21st January is the anniversary of the birth of one of the most iconic names in fashion; Christian Dior. Even if you’re not a fashionista you will have heard his name connected to stylish clothing, perfume, and accessories. And not without good reason. For though in recent times the name has become fully entrenched as a brand, the man’s work in the late forties and early fifties helped lift the hearts, minds, and mood of many after the doldrums of the rationed war years.
Artistically inclined from an early age
Dior was born in Granville, Normandy, in 1905, but his family had moved to Paris by the time he was five. His isn’t a rags to riches story, though. He enjoyed a wealthy upbringing, and his father being a successful manufacturer, in some ways, makes his determination to fulfil his artistic leanings even more admirable. For his parents had dreams of him becoming a diplomat, it’s just that Christian had other ideas.
He would draw sketches and sell them on the street for pocket money. And his father, being in the fortunate position to be able to do so and perhaps inspired by his enthusiasm, bought him a small art gallery after he’d graduated in political science in 1925. This was not an insignificant step forward in his creative career, of course. But as with much that Dior devoted his time to, he gave it extra pizazz; the space went on to display works by Picasso, Cocteau, and even exhibited a piece by Dali.
The Great Depression hit
Sadly, during the Great Depression of 1929, Christian lost both his mother and his brother; he’d been devoted to his mother so this will have hit him very hard indeed. And significantly also was that his father’s business collapsed, which meant he had to relinquish his beloved art gallery. However, his loss was perhaps the world of couture’s gain, for he then went to work for the fashion designer Robert Piquet.
Military service couldn’t quash the desire to design
Dior was called for military service in 1940, and thus left his job and went to do his bit for the war effort until 1942. Upon his return, he began working for the couturier Lucien Long with Pierre Balmain. This was a difficult time for a couturier in France. Nazi occupation required those with flair to dress the wives of influential officers. However actions Dior took later in life would suggest he struggled with his conscience on this. For his younger sister, Catherine, who had joined the French Resistance instead, was captured and endured a stint in the Ravensbrück concentration camp until 1945. And perhaps as a testament to his admiration for her bravery, two years later Dior launched his debut perfume, and named it Miss Dior after her.
Soon all adore the House of Dior
Christian showed his first collection in 1947, and the House of Dior was launched. His style was quickly dubbed “The New Look”, with its lavish use of fabric; such a juxtaposition to clothing design during the war years. It’s worth noting at this point, that this new venture was actually backed by Marcel Boussac, who was a cotton-fabric entrepreneur. The generous use of material in Dior’s designs certainly caught attention and was warmly welcomed by many. Though eyebrows were raised in some quarters, of course. But Paris was desperate to celebrate things that lifted the soul and put the war in the past. The House of Dior was one very useful mechanism for achieving this.
Celebrities from around the world flocked to place orders. Rita Hayworth, Margot Fonteyn, even the British royal family sought to get sight of his collection; though the young princesses were banned from wearing any pieces because of fear it would set a poor example whilst rationing was still in force in the UK.
Ready-to-wear became fashion fare
But notoriety wasn’t enough for Dior. His next entrepreneurial quest was to establish a luxury ready-to-wear house in New York in 1948, followed swiftly by a suite of Dior perfumes. To extend his reach, he then also negotiated licensed production of his designs the following year. This had the additional bonus of promoting a range of must-have accessories, such as shoes, gloves, and hats. And before long, furs, stockings, and ties were also included and being produced all around the globe. Initially the world of couture raised a disdainful eyebrow at this, however before too long many other fashion houses were following suit.
In 1955 he recruited Yves Saint Laurent as a design assistant, a fruitful association that led to Yves being named his successor just two years later. Perhaps Dior was aware of health issues, perhaps it was simply fortuitous that he made such an early decision, bearing in mind he was just 52 years of age. However, in October 1957 he suffered a fatal heart attack whilst he was in retreat at a spa in northern Italy. His funeral was attended by well over two thousand people, and amongst the outpouring of genuine grief, Yves Saint Laurent was appointed artistic director.
And thus, even though his time on this earth was short, Christian Dior left his mark. His work has inspired designers, artists, song writers, and novelists. His existence was timed perfectly to meet the need for exuberant opulence after the dearth of the war years. And his influence wasn’t all about pinched waists and flowing fabric, it was also about sartorial elegance laced with artistic free thinking. He had creativity, business acumen, and enough gumption to see it through. All qualities the world thrives upon in troubled times and beyond. Let’s hope he continues to inspire now.