If you want to know about postwar fashion, watch Cinderella.
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With the end of the fashion week in Paris and the start of summer, I receive the usual email. Is there any book I could recommend to a student interested in Christian Dior? And as usual, I sigh.
There are some excellent books on couturiers of previous periods, such as Couture Culture, which explains how Paul Poiret came to dominate the 1920s.1 And there has been a string of notable exhibitions dedicated to the ’40s and the ’50s.2 Yet catalogues are costly and uncomfortable to read, even on tablets. Plus many of them work as advertisements in disguise, as editorials of fashion magazines do. Of course, numerous books chronicle Dior’s life and business, but nothing is quite as engaging, detailed and critical as we would expect for such a celebrated designer.3 So I reply with my routine answer. If you want to know about postwar fashion, watch Cinderella.
Cinderella – I am speaking of Disney’s 1950 animated classic and not of the recent remake – is rather dull except in the area of couture. The movie details the making and unmaking of clothes, the daily routine of dressing, the pleasures of fashion and the physical pains it inflicts. Clothes are so imposing that they take up a life of their own (they loom as large as colossi, they dance in the air) and thus change the way we perceive bodies (think also of the bodies of mice, whose impossibly thin tails get entangled like sewing thread). Such emphasis is quite fitting for a story about how one outfit (and, especially, one accessory) radically transforms the life of a young woman.
Fashion saves. Morally, the stance of the movie is crystal clear. And while it is true that her stepsisters are ridiculed for wasting time on idle accessorizing, Cinderella is never chastised for wearing a ball gown. (Unrealistically, she also does not feel any remorse for losing a crystal slipper.) But then she is spared any criticism because she is a hard-working, obedient woman – a reasoning that Max Weber first found in Calvinist preaching and considers the foundational tenet of capitalism.4 Indeed, by showing how submissiveness and productivity justify consumption and lead to salvation, Cinderella is the quintessential capitalist fable.
But Cinderella is also a saccharine, depoliticized Evita Peron (who was a fixture in late ’40s magazines), or, if you prefer, a plain vanilla Eliza Doolittle, as she jumps through social classes without going through the hardships of training. Cinderella learns no manners – her accent is perfect from the start – and does not know the alienation embedded in any process of transformation. (Which is instead what Billy Wilder focuses on in Sabrina, 1954.) She just swaps dresses. Yet Cinderella is the ultimate fashion dream not because of grand, meaningful costumes or its unashamed support to materialism. It is a dream because it pretends that an appearance can match one’s inner self as precisely as Cinderella’s slipper fits her tiny foot. Such a correlation (reiterated in later variations, including Pretty Woman) supports the fashionistas’ simplistic view that fashion expresses the inner self rather than contributing to the difficult and often incoherent construction of one’s identity.
Still, Cinderella is not just a good film to talk about fashion (an ambiguous term by which we denote different things, from trends to clothing); it also offers a one-of-a-kind survey of 1950s couture.5 More precisely, the popularity of the movie – whose earnings allowed Disney to pull his company out of a financial crisis and enter the TV industry – mirrors that of Christian Dior, another postwar success story.6 Since the launch of his maison in 1947, Dior surged to become Paris’ most famous couturier, head of a business that accounted for half of France’s fashion export. (The percentage actually varies according to the sources – some even say 75% – but no one questions the fact that Dior created a cash cow.)7
Dior’s immediate success was sealed by a promotional tour across the US in the fall of 1947, which took him to New York, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco and LA, where Disney started working on Cinderella shortly after the French designer’s departure. Given American journalists’ ubiquitous celebration of Dior’s “new look” (an expression coined by Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow), it is little surprise that Disney chose such a silhouette for Cinderella’s gown (Fig. 1).
The “new look” was essentially a revival of the nineteenth-century hourglass figure: softly rounded shoulders, tight sleeves, a nipped-in waistline and a very, very wide skirt. It was a style that nicely matched Disney’s setting of the story in an indeterminate past. Yet it was also a form of fashion replete with botanical references. It is mostly forgotten today, but Dior named many of his dresses after flowers and called “Corolla” his first silhouette, whose billowy skirt whorls from the waist as petals spring from stems. The parallel must have resonated with Disney’s idea to set Cinderella’s makeover in a garden.
