If you were lucky enough to visit last year’s V&A exhibition, then you may have heard of Dior’s New Look. Before it lent its name to the high street shop, this iconic collection made Dior a household name. More importantly, it gave fashion-loving women something to celebrate at the end of World War II.
COVID-19 is our generation’s global crisis. Just like in war times, it’s limited our shopping and forced us to get creative with our wardrobes. But if history repeats itself, we’ll soon have a ‘New Look’ to look forward to – once everyone safely returns to work (and starts wearing trousers again).
Designers, historians and other experts have many predictions for post-COVID fashion. But first, let’s look at what made Dior’s post-crisis style so revolutionary.
During WWII, materials like nylon and linen were heavily rationed. So, when they weren’t on active military duty or working in factories, women bought and sewed minimalist, functional clothes (think smart blouses and boxy skirt suits).
Scarce supplies and Nazi Occupation also forced many Parisian fashion houses to close. Vogue editor Bettina Ballard returned to New York in 1945, calling French couture ‘a dead end.’ But not everyone was ready to give up on the fashion capital.
Enter Christian Dior. The up-and-coming designer noticed that French women escaped their harsh reality by reading fashion magazines and fantasizing about wearing fine clothes again. He decided to return fashion to ‘an ideal of civilised happiness,’ where women could exchange their wartime duds for sexy, carefree pieces.
On 12 February 1947, Dior debuted his first collection. Cinched-waist dresses, full skirts, padded corsets and bar jackets (with double-breasted collars and peplum hems) created a seamless hourglass silhouette that Dior called ‘the flower woman.’ He also also reintroduced prewar fabrics like taffeta and used nylon to make petticoats. Legend says that after the show, Carmel Snow from Harper’s Bazaar cried, ‘It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have such a new look!’ And the name was born.
Many women hated the New Look, calling it wasteful (80 yards of fabric? For one dress?), indecent (who would wear jackets that tight?) and restrictive (corsets? What is this, 1850?) Coco Chanel famously claimed, ‘Only a man who never was intimate with a woman could design something that uncomfortable.’
Still, the New Look was a huge success and became a favourite for late 40s/early 50s trendsetters like Marlene Dietrich, Eva Perón and Princess Margaret.
Imagining Our ‘New Look’
We’re still months away from a new normal. But this hasn’t stopped fashion lovers from imagining what styles we’ll wear post-lockdown.
Some fashion historians think we’ll be so tired of stay-at-home loungewear that we’ll choose dressier pieces. They could be bold and fanciful, like a modern version of Dior’s New Look. Or the minimalist trend could continue with simple designs that never go out of style (making it easier on our wallets – and the planet!)
Others think athleisure will keep growing, with people keen to leave the house for runs, bike rides and HIIT classes. And resale platforms boomed in April, suggesting that secondhand and vintage fashion will be even more mainstream.
Almost everyone agrees that post-COVID fashion will be a lot more sustainable, based on recycled materials, transparent supply chains and fair working conditions. Many designers like Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher have already committed to more sustainable practices. But others lag behind. And with small-scale sustainable brands already dominating the shopping market, Dior and other luxury brands might not even lead our next fashion revolution.
Only time will tell what our ‘New Look’ will be. Until then, it’s fun to dream about what we’ll wear – while changing into a clean pair of pyjamas.
Want to learn more about the original New Look? Check out this behind-the-scenes look at the Christian Dior – Designer of Dreams Exhibition.