Musings: Two Books on the World of High Fashion

Simplicity patterns from April, 1948 show that the influence of Dior's New Look was already a "Main Street" fashion. Simplicity pattern flyer, April 1948.

Simplicity patterns from April, 1948 show the influence of Dior’s New Look (1947) on “Main Street” fashion. Simplicity pattern flyer, April 1948.

I checked out two library books about fashion last month:

Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty, by Robert Lacey (2015) and

Vogue on Christian Dior by Charlotte Sinclair (2012.)

Each was fascinating in its own way, and both offered insights into the way high fashion was merchandised.

As always, I looked through the illustrations first.

Relative Size

This illustration is from Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty. In case you have been thinking about modern dress sizes, (Size Zero?) and wondering why the size tags in vintage dresses no longer make sense…. Read this composite card for Ford model Iris Bianchi,  circa 1957.

A card for Ford Agency model Iris Bianchi, circa 1957. Photo by Richard Avedon from Model Woman, by .

A composite card for Ford Agency model Iris Bianchi, circa 1957. Photo by Richard Avedon. Illustration from Model Woman, by Robert Lacey.

She was too short to be a high fashion model by today’s standards — only five foot seven and a half.

But she made up for that by having a 21 inch waist.

[In 1958, my best friend was 5′ 8″ tall and, like this model,  had 32 inch hips. The mean girls at school called my friend “Ichabod Crane.” Being jeered at by their classmates is a common memory among successful models in Robert Lacey’s book.]

Notice that Iris Bianchi wore a 1950’s size 10.  Her measurements were:  Bust 32.5, Waist 21, Hips 32 inches. She would not be a size 10 today.

Detail of illustration from Model Woman.

Detail of illustration from Model Woman.

Dior Customers’ Mannequins

The following illustrations are from Vogue on Christian Dior, by Charlotte Sinclair.

A photo taken through the windows of Christian Dior's workroom.

A photo taken through the windows of Christian Dior’s workroom. Photo by Bellini at Dior Archive. Illustration from Vogue on Christian Dior, p. 41.

This is a photo taken through the windows of Dior’s workshop: “Lined up on a shelf above are made-to-measure mannequins, one for each of Dior’s private clients.” From Vogue on Christian Dior, by Charlotte Sinclair, p. 41.

Like many couture houses (and movie studios,) Dior’s atelier kept dress mannequins that duplicated the shape and size of regular customers. Each mannequin was reserved for one person; it had her name on it, and it echoed her shape and posture. That way, couture could be draped and fitted without requiring the customer to stand for long hours in preliminary fittings.

In case you need your memory refreshed, this is the famous “Bar Suit” from Dior’s debut “Corolle” line. Its tiny waist, padded hips, and mid-calf skirt was dubbed “the New Look” by fashion editors.

The "Bar Suit" from Christian Dior's "Corolle" collection, 1947.

The “Bar Suit” from Christian Dior’s “Corolle” collection, 1947. Photo from Vogue on Christian Dior. The model’s hips were padded to accentuate her narrow waist.

I’m struck by how few of Dior’s regular customers had the ideal figure for Dior’s clothing designs:

Mannequins for private Dior customers. From Vogue on Christian Dior.

Mannequins for regular Dior customers. From Vogue on Christian Dior.

Another photo in Vogue on Christian Dior shows “A model being fitted for a Lefaucher corset in Dior’s atelier in 1952. Such a corset, Vogue reported, lent a woman the required Dior shape: controlled hips, nipped waist, flat back, and caved-in midriff.”

A model being fittted in a corset that achieves the ideal Dior line -- and posture.

A model being fitted in a corset that achieves the ideal Dior line — and posture. 1952. Illustration from Vogue on Christian Dior, p. 81. Frances McLaughlin photo for Vogue.

Mannequins and model

Compare Dior clients’ mannequins (left) and the corseted model (far right.)

Getting “a Dior” to look good on a normal, imperfect — often aging — body? That is one of the things you pay for when you buy couture.

The Met has two nearly identical 1920’s dresses by Lanvin, adapted to flatter different clients. Click here.

I would love to see an exhibit of side by side dresses like those two! NOTE: Please do not copy any of these images. They are samples of the information contained in the books being reviewed.

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5 Comments

Filed under 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Corsets, Corsets, Foundation Garments, Musings, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Vintage Couture Designs

5 responses to “Musings: Two Books on the World of High Fashion

  1. Thanks for these additions to my reading list. Wouldn’t it be nice if exhibits of couture clothes showed some of the dresses made for normal sized bodies?

    • I’m seeing more normal, healthy-looking women (as opposed to “social X-rays”) in the newspapers after opera and charity galas. But those mannequins from Dior prove that vintage couture made for older and larger women must exist. I have certainly seen 18th c. clothing in a range of sizes — c.f. An Elegant Art, by Edward Maeder.

  2. I love that view of the Dior dress forms. It does reflect the fact that couture customers were (are?) often more mature.

  3. The picture of “A model being fitted for a Lefaucher corset” I think explains to me why so many of my vintage patterns from 1952 on have such long back bodices. In the picture, her back waistline is either very low or practically non-existent. In my 50’s patterns I sew up, the front waist is a fairly normal spot but the back waist is always several inches too long…but then again I don’t wear a Dior corset and let my back have its natural sway. So – I adjust them to my natural waist otherwise the back bodice poufs out like I’ve got a hump back. I’d like to think I’m not ruining an authentic 50’s look, just taking a normal approach, but I can’t help but wonder if what you present in this post has to do with this trend I notice in 50’s patterns. What do you think?

    • Most of the old Wolf dressmaking mannequins I’ve encountered in costume shops and schools also have a “suppressed” buttocks, as if the mannequin is wearing a 1950s-60s girdle. In 1967 I bought a suit that fit perfectly over my pantygirdle. Then I started wearing pantyhose, instead of stockings. The skirt of my suit didn’t fit over pantyhose, because the back darts were in the wrong places without a girdle to push my butt down flat. A natural body — not fat, just curvy — did not have the shape of a 60’s dress mannequin. However, I also notice that 50’s bodices with lots of darts really do need a merry widow or waist cinch to fit smoothly. It was a case of reshaping your body to fit your clothes, instead of the other way round!

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