Picks and Pans Review: Dior

updated 02/22/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/22/1988 01:00AM

by Françoise Giroud

Christian Dior dreamed of making clothes for a handful of ladies from polite society. But in the end, as this beautiful, fascinating book shows, he transformed the way women around the world dressed. Giroud, a former French Minister of Culture, describes how Dior launched his now historic New Look in Paris on a cold day in February 1947. The city was hardly in a festive mood. The newspapers were on strike, and coal, just two years after the devastations of WW II, was in scant supply. But word spread quickly that something out of the ordinary had occurred. "It's very good, what little Christian's doing," remarked a countess after seeing the show that changed the course of fashion history. Dior banished the narrow, short skirts and wide shoulders that had dominated the wartime landscape. As far as he was concerned, rationing was over. Women were goddesses, to be suitably draped in rivers of fabric. Dior dropped hemlines—they swirled around the ankles—and he brought back the hourglass shape. In the beginning some were shocked by what seemed extravagances in the postwar era. In the U.S., Dior was reviled at first, only to be worshipped later. "You and your so-called genius have succeeded in disfiguring my wife," wrote one farmer from Idaho. "What would you say if I sent her to you now?" During a 10-year reign, Dior (he died in 1957) dressed many of the most glamorous women of his age: Princess Margaret, Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich and the Duchess of Windsor all wore his creations. (He lavished an extraordinary amount of care on the clothes—an average of 200 hours of work went into each piece that left his atelier.) Yet for all his success, the private man was a timid, even fearful soul who was racked by self-doubt every time he prepared to reveal a new collection. He never married, was discreetly gay and preferred the company of maternal women; he liked enclosed beds, walled gardens—"everything that gave him a sense of protection." When he looked at women, as Giroud points out, it was to dress, not undress them. Giroud's essay on the master tailor is graceful and revelatory. The more than 250 photographs of Dior and his creations, by photographers Irving Penn and Sacha Van Dorssen, among others, are frequently breathtaking. In addition to color pictures of rarely seen dresses from private collections, the book contains period photographs of the designer's frocks and ball gowns, tasseled hats and sculptured coats. Like the book itself, they serve as haunting reminders of an age when haute couture was at its peak. (Rizzoli, $95)

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