Where Do We Go From Here? Colin McDowell Writes About The March of Fashion
Every moment needs a uniform, every warrior needs an armour; every leader needs a panoply.
On the morning of February 12, 1947, when a virtually unknown designer launched his first collection, could anyone have imagined the changes in fashion that would develop from it? The place was Paris and the 42-year-old designer was Christian Dior, shy but determined, having set up his own label at an age when most people would contend that he had missed the boat. And wouldn’t they be wrong? Overnight, Dior became the best-known designer in Paris and a world-renowned figure.
What is interesting about the New Look as a uniform for women newly liberated as acknowledgement of their bravery under fire, whether in their own street or the theatre of war, is that rather than talking down to middle- and working-class women by emphasising practicality and social mobility, the New Look was predicated on the fact that the new, postwar woman wanted to be gracious, refined and glamorous: the very things that had been largely missing during the war years.
Dior’s couture collections were never politically condescending. Paris couture was posh, made to be worn by the privileged, and the clothes were looked on as the minor art forms they actually were. Only a handful of women had the money or the life needed for couture dressing. And yet it swept the board, forcing governments to relax laws over how much fabric was permitted to be used to make garments during this period of austerity, and to turn war-effort factories and mills into places where good-quality materials could be created without the type of money that, in the late 1940s, only belonged to the profiteers and the pre-war wealthy.
So, there was a sort of equality in the New Look. Although the quality of fabric and workmanship varied widely, women of all classes knew it was the only way to look fashionable and hold their heads up high, whether sweeping into the Savoy from a shiny limousine or waiting in the street outside that most fabled of London hotels for a bus that, in those days, took ages to come. Both within and outside the golden circle of privilege, the New Look became a universal look never seen before.
It lasted out the 1950s as a dress style of established women in their late thirties and early forties and, although its scale was modified, it was still the template for fashion designers across the globe. The evening dresses worn by world figures such as Eva Peron and the Duchess of Marlborough were adaptations of the originals in Dior’s first presentation, just as the suits and coats on the high street were. But there was development. Cristobal Balenciaga had taken Dior’s place as “best beloved” of the fashionable classes and, many observers felt, deservedly so for his audacious use of volume and incomparable cut.
When Dior died in 1957, his favourite acolyte, Yves Saint Laurent, took over to cries of joy and hysterical claims that he had saved Paris as the centre of world fashion. He was young and streetwise. His partner, Pierre Bergé, was a shrewd businessman so, when the tide turned against Saint Laurent – he was sacked in the most brutal way – the house of Dior lost its fashion lead, but Saint Laurent’s own label made him the world leader.
At the same time, the mystique of couture clothes was becoming increasingly questioned: the weeks in Paris for made-to-measure fittings (for underwear as well as outerwear), the long delivery times while everything was hand-cut and sewn, and the great increase in quality of ready-to-wear clothes, especially in America, made a couture wardrobe an anachronism, relegated to the important one-off occasion such as a wedding or a grand ambassadorial ball. In fact, couture dwindled into show dresses, with the tailored daywear that had made it so special eventually disappearing.
Nevertheless, Paris couture has always been a forcing ground for young designers. An internship with the top names was the first step to success. Apart from Saint Laurent’s time with Dior, Pierre Cardin had worked there on the very first collection, reputedly cutting the white jacket for Bar, the most talismanic look of all the wonders of the show; Givenchy had worked for Molyneux and Schiaparelli; and Courrèges and Ungaro were protégés from the austere fitting rooms of Balenciaga. Often based on what was happening in London boutiques and Italian mass-market firms, this was a new kind of fashion. If not exactly “wear and throw away”, it demanded none of the reverence that a couture garment required.
Dior’s supremacy lasted for a brief 10 years. He died of a heart attack on October 24, 1957, largely as a result of overeating (Diana Vreeland said at the time, “Poor Christian, he died of the table”). But, already, the unwritten but unwavering rule of fashion had caught up with him. Despite the huge success of the New Look and the formal, structured clothes that it gave birth to, the fact is that clothes instigate nothing. They respond to changes in society, as the years between Dior’s demise and today make clear.
Clothes helped women to articulate their new independence and determination to fight for equality with men, and they had proved themselves. But the Second World War had left a heavy burden on resources, supplies and especially clothing as manufacturers began to gear up towards the new consumerism. Leading the field was America, which despite playing a vital role in the final victory, had never been bombed on its mainland and could more easily turn its manufacturing from war work to new imperatives, of which clothing was one. Americans had more choice in dress than other nations did, because they had much less of a class system and therefore considerably fewer rules of taste than their equivalents in Europe and the United Kingdom.
But most important in regards to the US, and certainly more so than most people in the 1950s realised, was that a new breed had developed on the back of middle-class prosperity. It was the teenager. Brought up with their own freedoms and privileges, many had cars (old jalopies most frequently), their own spaces (dens with “Keep Out” on the doors, to discourage parents) and even their own telephones. Add food created to fit their tastes, along with entertainment geared to their ideas of love, romance and happiness, and it is patently clear that they were a subspecies, and one with a degree of financial power.
Everything began to change as the fashion industry realised that big money could be made from a growing population of the young who had very few demands being made on their money, except to make their lives enjoyable: no marriage, no mortgage, no babies, no education fees. There has surely been no other generation that, in such numbers, had no real cares. And they used clothes to articulate their difference from their peers and the names they gave to them and themselves: sloppy Joes, teenagers, frat boys. They took the lead and made fashion one of the areas, along with music, that was so strong it is still led by the young.
Young people across the globe were not so far behind, although few had the funds to keep up, and the well-paid, usually manual jobs available for American teenagers were much less easy to find in Europe. And because more of the US than northern Europe and Britain enjoys a benign climate, sport soon joined music as a hugely lucrative industry for leisure and sportswear. We have only to think of the money spent every year on trainers, baseball caps and tracksuits globally to see how real fashion today is often just a case of “copy my neighbour”, in the sense that everybody wants to be the same. For the first time in history, fashion is articulating everyone’s life and, largely speaking, is available very cheaply. And the exploitation in its manufacture has still to be properly addressed.
The power of young money in fashion is that, since the 1960s, young music, young hair, young clothes, young food and even young drink all make millions for their manufacturers and, in the case of clothes, there has been a complete volte-face in dress for all ages as a result of the lead of the young market. Until the end of the 1970s, when bands such as the Sex Pistols and designers such as Vivienne Westwood took over, most young men dressed like old men.
For girls, the position was slightly less rigid. Certainly, they wanted shorter skirts and tighter cuts than their mothers, or even elder sisters, would wear, but they usually got their own way. But freedom to dress as one wishes is not always a straightforward fashion rite. Since the troubled final decades of the previous century, fashion has frequently been in the ring line, often for transgressions that have not been the fault of designers and retailers, but now fashion has become increasingly weaponised as a sign of protest and frustration. The interesting thing is that, with society becoming more dangerous for the urban young (especially teenage men), with drug cartels, knife gangs and the exploitation of young people by using bribes of fashion items, it is clear that fashion is an essential element not only for the young. Few people under 50 are happy to be thought of as not on trend and, although the traditional path to knowing what is (magazines, from the very glossy to the very accessible) is now becoming narrower, with increasing transfers of print titles to online outlets, visual stimulation and fashion knowledge has never been more in demand.
Taken from Issue 62 of Ten Magazine, on newsstands now. Collage by Anna Bu Kliewer
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