Essay: The Dior Code

by Timothy Long on 15 August 2012

In the aftermath of Raf Simons' first collection for the house, fashion curator Timothy Long assesses the relevance of the 'codes of Dior'.

In the aftermath of Raf Simons' first collection for the house, fashion curator Timothy Long assesses the relevance of the 'codes of Dior'.

Christian Dior A/W 12 Haute Couture

The fashion press have hailed Raf Simons' first collection for Christian Dior a success, with much credit being given to his modern translation of the ‘codes of Dior’. The codes - femininity, glamour and style - were first declared by Christian Dior when he debuted his inaugural collection of 1947. They may sound simple but take a talented designer to master. Simons, a Belgian fashion designer, has an impressive career in fashion, with a resume including work at the influential fashion labels of Walter Van Beirendonck in Paris, Martin Margiela, and most recently the creative director for Jil Sander, a position he has held since 2005. Simons showed that he can continue to interpret the codes put in place over sixty years ago while updating them for the modern client.

Reigning the fashion world since 1947, it should come as no surprise that the House of Dior has a business system that runs like a well-oiled machine, governed by time-tested and honoured ideals. By the mid-1940s, in response to years of hardship and deprivation brought on by the Great Depression and World War II, the necessity of a new style was evident. In this extremely fertile environment, several designers, including Elsa Schiaparelli, Charles James and Christian Dior were experimenting with new concepts aimed at enhancing the female figure. Dior coded his concepts into his first collection, which he stated was a ‘gift for women’, a return to femininity, glamour and style. Dior was able to realise his ideas through the financial backing of Marcel Boussac, who had made his fortune in textiles. Boussac liked Dior’s ideas of a new style, one of stark contrast to the restricted war-time fashions and made with folds of sweeping hemlines, and agreed to fund the creation of a new house of fashion in Paris, the House of Christian Dior at 30 Avenue Montaigne.

Eighty-five staff members were hired to assist Dior in the realisation of his vision, which focused on a ‘hyper-feminine’ curvaceous silhouette presented with a tight waist and either a sweeping or pencil-slim skirt. The profile of the silhouette was also very important, which became known as the ‘wasp waist’ for the corseted waist, thrust forward hips and an arched back. This altered body was carefully wrapped by Dior with metres of the finest fabrics, and finished with pleats and bows. Additionally, Dior’s revival of the corset and the hourglass silhouette would go on to be an oft discussed, debated, interpreted, and reinterpreted choice for many scholars of both fashion and feminism.

The press lauded Dior as an overnight sensation, and celebrated the entry of a new era in fashion. It should be noted, however, that while many people praised the New Look for its design as well as what it would go on to do for business, there were critics who were not so pleased. Some felt that the New Look brought back the restriction of the tight corset and heavy, cumbersome petticoats–fashions many women had happily walked away from during the freedom of the 1920s, the depression of the 1930s and then the lean years of WWII. Still, for the next ten years, the New Look, with seasonal variations, was the look in fashion with an influence reaching to the far corners of the globe. This meteoric rise placed Dior on the cover of Time magazine in 1957, in which they reported that by 1954, Dior salons were open in countries around the world and that Dior products alone accounted for 66% of the foreign export of French couture. In just a few years, the House of Christian Dior rose from an unknown company to one of the preeminent fashion houses in the world with sales topping $17,000,000—an unheard of number in fashion.

Each new collection was so closely followed by the general public that entire stores were changed over with new product once a collection premiered at a pace never before seen in fashion.

The solid and often pioneering business acumen employed at Christian Dior to capitalise on the New Look’s success played a vital role in the development of a new era of fashion business. The House of Dior experimented with the relationship between the designer and ready-to-wear manufacturers, which led to innovative business models and licensing agreements, making the latest styles more readily available to larger numbers of people, and at an affordable price. For ten years, the fashion world looked to Christian Dior for the new style, from his Zig-Zag collection of 1948, which featured exaggerated cuffs and collars influenced by the quick lines of a pencil sketch, or the H-Line collection of 1954 with a straight silhouette and undefined waistline. Each new collection was so closely followed by the general public that entire stores were changed over with new product once a collection premiered at a pace never before seen in fashion. While many people refer to ‘femininity, style and glamour’ as the codes of Dior, many others, at least in fashion business, also may be referring to the business code at Dior, which caused dramatic changes in the industry, several of which are still followed today.

Following Christian Dior’s death in 1957, design at the House of Dior was taken over by a young Yves Saint Laurent, whose first collection of 1958 launched the ‘trapeze’ silhouette into a fashion craze. While Dior’s codes of femininity, glamour and style were closely followed, Laurent added a sense of youthfulness to the collections. Like Dior’s, Laurent’s collection was said to have changed women's fashion overnight as the ‘youthquake’ fashions of the 1960s entered into style. Eventually, however, Laurent was said to have drifted too far away from the codes of the company and was let go in 1960 to go on to open the House of Yves Saint Laurent in 1962. Laurent was replaced at Dior by Marc Bohan, who is often considered to be the least known of the Dior designers, although he remained head designer at the company for longer than all others - nearly thirty years–before being replaced by Gianfranco Ferré in 1989. The appointment of Ferré, an Italian, ruffled a few feathers as many believed, and still do, that only the French should design for the House of Dior. While Ferré was a success for Dior, by the mid-1990s, the company was looking to update its image, hiring John Galliano who triumphantly brought the House of Christian Dior into the 21st century, with his widely successful and much anticipated fashion shows, adding theatricality to the codes of Dior.

Each of these designers left their mark on the company’s history, which has remained one of the longest continuously running fashion houses ever, in large part due to remaining loyal to the brand’s heritage with a focus on modern interpretation of the codes of Dior.

Simons’ response in recent interviews shows he acknowledges the importance of blending the correct balance of the codes with his own unique vision. This understanding can be seen in his bright red evening coat with full hips and sweeping hem, reminiscent of Dior’s Zig-Zag collection of 1948, updated with a gold belt. Additionally, his citron yellow evening gown, updated with a see-through top and gold choker, could easily be described by press from Dior’s Tulip collection of 1953, which stated, ‘the skirts swept the floor like flowers unfurling’. The world of fashion is waiting for new views on femininity, glamour and style coming from the recent alliance between Simons' visions and the codes of the House of Dior. But will it all ‘look new’?



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