LIFE With Dior: Rare Photos From the Birth of the ‘New Look,’ 1948
In March 1948, LIFE introduced its readers to a pioneering French fashion designer and what the magazine called his “revolutionary” vision. The monsieur in question was none other than (in writer Jeanne Perkins marvelous characterization) “a timid, middle-aged, insignificant-looking little Frenchman named Christian Dior,” and the fashion earthquake he unleashed was, LIFE informed America, something called, simply and unforgettably, the “New Look.”
Here, LIFE.com offers not only a glimpse back at a seminal moment in fashion history, but presents pictures (some that appeared in the magazine, many that have never been published before) by some of LIFE’s finest photographers, taken at a Dior show in Paris in 1948, when the New Look was all the rage and a timid, middle-aged, insignificant-looking little Frenchman astonished and thrilled the couture world.
Below is an abridged version of the article that ran in the March 1, 1948, issue of LIFE, beneath the headline, “DIOR,” and the enticing blurb: “I know well the women,” says the shy little Frenchman who made the New Look and is now on top of the fashion world.
“Like most dramas involving an entire social upheaval,” Perkins wrote, “the New Look revolution has had many villains (or heroes, depending on one’s point of view). But the main one is … named Christian Dior, who would be instantly picked by anyone familiar with whodunits as the character least likely to be suspected. M Dior, who looks extraordinarily like a Kewpie doll, is short, round, bald; wears dark dowdy, unpressed suits, office-worker ties and shirts and pointed shoes. One of New York’s fashion sophisticates, after first meeting M. Dior in America a few months ago, remarked, ‘I’d been waiting for this chic, dashing character, and what do I find? A French undertaker.’
“The first results of the Dior insurrection,” LIFE went on, “had, in fact, frankly appalled M. Dior himself. At his Paris opening last year, besieged by a shrieking throng of reporters, editors and buyers, he had been heard to murmur, ‘My God, what have I done?’ Dior had, in fact, begun the third fashion revolution of the 20th Century. Paul Poiret had revolutionized women’s clothes in 1910, Gabrielle Chanel had staged the next uprising after World War I. In February 1947 Christian Dior ushered in the New Look.”
All three of these revolutionaries, LIFE argued, “managed to uproot the current style and replace it with their own by following the basic axiom which has been the source of every major style change in history: study the fundamental trends of your time and then go against them.”
Dior, it seemed, “follows the same profound rule. Now that fabrics are scarce and finances shaky in many countries, he launches styles requiring extravagant yardage and luxurious fabrics. The obvious fact that it makes no sense only proves the logic of fashion.”
Like all great revolutionists, Christian Dior is a creature of destiny. He did not create the New Look single-handed. But he appeared at the psychological moment as its man on plush horseback. As far back as the late 1930s Martha Graham’s modern ballet troupe was wearing the knee-covering, bosom-exposing garments currently featured as the New Looks. In 1941 Harper’s Bazaar solemnly warned its readers: ‘Watch your skirt length. If this longer skirt length looks right to you, you’re a woman of the future.’ … Dior senses this situation (‘I know very well the women’). He also senses that the time was exactly ripe to convert these minority manifestations into a powerful mass movement…
Although scarcely anyone had ever heard of him before last year, Christian Dior had been a minor league figure in Paris dress business, on and off, since 1936. About a year and a half ago, with backing from a French gambler and millionaire named Marcel Boussac, he left a job as one of Lucien Lelong’s numerous assistants to open his own dress shop — a fine old mansion on the Avenue Montaigne, a few steps away from the Champs Elysées. He plunged lavishly, staking everything on a single throw. For four months 85 decorators and painters labored to produce an atmosphere of discreet elegance unequaled in any existing Paris salon de couture. When the setting was ready, Dior retired to his little country house near Fontainbleau and meditated for a week. He returned from his lonely vigil, his pockets stuffed with 300 designs scrawled on odd bits of paper.
“I’m a mild man,” Dior says, “but I have violent tastes.” Violent tastes were precisely what the situation demanded. Dior went all-out for his new line. His narrow waists became as much as 2 inches narrower by means of specially installed corsets. His low necks were so low that they barely stopped at the waist. Other designers might sidle up to old-fashioned femininity and romance; Dior tackled it headlong. In contrast to the tentative experiments of previous progressives, Dior’s cloths constituted a complete turnabout.
“Three weeks ago,” LIFE concluded, “the new spring showing of Dior models opened in Paris…. ‘Chalk up another fast one for Christian Dior,’ exhorted WNBC’s Peter Roberts. ‘Yesterday he let the world in on his ideas for 1948. And the folks who should know were betting dollars to oughuts he was going to lengthen skirts a little more. But friend Dior … shortened skirts! Not much — but shortened. Just one inch …’”