Disney’s association of Dior and Cinderella left an impression on his audiences. It returns, for instance, in Sabrina Fair, the 1953 play by Samuel Taylor that Billy Wilder adapted for the big screen. In a climactic dialogue in which the protagonist (a humble chauffeur’s daughter) reflects on how deeply her Parisian trip has transformed her way of thinking, Sabrina realizes that she is a Cinderella who cannot go back to “the chimney corner.” Her epiphany comes from spotting, amongst the guests of a party she is spying from far away, a Dior gown. “I have an evening dress very much like that,” she remarks, thus exposing the reasons for her metamorphosis. Like Disney’s Cinderella, after having the privilege of wearing a Dior(-inspired) gown, she cannot help but dance with the prince.8
(As an aside, while Cinderella’s dress largely conforms to Dior’s diktats, her sparkling schoolgirl’s headband and black choker are American additions. Perhaps Disney was thinking of Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Goulue or of his posters of other can-can girls, but I suspect the source was more prosaic.9 At the Academy Awards ceremony of February 1948, both winners Loretta Young and Celeste Holm sported chokers, popular since wartime thanks to pin-up girls. In that year Disney was nominated in the Best Short Subject category for Chip an’ Dale and Pluto’s Blue Note.)
Cinderella, however, does not just showcase a ball gown by Dior with American accessories. It actually stages his triumph over his predecessors. In his 1956 autobiography, Christian Dior et moi, the designer credits the success of his “new look” to his clients’ desire for more sober silhouettes.10 (In other words, Dior paints himself as the equalizer of fashion’s offers and demands. This may have been the case, but I think that his success was mostly down to PR – before starting his maison, he befriended many journalists and therefore shaped women’s desires as much as he worked to fulfill them.)11
Dior points out that in postwar Paris women grew tired of the eccentricities of Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian designer in love with witty dresses, illusionistic effects and conceptual twists.12 A friend of Jean Cocteau as well as other artists and filmmakers, she decorated her much-coveted dresses with glowing sequins, fanciful embroideries and the most elaborate buttons. Above all she liked bows. One of her most famous photographs portrays her with an enormous white bow sticking out of a tight black blazer, which is a reference to her most famous piece: a jumper that simulates in trompe l’oeil a bow from an imaginary blouse underneath.
But this is how Cinderella intended to go to the ball: with an enormous bow covering the bosom of a dress made out of shocking pink fabric, Schiaparelli’s signature hue (Fig. 2). Her stepmother and sisters destroy it because they, too, are wearing Schiaparelli (who in 1948 revived dresses with end-de-siècle panniers on the back, a homage to Toulouse-Lautrec).13 Cinderella’s humiliation – the step-relatives literally leave her in rags – may represent a narrative zenith, but fashionwise it simply reinstates Cinderella’s outdated taste. Indeed, her disheveled look is an even more explicit reference to Schiaparelli, who, in 1938, produced a so-called tear dress in collaboration with Salvador Dalì (Fig. 3). Please notice the way Disney shapes the tatters as pointy shards and emphasizes them by playing on darker and lighter hues of the pink fabric, in accordance with the form and palette of the shreds folding out of Schiaparelli’s veil. A fan and friend of Dalì, with whom he collaborated on the Destino project months before embarking on Cinderella, Disney must have known the dress, which returns in other artworks by the Spanish artist.14
Cinderella, in other words, needs help. And this is why the fairy godmother intervenes. She does not repair her Schiaparelli dress, but exchanges it for a much more fashionable Dior gown. Cinderella’s metamorphosis is quick in contrast to the laborious making of the pink dress by a platoon of singing mice. The transformation sequence (which Disney apparently considered his favorite) pairs Cinderella’s passage from servant to princess with the shift from homemade tailoring in wartime to the couturier’s ready-to-wear creations.15 Here Disney is paying lip service to the marketing strategies of Parisian houses, which insisted that couturiers were wizards, magically making clothes from sketches. Chanel “prided herself on being unable to sew a stitch,” writes Dior, who followed her lead and detached himself from manual labor.16 He is hardly photographed while holding a pin. Instead, he sketches on boards, contemplates fabric swatches, or points at features of dresses with his signature cane. But this is exactly what Cinderella’s godmother does. She looks at her figure, ponders, and then takes another look. At only one point does she use her (long) wand as a measuring rod, a reference to (or a prefiguration of) a famous shot of Dior buoyantly measuring the alarmingly short distance between skirt and ground (Fig. 4). (After the rationing of the war, journalists kept asking him about the length of his skirts, present and future. He was harshly criticized for squandering fabric, and during his US tour, a protest was organized outside his Chicago hotel. His designs were seen as forcing women back to oppressing shapes, and his lengthened skirts as cutting short the mourning of war.)17
