Cinched at the waist, with soft rounded shoulders and a swirling skirt, Christian Dior’s famous “Bonbon” dress today appears the epitome of modesty and restraint.
But in 1947 — after years of clothing coupons and wartime austerity — this simple dusty-pink wool dress with a brown belt was nothing short of scandalous.
The French fashion designer had been yearning for a return to a more feminine silhouette to replace what he called post-war “soldier women with a boxer’s build”.
The hourglass-shaped “Bonbon” or “Sweetie” dress — one of more than 100 haute couture outfits that have just gone on display at a new exhibition in Paris — fitted the bill perfectly.
Dubbed the “New Look” by Harper’s Bazaar magazine, this return to feminine curves was an immediate hit although the amount of fabric Dior’s new designs required caused outrage.
During the war years, dresses were typically made from just three yards (metres) of material. By contrast, one of Dior’s new evening dresses required no less than 25 yards of taffeta.
Dior himself attributed the huge success of the “Bonbon” dress not just to its being “pretty” but also to its price tag — it sold for much less than it cost to make because of a pricing error.
The style was highly influential and “found great resonance with other couturiers”, according to Olivier Saillard, co-curator of the exhibition at Paris’s Galliera museum of fashion.
For a decade from 1947, haute couture was dominated by a small group of male designers whose wasp-waisted dresses implied a return to the corset and the aesthetics of the Edwardian era.
“It’s very elegant but it can also give the idea of a woman who is trapped by the mysteries of her seduction,” Saillard said.
– ‘New Look’ –
Such supremely feminine clothes were too much for Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who considered them unmodern and not suitable for liberated, working women.
Rebelling against this stylistic domination, she engineered a comeback at the age of 71.
Her 1954 collection expressed the desire of women who had worked their way through two world wars for style teamed with comfort and practicality.
Its simple, straight suits and dresses with echoes of her pre-war designs were at first snubbed by critics, then acclaimed.
“Fashion in France 1947 – 1957” celebrates the last glory days of haute couture, an exclusive, labour-intensive type of fashion design through celebrated outfits by designers such as Dior, Chanel, Cristobal Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Jacques Heim and Hubert de Givenchy.
“The 1950s was the last major period of elegance and the swansong of haute couture with the advent of ready-to-wear,” Saillard said.
Although the fashion world was on the brink of changes that would ultimately make stylish clothes available to everyone, it was a time when the wardrobe of women able to afford haute couture was still bafflingly complex.
Clothes were divided up into categories such as day suits, travel suits, classic suits, two-piece day suits, travel coats, everyday coats, lunch dresses, day dresses and formal day dresses.
For evening, there was yet more subtle variety with early evening dresses, eating out dresses, dinner dresses, dancing dresses, cabaret dresses and evening dresses.
– Swirling skirts –
“Clients used to change their clothes three or four times a day,” Saillard said.
The cocktail dress, which was to become a symbol of the decade, was the 1950s’ answer to the early evening dress.
First appearing after the war, this type of dress disappeared in the early 1960s with the arrival of ready-to-wear.
Combining “elegance with practicality”, a 1950s edition of Vogue advised that it could be worn as “early as 8pm for dinner, going out to a restaurant or the theatre”.
A bolero or coat could be used “to cover bare shoulders until it becomes acceptable to reveal them”, it added.
Examples in the exhibition include Pierre Balmain’s strapless “Clorinde” dress in ivory silk chiffon and metal thread embroidery and Balenciaga’s pink taffeta “Baby doll” dress.
The disappearance of the cocktail dress mirrored the demise of many of the old haute couture houses.
Pierre Cardin, one of the earliest believers in ready-to-wear, was in 1959 expelled from Paris’s association of haute couturiers for launching a ready-to-wear collection.
But times were changing. Ready-to-wear was an unstoppable force and Cardin was later readmitted.
Of the 106 haute couture fashion houses that existed in 1946, only 36 were still there in 1958.