Friday, November 21, 2014

Dior's New Look, the Constriction of the Corset, and Fashion on our own Terms

Although I've owned this lovely blazer for a long time, this was the first time I wore it. It had not been my intent to start a walk down the Dior path, but that's what happened.

Boots: Ecco; Skirt, blazer, brooch, earrings, and sunglasses: vintage
After I'd put the outfit together, I was reminded most vividly of Christian Dior's revolutionary New Look of 1947.

See what I mean?

Once I noticed this similarity, of course, I just had to pose for photos in locations that reminded me of the location for that iconic, New Look photo that rocked the fashion world after the austerity of World War II.

And an old dog photo bombing the photo? Even better.

I got all old school model-ly as I posed.

Initially, I planned my outfit as a vehicle for my new (to me) Boucher brooch and earrings ...

... and my new (to me) skirt, with its festive purple flowers.

But once I saw the resemblance to The New Look, I had to try the pose.

It ain't easy! I suppose it would have been easier without a back injury, but, still, my efforts gave me a new admiration for models and their contortions.

Models from the late 40s and 50s had a certain elegant sophistication that is largely gone now. They were young, yes, but their goal was not to look young. It was to look mature, even mysterious -- even when flanked by a most ridiculous dog! That takes skill.

If I'd been aiming for perfect verisimilitude in my slightly New Look-ish outfit, I would have worn a plate/hat thing on my head but, well, no. That's a no to the plate/hat thing.

I did wear appropriate sunglasses though, their shape reminiscent of the precursors to the "cat's eye" glasses that would become so ubiquitous a few years later.

I also saw fit to evoke a little café culture.

After all, the New Look is intimately associated with Paris and its cafes. This was a look to wear to a Parisian café, where one would look marvellously sophisticated, and tres moderne, while discussing fascinating, Parisian ideas with one's lover, or lovers, as the case might be.

It can't have been easy, though. Just look at that woman's waist! I feel pinched and uncomfortable just looking at it.

Take a look at the corsetting and padding involved in achieving the New Look. Squeeze the waist past all comfort, then pad the hips and shoulders to further accentuate that "natural, feminine" waist.

It leaves me wondering why this "new look" wasn't instead dubbed "the old look."  I am by no means the first one to have noticed this return to the painful corset and the "feminine" figure after the more comfortable styles of the 20s, 30s, and early 40s.

Not since before World War I, had women been so cinched and padded.

Many women noticed this at the time and, to this day, this return to older fashions is seen as a harbinger of the socially enforced return to more traditional roles for women. They had stepped up during the war to do "men's work" in factories, offices, everywhere... and now they were expected to happily step back down again, give their jobs to men returning from the war, and resume their "appropriate" women's roles in the home.

Yet, as with any fashion moment, many women felt they must conform. The above article describes the differences between early mannequins and those that conform to the New Look -- and exhorts women to measure up (or down) to the new standards of feminine beauty ...

... which were quite evidently painful.

And yet, soon enough it became the uniform of the euphoric, American housewife, merrily doing housework, cinched to the bone in her corset and crinolines.

Man, I wish a mere soap could make me this happy.

Vacuuming while wearing kitten heels and a variation on the New Look? No problem!

Heck, a proper woman could even mow the lawn in the New Look -- happily, always happily.

The Parisian café culture originally associated with the New Look ...

... gave way to the suburban, American coffee clache. What fun!

Me, I don't need the New Look's pads and corsets to have that hourglass figure now so necessary for fashion. I recently heard a woman on the radio assure listeners that any European model who had lived through World War II was painfully thin, and really did need padding to have the breasts and hips Dior desired for his New Look to work. Food had been severely rationed for years and would continue to be rationed for years to come.

Cloth too had been rationed, which is what had led to the more austere (though lovely) styles of the war. It's really interesting to note that it was not the corsets of the New Look that caused a scandal.

It was the amount of fabric in the New Look that horrified patriotic women everywhere.

Skimping on cloth and living frugally had been something women could do, had to do, to help the war effort. It was unseemly and unpatriotic to display such an opulence of fabric after all that austerity.

Still, the New Look caught on for a decade or more.

So! That's a lot of history in a fashion trend! That may be why I don't often emulate 50s styles, even though they are favourites of retro fashion loving women all over. It's just so fraught.

So, in true Charlotte style, I pick and choose. I'll wear a variation on the New Look but I refuse a corset. I won't even wear one on my wedding day. For one thing, my back couldn't handle it. For another, I just don't believe in corsets, any more than I believe in plastic surgery. I love to look good. I want to look good. But not at the expense of my health or my equally strong desire to help women feel good about their bodies just the way they are.

And yet, I admit, I was not pleased to see my belly in some of these photos. I guess I'm now what some call "thick." I'm a thick woman. Okay. So be it. It's a whole lot better than starving during a war, or cinching myself in so I can't breathe.

Despite all its history, the New Look still has a certain allure and I will enjoy it, in my way.

Its chic, sophisticated femininity does have an enduring appeal. A woman in this look, the original New Look, not the 50s approximation of it, looks like she has things on her mind ...

... deep and clever and passionate things. 

She has an old world charm.

And she looks pretty -- like an artist's muse in 1950s Paris perhaps? 

The male artist, the male designer, the male photographer, imprints his visions on the woman's body, just as Christian Dior did in 1947. Her contorted body is a vehicle for his own self-expressions, his own ideal woman.

Me, I don't want to be the artist's muse. I want to be the artist! My art is my writing. My art is also my fashion expressions, corset free and feminine -- on my terms.

And, if you've been wondering what those tree things are that I'm holding in several of the photos in this post, here's what I created with them: a veritable forest of vintage jewelry. Fashion as art, indeed!

(I'm linking this up to Visible Mondays on Not Dead Yet.)


  1. You have such an impressive collection of vintage jewelry, Charlotte!

    Lovely Autumnal walk on a sunny day. The blazer is beautiful, love the craftsmanship and the color - you look wonderful in it. It's always interesting to see the old photographs you pick for your posts. I am so truly happy that modern fashion does not require women to wear something as painful as a corset. We talk a lot about restrictions and ridiculous rules and expectations of modern styles, but when one looks back as you often do in your blog, one can see that we live in the most accepting period in history - we can wear whatever we want, from any era, or create something of our own without any era in mind, with brand new and vintage things mixed together in a whimsical way, and express ourselves through fashion, writing, painting etc., etc. more freely than ever.

    1. Mostly, if we're talking about Western countries, I agree. But, watching my students, I got the sense that the girls feel pretty restricted in what they wear. The tyranny of thinness is particularly pernicious.

  2. Your blazer is a real classic. I just love those vintage styles, your photos and fashion history really add to the post. Love your fun poses!

  3. Marvelous post, Charlotte. I truly, truly enjoyed reading it and browsing the photos and retro images. I so love reading about the history of fashion garments and strive to include a little bit of it in my post when I can. Your jacket is so elegant as are the brooch and earrings. I look forward to your post about capes. Let's continue to stay in touch. I hope you have a great week.


  4. Wonderful post, Charlotte with a great depth of fashion history. Those waists look impossible to "achieve". But you -- you look fabulous and at ease in this gorgeous silhouette! Thanks for sharing with Visible Monday, xox.

    1. Those waists look SO painful! I bet they did a number on the digestive system too.

  5. I love your post, the freedom it brings, and your style! Thank you!