The French have been fashion plates since Marie Antoinette kept her dressmakers working around the clock in the 18th century. Designer Christian Dior continued this devotion in the 20th, with the romantic, feminine haute couture he called the New Look. In his wake came such luminaries as Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano, each bringing his new look to the House of Dior and mesmerizing style mavens with the highs—and lows—haute can hit.
In 1946 Christian Dior founded his fashion firm in an old mansion just off the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Realizing the style-starved were eager to compensate for the war years’ austerity, he dressed clients he called “women-flowers” in ensembles with “soft shoulders, full busts, fine waists like vines and wide skirts like petals.” (Stories circulated that the House of Dior had turned away two British duchesses for their frumpiness.) His competitor Coco Chanel sniffed at the extreme hourglass silhouettes, so different from her own designs’ more boyish lines: “Look at how ridiculous these women are, wearing clothes by a man who doesn’t know women, never had one and dreams of being one!”
Quintessential haute couture (literally “high sewing” in French), a single Dior gown could comprise 25 yards of fabric, take 130 hours to make and cost as much as $10,000 (more than $100,000 in today’s currency). Such extravagance didn’t deter the wealthy and titled to whom Dior catered. An American client allegedly confided to a saleswoman, “This year, as my husband is bankrupt, I shall order only 10 dresses.” By the time Dior died, in 1957, his big-business namesake was teasingly called the “General Motors of haute couture.”
France’s long fascination with fashion was fueled over the centuries by the voracious sartorial appetites of such royal personages as Marie Antoinette, queen consort of Louis XVI, and Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. By the outbreak of World War II, more than 200 Paris couture houses were outfitting wealthy Europeans and Americans. The numbers quickly diminished. Coco Chanel closed up shop and retreated to her Ritz hotel suite; her rival Elsa Schiaparelli fled to New York, where she designed gowns for Mae West and other celebrities. Christian Dior spent World War II dressing the wives of the occupying Nazi officers in the workshops of master couturier Lucien Lelong, head of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which oversaw the nation’s fashion industry. Lelong artfully derailed a Nazi plan to replace French workers with a new generation of German designers and artisans. His negotiations preserved 60 Paris fashion houses, saved 12,000 jobs and, more than that, ensured the survival of his country’s fashion business. After the war, Dior, by then one of Lelong’s top designers, helped restore Paris as the world’s style capital. Lelong sat in the front row at Dior’s first big solo show in 1947.
Richard Avedon shot the photograph Dovima With Elephants at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris in 1955. Discovered on a New York City sidewalk, Dovima (nee Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) was a supermodel before the breed existed, one of the highest-paid models of her day. Wearing a white evening dress accented with black, the first gown Yves Saint Laurent designed for the House of Dior, Dovima in Avedon’s photo is a beauty among the beasts, a figure of grace calming primal power. Her elegant, aristocratic presence near the wrinkly, brutish animals evokes the period of luxury Dior helped introduce after Europe’s bleak wartime years.
Avedon later captured the decadence of the early 1980s with a provocative, sexually suggestive advertising campaign called “The Diors.” In what looks like a series of film stills, a fictional high-society couple, often accompanied by a second man, cavorts in opulent surroundings that spotlight Dior fashion and decor. The ads’ critics included the organization Women Against Pornography and the former American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. A patron of Dior couture whom Avedon often photographed, Onassis successfully sued the company for compromising her right to privacy after a figure resembling her appeared in one of the ads.
Yves Saint Laurent was only 19 when he landed a job at Dior, and he soon won the famous couturier’s respect. “Saint Laurent is the only one worthy to carry on after me,” Christian Dior said, and two years later Saint Laurent did exactly that, taking over as head designer after Dior died of a heart attack at age 52. With his first collection, he dramatically changed the brand’s direction, introducing the wildly popular loose-fitting, triangular “trapeze” dress. Dior executives forced Saint Laurent out, however, in 1960, when they lost patience with some of his designs, such as alligator motorcycle jackets based on Marlon Brando’s look in the 1953 biker film The Wild One.
Founding his own company in 1961, Saint Laurent revolutionized fashion with such mid-1960s innovations as le smoking, an elegant ladies’ tuxedo pantsuit so radical that Parisian women were banned from wearing it in restaurants. Observers credit him with inventing the modern female wardrobe, and newspaper Le Figaro even proclaimed, “Saint Laurent has saved France.” He once said, “Fashion dies, but style remains.” And old rivalries also continue: The houses of Dior and Saint Laurent still compete for industry dominance.