In other words, Cinderella’s fairy godmother is a portrayal of Christian Dior. (Pixar’s The Incredibles continued the trend by shaping Edna Mode as a modern Edith Head.) Yet the connection between Dior and Disney is not unilateral – a simple act of deference – as Dior accepted and internalized Disney’s tribute. Indeed, his autobiography is permeated by the magic of Cinderella. He speaks of the perfect wardrobe as “Cinderella’s trousseau” and calls the couturier “one of the last possessors of the wand of Cinderella’s fairy godmother.”18
Moreover, Disney’s fable provided Dior with an effective and recognizable narrative. A kid from Granville, in France’s northwest Manche department, Dior became the king of fashion thanks to a twist of fate. His godmother was Marcel Boussac, an entrepreneur who provided financial backing for the maison, and with whom Dior agreed to work after consulting a fortune teller (a supernatural detail that does not go unnoticed here). Feeling as lucky as Cinderella, Dior made an impression at his first fashion ball thanks to a dream team. As he reiterates in his autobiography, his brand was a collective effort.19 There is something quite military in the way Dior lists his wondrous employees, and this makes me think that he did not completely cut free from the mentality of war. But then Christian Dior and I is no Dirty Dozen (1967), which details the process of team building. Rather, like Disney’s Cinderella, his helpers effortlessly slip into their new roles, ready for the magnificent gala that Dior envisioned the fashion world to be in the 1950s.
- Nancy J. Troy, Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003). [↩]
- The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London, 1947-57 (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, Sept 22, 2007-Jan 6, 2008); Charles James: Beyond Fashion (New York City: Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 8-Aug 10, 2014); La Mode en France, 1947-57 (Paris: Palais Galliera, Jul 12-Nov 2, 2014). Just to mention a few, recent shows. [↩]
- Marie-France Pochna, Christian Dior: The Man Who Made the World Look New (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996); Richard Martin and Harold Koda, Christian Dior (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996); Alexandra Palmer, Dior (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2009). [↩]
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Scribner, 1958: 162. [↩]
- On the slippery meaning of fashion see Roland Barthes, “Language and Clothing,” in id. The Language of Fashion (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 3-19. [↩]
- Michael Barrier, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 221. [↩]
- Pochna, Christian Dior: 224; Tomoko Okawa, “Licensing Practices at Maison Christian Dior,” in Regina Lee Blaszczyk ed., Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture and Consumers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 82-107. [↩]
- Samuel Taylor, Sabrina Fair. A Comedy in Four Acts, Dramatists Play Service, 1953, 34-35. [↩]
- Toulouse-Lautrec made many portraits of Louise Weber, aka La Goulue (the glutton), such as this wonderful oil painting today at New York’s Museum of Modern Art: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/34936. [↩]
- Christian Dior, Christian Dior and I, tr. by Antonia Fraser (New York: Dutton, 1957), 46. [↩]
- Dior, Christian Dior and I, 47-49. [↩]
- Dior, Christian Dior and I, 45-46. [↩]
- Soon after the release of Cinderella, Schiaparelli worked on John Houston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) for which she designed Zsa Zsa Gabor’s costumes. [↩]
- Ghislaine Wood, Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design, London, Victoria and Albert Museum: 2007, 147. [↩]
- Geraldine Howell, Wartime Fashion: From Haute Couture to Homemade, 1939-1945 (London: Berg, 2012), 129-39. [↩]
- Dior, Christian Dior and I, 31. [↩]
- Dior, Christian Dior and I, 70-71. [↩]
- Dior, Christian Dior and I, 117-18 (on Cinderella’s clothes) and 250 (on the couturier as the fairy godmother). [↩]
- Dior, Christian Dior and I, 26-44. [↩]