« The Essence of Couture », Florence Müller

Extracts from the book.

Arik Nepo, dress from the Fall-Winter, 1948 Haute Couture collection, Ailée line
Vogue Paris, october 1948
© Arik Nepo / Vogue Paris

The beginning of the Dior saga paved the way for the most extraordinary epic in the history of Haute Couture. Bearing the promise of a bright new fashion future, Christian Dior was perceived by the world as a hero of the postwar period, a Frenchman of even greater renown than General de Gaulle. Invited to tour the United States in 1947, he was fervently welcomed by the Americans who saw in him the “product of three centuries of elegance that run back to the reign of Louis XVI. At a time of rationing and shortages, the fashion world was languishing, no longer sparking desire or inspiring change. Christian Dior brought a breath of fresh air, the hope of a better world where women would be free to make themselves beautiful and attractive. […]

Henri Cartier-Bresson, model Alla having the May dress fitted before the fashion show, 1953
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Christian Dior gave a similar boost to French Haute Couture in 1947. His vision of elegance found expression in a profusion of new forms, materials and adornments. He called a successful design “a veritable painting!” Neiman Marcus, who awarded his fashion “Oscar” to Dior, knew that the industry as a whole stood to benefit from the New Look, whose full skirts had hems measuring from nine to over forty yards (from sports to day wear). Before long, the House of Dior alone accounted for over half of France’s Haute Couture exports; internationally, it was seen as the quintessence of French taste and style. […]

Dior’s couture style is cultivated, measured and artistic—classical in spirit but with touches of the boldness of French baroque. […]

William Klein, Dorothy + Little Bara with a cello, Paris 1960, Moderato Cantabile dress, Fall-Winter 1960 Haute Couture, collection, Souplesse, légèreté, vie line, Vogue
US, September 15, 1960, models Dorothy McGowan and Little Bara
© William Klein

The friction between nature and artifice sparked a synergy: “My prime inspiration is the shape of the female body,” said Dior, “for it is the duty of the couturier to adopt the female form as his point of departure and use the materials at his disposal so as to enhance its natural beauty.”3 The concept of the line arose from this exercise in structure. With his announcements concerning the lines that represented each season’s new styles, Dior invented a new form of dialogue with the press. […]

But Dior knew how to temper his taste for the sensational with expressions of gentleness and simplicity. The New Look created a “flower-woman” silhouette; the swing of the corolla skirt gave its wearer all the charm of a ballerina. “After woman, flowers are the most lovely things God has given the world,” said the couturier, whose view of femininity was inspired by his passion for gardens and rose beds. […]

His spectacular but measured vision brought the House of Dior an instant success that was exceptional in fashion history. […]

Dior’s heirs stood by his desire to “make women happier and more beautiful.”

Michal Pudelka, Baiser rouge dress, Spring-Summer 2017 Haute Couture collection, model Ruth Bell
© Michal Pudelka

The perpetuation of the Dior spirit—a harmony of elegance, splendor and simplicity — found expression in the ever-changing designs of successive creative directors. Each new appointment represented a radical break, but each respected the fashion house’s founding principle. The risky choice of the young Saint Laurent was followed by a rational response with the appointment of Marc Bohan. Then came the flamboyance of Gianfranco Ferré, the sen-sationalism of fashion punk John Galliano, the “minimalism” of Raf Simons, and the unexpected recent choice of Maria Grazia Chiuri, a woman designer with a commitment to Girl Power.