar as possible to the design you wish to re-create.

The most important aspect to look for is basic style lines. For instance, if you want to re-create Dior's famous "Bar" suit, use a circle skirt pattern (not a gored or A-line pattern) as
your basis. Once this is done, an experienced seamstress or dressmaker can alter the existing modern pattern. However, to do so, they'll need to know as much as possible about how Dior created those exaggerated hour-glass style lines.
 


Sloping Shoulders
The New Look transformed the square shoulders of the war era into more feminine, soft, sloping shoulders, inspired by pre-Civil War fashions. In nearly all Dior designs, this look was achieved by the use of shoulder pads. Today, modern shoulder pads should be home made or re-cut to achieve a sloped look. Sometimes, drop shoulders, like those seen in early Victorian fashions, were also used.

Tiny Waists
Once essential ingredient needed for New Look fashions is a corset-though the fashion magazines of the period preferred to call them the more exotic term "guepieres."

Dior's own corset (famous for taking inches of the waist) was named "the waspie;" this new version of the Victorian corset was five or six inches deep, made of rigid fabric with elastic inserts, and contained boning and back-lacing. Generally, all corsets of the era were described by fashion magazines as "super-light weight" and were advertised as containing feather boning. Such corsets were worn well cinched at the waist, and were usually worn over a panty- or roll-on girdle.

In addition to the use of corsets, Dior frequently lined the waists of his skirts and dresses with feather boning. For women who
could only afford to buy the mass-produced version of The New Look, Vogue suggested the use of a "waist-liner," which was a strip of muslin or seam binding with boning sewn into it, which Vogue said gave "a thin strip of indentation about [the] waist, and could be sewn into each…dress…"

Full Hips

By themselves, "waspies" and other post-war era corsets added some fullness to the hip area, but Dior didn't rely upon natural plumpness to achieve the full hips his designs called for. All his designs required some sort of added fullness to the hip area--either with padding, or modern farthingales and bustles.

                           

Dior's suits contained padding at the hips to achieve an ever more exaggerated hour-glass look. Dior added flounces or peplums (usually made of gathers or tucks) to the back of all his suit tops. Further, nearly all his skirts had built in back flounces (similar to the smaller built-in bustles of the Victorian era); these were usually pieces of taffeta, organza, or some other stuff fabric gathered tightly at one end and sewn to the center back of the skirt at the waist.

Separate bustle or farthingale-like garments could also be worn to further enhance the figure. These were also made of stiff material and gathered tightly, although they were often made of several layers and were worn all around the waist-not just at the back. Such garments were frequently sewn to a fabric belt and buttoned at the waist.

Full Busts

The "waspie" and other New Look corsets also accentuated the bust somewhat, but most women wearing The Look also used push-up bras to help fill out their bust line. Some of these newly invented push-up bras also contained rubber padding. Women who needed further help were told by fashion magazines to sew a taffeta or acetate ruffle to the bust line of their bra.

Full Skirts

The number one item Dior used to make his long (twelve inches or less from the ground) skirts stand full was another borrowed Victorian item: The New Look petticoat, reminiscent of early Victorian petticoats. Most New Look petticoats were made of stuff nylon, taffeta, or horsehair net. Most often they had a fitted hip yolk leading to several smooth layers of netting that ended with a few ruffles. In order to avoid snags in nylon stockings, Dior ingeniously softened the bottom ruffles of his petticoats with eyelet.

Some New Look petticoats copied Victorian fashion even further by the addition of hoops-but this practice never gained much popularity since the hoops had an annoying way of tilting--revealing a little more than their Victorian counterparts because of shorter skirt lengths. New Look fashion followers also favored petticoats in brightly colored shades (especially red and green) just like their Victorian ancestors.

              

 

True Dior designs were also marked with incredible built-in support--which spin-offs never were able to achieve. Dior's full skirts were interlined with stiffened muslin and lined with taffeta or acetate. In addition, his skirt hems were lined with stiffened muslin or calico (usually brightly colored in case a flip of the skirt revealed the lining) in order to hold out the hem. A new product called Pellon (now a popular home-sewer's interfacing) was also sometimes sewn in to hold skirts out.

If Dior's skirts and dresses were not full, they were nearly skin-tight. New Look jackets, tightly fitted to the figure, were lined with acetate and muslin to help stiffen and support the outer fashion fabric. Dior's right, long skirts were given strong linings in order to ward off "seating." Mass-produced skirts were usually sold without linings and therefore women wore straight, firm underskirts made of taffeta or acetate under them. In addition, right skirts were frequently made with back walking slits or had pleats or gathers at the back in order to make walking easier.

Evening Dresses

Evening dresses were generally built in the same manner day clothes were; however, the new strapless evening gown required extra support. "Merry Widows" first appeared in The New Look era and were helpful in pushing up the bust and trimming down the waist, but many of Dior's gowns contained built-in feather boning to hold strapless gowns up.

 

If re-created accurately, New Look garments should nearly stand up by themselves; the interlining, linings, interfacings, bonings, and stiffenings Dior used all but supported his garments on their own. Of course, not every woman was fortunate enough to won and wear true Dior clothing. Mass-produced items (which contained less foundation and support) were worn by most women of the post-war era. Unfortunately, neither original Dior designs or spin offs are easily found in vintage clothing shops and shows today. It's a rare treat to find a New Look garment in an auction, and when they are found, collectors generally pay $4,000 and up for Dior's early creations. While regular Christie's and Sotheby's buyers may be able to fit such purchases into their budgets, most of us will have to settle for the next best thing: A new Look "look alike garment."

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(c) 1992 by Kristina Harris

 


04/22/2006