Christian Dior reenergized fashion in 1948 with his structured but ultrafeminine New Look, famously saying, “I know very well the women.” Nearly 50 years later John Galliano became design director at Dior, and he too promoted romantic glamour, saying, “My role is to seduce.” Galliano also thought his role was to shock: Inspiration for one of his most talked-about Dior collections came from the homeless Parisians he saw living along the Seine River. “Some of these people are like impresarios, their coats worn over their shoulders and their hats worn at a certain angle. It’s fantastic,” he said. Perhaps he was channeling Dior himself, who once said, “Simplicity, good taste and grooming are the three fundamentals of good dressing, and these do not cost money.” But socially conscious critics were appalled in 2000 when Galliano’s emaciated models came down the runway, swathed in newspapers and frayed dresses adorned with tin cups, plastic clothespins, bottle caps and mini whiskey bottles. As one critic commented, “It’s hard to imagine a couture client shelling out $25,000 for a dress just so she can look like a bum.” Then again, Marie Antoinette enjoyed frolicking around the palace of Versailles in her expensive shepherdess outfits.
The fashion world loves a bad boy, especially when he’s also a tortured genius. Yves Saint Laurent played that role for decades. He abused alcohol and drugs, yet he often compared himself to late-19th-century French novelist Marcel Proust, with whom he shared fragile physical and emotional health. Saint Laurent spoke freely about his anguish, once telling an interviewer, “I was suffering so much I considered attaching the heaviest bronze from my collection round my neck and throwing myself into the Seine.”
Designer and nightlife enthusiast John Galliano began making waves in the late 1990s with his punk aesthetic of frayed, deconstructed fashion. In 2011 Galliano caused a negative-publicity tsunami when he was dismissed as Dior’s design director for hurling anti-Semitic slurs at patrons of a Paris bar—a plot, according to some fashion insiders, hatched by his employers to get rid of him without paying some $30 million for breach of contract. Such potential chicanery recalls Saint Laurent’s own stormy departure from Dior in 1960, when disgruntled executives stopped blocking his conscription into the French army. Within months he suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined to a psychiatric hospital. Fifty years later Galliano went into rehab.
John Galliano lost his job for making anti-Semitic remarks, and he saw his fashion empire in shambles, but he might have felt some satisfaction after reading reviews of the July 2011 Dior show, the first since 1997 without him at the helm. “Dior’s First Couture Show Without Galliano Was a Total Mess,” screamed one headline. Meanwhile, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, an early Galliano supporter, was among those allegedly championing his comeback. Reports in early 2013 that he would work briefly in the studio of longtime design star Oscar de la Renta (himself once offered a job at Dior) inspired fashion duo Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana to enthuse, “He has been missed from the fashion scene these two years, and we can’t wait to see the collection.” Galliano has apologized for his hate-filled rant: “I descended into the madness of [alcoholism]. I said and did things that hurt others, especially members of the Jewish community.… I remain committed to making amends to those I have hurt.” His best amends may involve returning to couture with what The New York Times called the “finesse and exquisite lightness that, with his departure, has blown away like confetti in the wind.”
The Paris fashion world barely survived World War II, when the Nazis deported and murdered thousands of workers in the large Jewish garment business. John Galliano often used to speak about this past as he drank mojitos at La Perle, a bar in Le Marais, once the Jewish quarter of Paris. The Gibraltar-born designer added details of his own history, claiming his family was descended from Sephardic Jews. He was an unlikely villain who brought about his own downfall when he slung anti-Semitic insults at La Perle patrons, calling one a “dirty Jew” and proclaiming, “I love Hitler.” Among the many who condemned the outburst was Israeli-born actor Natalie Portman, a Dior spokesmodel; two of her great-grandparents had been killed at Auschwitz. She said, “I hope, at the very least, these terrible comments remind us to reflect and act upon combating these still-existing prejudices that are the opposite of all that is beautiful.” Galliano was eventually fined $8,000 and stripped of his French Légion d’Honneur knighthood. Like the postwar Parisian fashion industry, Galliano may see a comeback; even the Anti-Defamation League has issued a statement wishing him success and acknowledging that he has “worked arduously in changing his worldview.”