Dior vs. Chanel: Mid Century Ideals of the Feminine Form

Based on a Lecture by historian Elizabeth Lay under the aegis of Smithsonian Associates

“Fashion is a product of politics, economics, and shared culture…” begins host Elizabeth Lay. “It reflects these things faster because we put it on every day to present ourselves to the world and is perhaps, the most personal expression.”  Examining two designers with opposite visions, Lay briefly takes us through background influences and historical conditions before delving into disparate style.

In his memoir, the gentlemanly Dior wrote that Coco Chanel’s “personality as well as her taste had style and elegant authority.” Less generously, Chanel said Dior “upholstered” women. As you can see in the opening illustration, Dior’s “New Look” on the left has little in common with Chanel’s still ubiquitous  boxy suit on the right.

1940 Occupied Paris. “Hitler wanted to control the arts. He also wanted to control fashion. In fact, he wanted to move its center from Paris to Berlin or Vienna.” Standing in his way was Lucien Lelong, though not a designer, head of his own fashion house for which Dior worked 1941 until 1946.

Théâtre de la Mode: “Palais Royale,” original 1946 fashions and mannequins from set by André Dignimont (recreated by Anne Surgers); Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art. Photo Courtesy of the Maryhill Museum

Monsieur Lelong was also Director of The Chambre Syndicale defined today as “the regulating commission that determines which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses”. The organization was not just an artists’ guild but also labor union for an industry that employed thousands of people, part of the economic vertebra of France. “You can impose anything on us by force. Paris couture cannot be uprooted, neither as a whole nor a part. Either it stays in Paris or it does not exist.” (Lucien Lelong to Hitler) It should be noted that Lelong dressed the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators as a way of preserving the fashion industry throughout the conflict.

We take a look at mode at the time. Fabric availability was limited, thus silhouettes simple. There were only enough gussets in suits to walk freely. (A gusset is a panel, either triangular or diamond, inserted into a garment to help shape and reinforce key points.) Shoulders were wide ostensibly to give women confidence, jackets tailored close to the body. Shoes had thick, practical soles. When the Germans finally left Paris, fabric shortages and hampered supply chains remained.  How could France assure the world they were ready to regain the mantle?

In 1945/46 Lelong came up with Theatre de la Mode, an internationally traveling exhibit of 22” mannequins arranged in boxed sets wearing haute couture designed by the best houses. Tiny accessories, even jewelry was created by top designers. Read my previous article on Theatre de la Mode.

Christian Dior and Kazakh model Alla Ilchun. Paris 1950s

Christian Dior (1905-1957) was born in Normandy to a wealthy manufacturer. Eschewing family ambition to become a diplomat, he graduated from the École des Sciences Politiques then, with a friend, opened an art gallery representing such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Jean Cocteau. The Depression put an end to the business. Dior briefly illustrated the magazine Figaro Illustré. The following 6 years he was employed at fashion houses as a sketch artist (ten cents a drawing) and began to design. After military service, he and fellow designer Pierre Balmain joined the House of Lucien Lelong.

By 1946, backed by rich textile mogul Marcel Boussac, Dior was ready to go out on his own. Lay tells us his romantic cinched waist, open necklines, and opulent fabrics were inspired by the Belle Epoch. “Unknown on February 12, 1947, he was famous February 13,” she comments. Carmel Snow, Editor in Chief of Harpers Bazaar (then ruling the industry), is credited with coining “The New Look” for Dior’s fresh approach.

