How New was the “New Look”?

Left: Dior in Vogue, March 1, 1948. Right: Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

In many fashion histories, the “New Look” introduced by Christian Dior in 1948 is portrayed as nothing short of a revolution.  With his famous collection featuring soft shoulders, nipped waists, full skirts, and longer lengths, he singlehandedly ended prevailing World War Two styles featuring boxy shapes and shorter skirts.

Left: Dior in Vogue, Sept. 15, 1948. Right: Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

But how new were these ideas? I recently bought the October/November 1946 issue of Vogue Pattern Book and could see clear antecedents to Dior’s style upset.  While it is true that skirts weren’t as long as two years later, and shoulders were still fairly broad, there was an obvious nipped waist and a real emphasis on the hips. Skirts were heading down as well.  And while I saw no big full skirts in 1946, Dior’s collection two years later included slim suits as well.

Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

In this overview of the essential new elements of 1946 style, there are several details that would disappear two years later, particularly the normal armhole, with its well padded shoulder. However others, like the padded hip, became a central element of Dior’s New Look.

I write this on November 7, 2017, exactly one hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution.  I studied this event for most of my adult life.  At first I was attracted to the ruptures that it caused, but the more I looked the more continuities I could see.  Revolutions aren’t built from nothing, not even fashion revolutions.

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5 Responses to How New was the “New Look”?

  1. Jen O says:

    Yes, these details do seem “pre New Look”. For over 10 years (mid-1930’s – mid-1940’s) fashion had a love affair with Victorian thru Edwardian fashions, most specific in the puffy shoulders, little peplum details, perky hats, fit and flared skirts. This carried over into the movies where countless nostalgic themes from the earlier eras were set in that era (“Meet Me in St. Louis” etc.) Where the difference lies is partially in the hand of commonly used fashion fabrics: these went from soft and drapey crepes to crisp and firm fabrics with lots of interfacing to create a structure for that hourglass: “New Look” silhouette. The fashion body also changed from lithe, thin and almost slouchy to a more upright corseted torso. Clearly the structured shoulders gave way to a slightly rounded “Victorian” shoulder line too.
    The fun question is: If the war had not interveined, would the fashion of 1940 have naturally evolved into the “New Look’s” silhouette in 1946?
    p.s. I give Adrian alot of credit for the earlier revival styles.

  2. Jen O says:

    Just wanted to add that the New Look’s best demise photo is the one taken in 1961 that shows Jackie O looking amazing and “modern” and Princess Margaret appearing like an aging has-been in an “Old Look” gown, (feeling sorry for her just looking at this)

    • Thanks for the link. P.S. That’s Queen Elizabeth II, not her sister Margaret. Her Majesty’s voluptuous figure has always been a fashion problem for her — big bust, tiny waist. Since it wasn’t her job to look sexy, she often ended up looking dowdy.

  3. Reader says:

    I read somewhere that Balenciaga was responsible for The New Look, but Dior got credit. It’s not a look I like: It’s stuffy, uncomfortable, and hyper-feminine in a foot-binding way.

  4. Great post! If you look through British fashion images, like those in Julian Robinson’ s book, Fashion in the Forties, you can find many examples of continuity leading to the Dior “New Look.” Strict wartime regulations interrupted the use of midcalf skirts and drapery, but that super feminine silhouette was “paused” and waiting to be realized.

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