The Dior Bar Suit

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A tightly squeezed waist, amplified shapes, a high chest: all these are words that one could find in Christian Dior’s stylistic vocabulary. The skirted Bar suit, the corolla skirt, and other gems from the post-war New Look movement are reappearing in department stores everywhere, taking up their spot next to the legendary Lady Dior. A perfect occasion to look back on a major moment in fashion history!
 
1947: the war had just ended, France was trying to rebuild, and a voucher system was in place to keep rationing the limited amounts of food and fabrics that were available. In this difficult context, Parisian Haute Couture, that was just barely saved by Lucien Lelong, was attempting to take back the indisputable position as center of the fashion world it held before the war, for better or for worse. The United States, who had previously been the primary market for Parisian Haute Couture, had gained their own fashion autonomy during the long war years, and even thought they might be able to surpass their French counterparts… until one fateful day, February 12, 1947, proved the contrary.1 
 
 On February 12, 1947, Christian Dior exhibited his very first Spring/Summer collection, with its Corolle and En Huit lines, in his couture house on Paris’ ritzy Avenue Montaigne. It was the end of runway season, and American buyers had for the most part already left after placing their orders with the great fashion houses of the day: Lelong, Balmain, Rochas, Piguet, Fath, Balenciaga… But the Dior collection had such an immediate, meteoric success that they came back to place new orders. Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief for Harper’s Bazaar, was present at the runway show and exclaimed “Dear Christian, your dresses have such a new look!” The expression stuck, and the rest is history.2 
 
But the true scope of this first collection’s success is hard to fully understand outside the particular context of the year 1947. As Christian Dior so eloquently summed it up himself: “We were just coming out of a destitute, parsimonious period, obsessed with vouchers and textile points. My dream thus naturally took the form of a reaction against this poverty. […] We were coming out of a period of war, of uniforms, of female soldiers with boxer-like proportions. I drew these female flowers, soft shoulders, blossomed busts, thin waistlines like lianas and wide skirts like corollas.”This would be the foundations of the New Look.
 
All the characteristics of this novel line are perfectly united in the Bar suit. The piece may not have been the most commercially successful, but it nevertheless became the iconic piece in the collection, appearing in countless fashion magazines from 1947 onwards. And yet, the Bar suit wasn’t as revolutionary as one might think. A Chanel piece dating back to 1939 strongly resembles it. Balenciaga’s jackets from the same period featured padded tales of a similar length. Despite what is believed today, and despite the novelty of it’s softened shoulders and padded coattails coming off the hips, it wasn’t so much the jacket that made an impression on (and shocked) the general public, but rather, the skirt.
 
During the war, fabric rationing obliged clothing to be as efficient as possible: skirts were shorter and smaller-scale. Dior’s skirt, pleated moreover, necessitated 19 meters of diameter at the base and was received as an insult to the poverty endured by many post-war Parisians. One photo session in Montmartre turned into a riot. Women threw themselves at the models and tried to tear their Dior dresses to shreds, a testament to the fact that tensions between the disadvantaged and the rich were already alive and well at that time.4 
 
 Stateside, Americans had a problem with Dior’s skirt being too long. Christian Dior described in his autobiography how, during a press conference in New York, he appeared to be “under the accusation of wanting to hide the quasi-sacred legs of the American woman.”
 The skirts only went to mid-calf, but for American women, these few additional centimeters signified a retreat from the liberties they had newly acquired during the war; for their husbands, it signified the necessity of buying an entirely new wardrobe!6 
 The “Little Below The Knee Club” was founded, and during his trip to the States, Dior was confronted with protests and signs that read, “Down with the New Look!”, “Burn Monsieur Dior!”, and “Christian Dior: Go home!”His designs made so much noise that in November 1947, Pierre Gaxotte of the prestigious Académie Française, freshly back in France after having traveled to the U.S., declared that the two most famous men at the time were General Charles De Gaulle and Christian Dior.8
 
 Far from wanting to exacerbate social inequalities or enrage feminists, Dior on the contrary sought to inspire the imaginations of women everywhere all while giving them back their femininity. Mission accomplished. Women were quick to adopt the new silhouette he offered them and wore dresses that, while not always labelled “Dior”, were certainly “Dior-esque”. The new line was prominently featured in every fashion magazine: “What was most striking in the conceptions of these masters of couture was clearly the spectacular lengthening of dresses. […] Jackets got shorter, coming lightly off the hips […] Keeping with the trends, shoulders abandoned their angular edges, their athletic proportions; they melted softly, tapering off femininely, asking for their truth back. […] The woman in this envelopment of harmonious lines will rejoice in her boldly transformed beauty.”9
 

1- PALMER Alexandra, Dior : a new look, a new enterprise 1947-1957, London : Victoria & Albert Museum, 2009

2- CAWTHORNE, Nigel, The New Look : The Dior Revolution, London : Hamlin, 1996

3- DIOR Christian, Christian Dior & moi, Paris : Vuibert, 2011

4- CAWTHORNE, Nigel, The New Look : The Dior Revolution, London : Hamlin, 1996

5- DIOR Christian, Christian Dior & moi, Paris : Vuibert, 2011

6- CHENOUNE Farid, Dior, Paris : Assouline, 2007

7- DIOR Christian, Christian Dior & moi, Paris : Vuibert, 2011

8- PALMER Alexandra, Dior : a new look, a new enterprise 1947-1957, London : Victoria & Albert Museum, 2009

9- STEPHANE Jeanne, L’officiel de la couture et de la mode de Paris, 1947, n°301-2, p.52

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