Left: Christian Dior, Spring-Summer 1947/ Right: Pink silk dress by Christian Dior, 1948

The designer was a master of architectural structure and unapologetically feminine. Fabrics were often lined with percale. He created boned, bustier bodices, subtle hip and bustle padding that emphasized a corseted waist, and petticoats that made dresses flare out. With a seemingly bottomless budget (unlike his peers), the designer used 18 yards of material for the famous “Bar Suit” (“The New Look”) On average his pieces weighed 22 pounds. Snow exulted in what she deemed his optimism. Rita Hayworth and Margot Fonteyn became clients.                                                                                      

Not everyone was as enthused. How could Dior be so unpatriotic as to waste fabric for anything as frivolous as fashion?! Parisian women disrupted outdoor photo shoots. The British discouraged purchase as did Canadians.  Several American states drew up petitions. Chanel said “Look how ridiculous these women are, wearing clothes by a man who doesn’t know women, never had one, and dreams of being one.” But enough people supported his vision. The New Look revolutionized fashion and established Paris as its center after World War II.

Christian Dior became a formidable household brand name. By 1948/49, he secured the first lucrative licensing deals for a couturier with fur, stockings, and perfumes. Despite Syndicale objections, other Houses followed suit. Dior opened a luxury ready-to-wear shop on Fifth Avenue – the first of its kind. Menswear came next. He would be a major arbiter of taste for decades.

Three women in day outfits by Gabrielle Chanel for March, 1917

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel (1883-1971) was born in a charity hospital and raised in a convent orphanage “founded to care for the poor and rejected.” Here she learned to sew. At 18, she found work as a seamstress. The young woman also performed as  a poseuse, a performer who entertained the crowd between star turns, then passing a plate. The song, “Who Has Seen Coco?”  became her signature, thus the nickname Coco. Chanel didn’t have much of a voice, but she was young and pretty.

Profligate textile heir Etienne Balsan made her his mistress. For three years Chanel lived lavishly at his château Royallieu near Compiègne. There she had firsthand exposure to a decadent lifestyle that included women from the theater. Lay tells us all but the richest Frenchwomen still bathed only once a week, eschewed make-up, perfume, and tending to their hair, actresses took great care with hygiene and appearance. Chanel took notes.

During one of Balsan’s absences, Chanel began an affair with Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel, a wealthy member of the British upper class. Later she would write “two gentlemen were outbidding for my hot little body.” (Their affair would last 9 years extending past his marriage to Boy’s tragic death in a car crash.) When she found some success designing hats for guests at the chateau, Baison and/or Capel backed her first Paris shop, Capel a Deauville boutique.

Mlle Gabrielle Dorziat wearing one of Chanel’s first hats

At the time, women were wearing restraining, hobbled skirts often over decorated. Wisely unwilling to compete with shapely women, Chanel began by designing for her own active tomboy body. She started with cheap jersey fabric ordinarily used for men’s underwear. It was soft, pliant, and available. Her silhouettes were loose. Women could step onto a streetcar. She even made trousers for brave women like Marlene Dietrich.

Dior’s New Look was a contrived shape. His models stood with their hips thrust forward. Women needed time to dress- and help to fasten buttons and hooks. (Alexandra Palmer’s book on the designer -see below- pointed out this created intimate moments between husbands and wives.) He was extremely aware of textures. Signature dresses pooled around a woman when seated. Open necklines framed the face. Bustlines were sometimes exaggerated. Swags were revived from the 19th century.

Christian Dior ballgown with matching shrug, silk velvet and silk satin. Date unknown

Sleeves were notably graceful, made of one piece supported by darts so as not to simply hang from a seam. Shoulders were rounded. Underwire bras, new at the time, were built-in. There were 9-12 controlling stays in a fitted bodice. Pattern making for a Dior ensemble was a challenge as it derived from sketches, not draping. Clothes didn’t fit on standard mannequins because of his tiny waists.

While Dior was part of the war effort, Chanel fired 4000 employees and spent the Occupation living across the street from her atelier at the Ritz Hotel which housed upper level Nazi officials. Though she was moved from her usual quarters to two maids’ suites, the Ritz was the Ritz. She was hardly suffering. Two things served to maintain Mademoiselle’s lifestyle, the income from her perfume (Chanel #5, the fifth sample she smelled and her lucky number) which always outsold couture and an affair with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a diplomat and German intelligence officer. The liaison was later proved collaboration. Chanel was a rabid anti-Semite. After the war she was arrested, but released and retired to Switzerland.

