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Designer Christian Dior and models in London, April, 1950.
On October 23, 1957, one of France’s foremost couturiers passed his haute torch to a young prince who would come to dominate the houses of Paris’ eighth arrondissement. The dying monarch was Christian Dior and the coming king was Yves Henri Donat Matthieu-Saint-Laurent. Dior’s father, a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer, hope his second son would become a diplomat, but uncooperative Christian loved art. During the years that father Maurice’s business flourished, Christian managed a gallery and exhibited works by the likes of Pablo Picasso. After the onset of the Great Depression and the loss of his subsidized gallery, Christian went to work for designers Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong. At the end of World War II and the French Occupation, Dior opened his own atelier in 1946. His first collection was presented in February, 1947.
Harper’s Bazaar then-editor-in-chief Carmel Snow captured the essence of Dior’s creations with the phrase, the “New Look.” With wartime fabric shortages becoming a thing of the past, Christian produced voluptuous styles, shapes, and silhouettes. Smoothly-fitted bodices, narrow waists, and flaring skirts gave society’s style-setters a most feminine and curvaceous appearance.
The house of Dior was highly successful through the 1950’s. Young, upcoming designers would join the atelier to learn and contribute their vision and skills. One such young man came to Paris in 1953 as the winner of the International Wool Secretariat designer contest. He stayed on in Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and won the Secretariat competition again (beating out, among others, a young Karl Lagerfeld). On the strength of his sketches, and his shared sensibilities about fashion, Yves Saint Laurent was accepted into the Dior studio and began careful tutelage as a new apprentice.
Over time, more of Saint Laurent’s designs found their way into each season’s offerings at Dior. By August, 1957, Christian had decided that young Yves was the man to fill his slippers when the time came for a successor. He revealed his choice to Saint Laurent’s mother, who found the revelation confusing, since Dior was only 52 at the time.
Then, on October 23rd, Christian Dior passed away on holiday in Italy. Several conflicting reports as to the cause of his death have never been fully resolved. At 21 years old, Yves Saint Laurent took the reins at the grand house of Dior. His highly successful early collections were described as a softer version of Dior’s New Look, including the famous “trapeze dress.” Toward the end of the 1950s, Saint Laurent became interested in his world’s version of street style, the “beatnik” look. The press was not amused. After conscription and a brief stint in the French army, Saint Laurent came back in the 1960s and 1970s with his own atelier to become one of Paris’ powerhouse designers, with accomplishments and innovations almost too numerous to list. He was a bona fide member of the international jet set and a force to be reckoned with in haute couture for decades.
“Les Annees 50: La Mode in France” (The Fifties: Fashion in France, 1947-1957) opened last July 12th at the Palais Galliera in Paris. The multitude of pieces on display – basques, petticoats, corolla skirts, pointed shoes, bright floral prints, wasp-waisted or straight suits, strapless sheath dresses, cocktail, dresses, crystal embroidery, feathered hats with veils – “retraces the evolution of the female form through the decade 1947-1957: from the birth of the New Look to the death of Christian Dior and the advent of Yves Saint Laurent.” French fashion dominated the fifties closet-scape not only because of Dior and Saint Laurent, but also due to the contributions (included in Les Annes 50) of Jacques Heim, Chanel, Shiaparelli, Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Jacques Griffe, Hubert de Givenchy, and Pierre Cardin. Mary Hawthorne, writing for The New Yorker in their September 16th issue, contrasted the fashion on display with the clothing choices she observed among the exhibit-goers and the hijab-wearing demonstrators on the streets. If you are a fashion-loving fifties fan, plan to attend Les Annees 50 soon. The exhibit closes November 2nd.