Coco Chanel

Chanel #5 was kept alive by the idea of her as a couturier. When sales started to wane, the perfume’s owner told the designer she needed to reestablish her presence in the market. Now an over 70 year-old woman with time on her hands, she didn’t need much convincing. The New Look was the antithesis of her design aesthetic. She would offer an alternative. Her first call was to Carmel Snow who publicized the designer’s return. It’s here she returns to competition with Dior. In 1954, the first runway show was a disaster. Still thought of as a collaborator, she was met with resistance before and during the event. People walked out. Press called the collection a rework of her 1930s designs. Still, she stuck with it, refining original models.

Coco Chanel 1937

Her skirts had no waistbands. They rested on the hipbone. Suit blouses matched jacket linings.  Every boxy jacket had 2-4 outside pockets. (Mademoiselle smoked and needed a place for cigarettes and lighter.) Sleeves were ¾ length to show off bracelets or bespoke gloves. Military-like buttons were utilized, jackets and cuffs often finished with braids.

Socializing with the British exposed Chanel to tweed. The fabric is difficult to shape, however, so the designer came up with a version that had lower thread count, more space between warp and woof (Warp is the set of lengthwise yarns, woof also called weft is the set of crosswise yarns.) The new blend was easier to drape and had more surface slug. “The softer tweed can rumple, however. To combat this, Chanel sewed chains inside jacket hems to help keep the fall straight and neat. She also curved her sleeves and moved shoulders in to narrow them.” Her models were relaxed. Active Americans took to the freedom of cut.

Our host stops her narrative here with book recommendations.

Chanel grew even more infirm and tyrannical. One day, she went over the spring catalog, took a walk in the park and went to bed early. The designer died at her longtime home The Hotel  Ritz at the age of 87. Dior made the young Yves Saint Laurent his assistant, choosing him to continue the fashion house. He died from a heart attack while on vacation. He was 52 and on the cover of Time Magazine. At the time of his death, The House of Dior was earning more than $20 million annually.

Elizabeth Lay is entertaining and knowledgeable. She sets her artists in context and adroitly illustrates the work. Clearly not reading her presentation, Lay is infectiously fascinated.

All unattributed quotes are Elizabeth Lay

Based on indicates that I have added to/elaborated on some of the lecture content

Opening Illustration Courtesy of Smithsonian Associates- Left “The New Look”, right Chanel’s iconic suit

Other photo credits:

Christian Dior with Alla Ilchun. Wikimedia Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0), Arhcive file of Berlin Irishev.

Photo left: Christian Dior; Spring-Summer 1947 on display at the Denver Art Museum, by SpiritedMichelle, Wikimedia Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Photo right: Pink silk dress by Christian Dior of Paris, 1948 on display at Philadelphia Museum of Art by Laura Blanchard, Wikimedia Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Illustration showing three women in day outfits by Gabrielle Chanel published in Les Elegances Parisiennes, March 1917. Public Domain

Photo of Mlle Gabrielle Dorziat. Photo by Talbot. Originally published in Les Modes no. 137. Public Domain

Christian Dior Ball Gown at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, by Claire H/Flikr. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Chanel headshot by Justine Picardie on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Coco Chanel, 1937 by Chariserin on Wikimedia Commons  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Books: Christian Dior Designer of Dreams– Catalog of Brooklyn Museum’s current Dior exhibit                        Dior by Dior- an autobiography
Dior – Alexandra Palmer

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History- Rhonda K. Garelick
Chanel Collections and Creations – Danielle Bott
Sleeping with The Enemy- Coco Chanel’s
Secret War-  Hal Vaughan

Films: Coco Before Chanel 2015 fiction
Dior and I- 2015 non-fiction

Smithsonian Associates a marvelous resource for illumination and entertainment : https://smithsonianassociates.org/ticketing/streaming/

About Alix Cohen (1208 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.