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The New Look Arrives in America
by Caroline Biggs '12
“If there could be a composite, mythical woman dressed by a mythical, composite couturier, she would probably wear her skirt about fourteen inches from the floor and it would be modeled on a flower.” (Vogue, 1947)1
“Ridiculous, stupidly exaggerated waste of material and manpower. Foisted on the average woman to the detriment of normal clothing. Our modern world has become used to the freedom of short, sensible clothing. The New Look is reminiscent of a caged bird’s attitude. I hope our fashion dictators will realize the new outlook of women and give the death blow to any attempt to curtail women’s freedom.” (Mabel Ridealgh, Member of Parliament, 1947)2
In early September 1947, six months after debuting his first collection in Paris, Christian Dior boarded the Queen Elizabeth and embarked on his first journey to America.3 Already a household name in most of western Europe, Dior had little idea of what to expect in the new terrain, except that Stanley Marcus, the powerhouse chairman behind the department store Neiman-Marcus, had personally invited him to accept the store’s annual “Fashion Award,” known as the “Oscar of Fashion.”4 To win this honor was not an easy feat, especially for a relatively new designer.
Although America was foreign territory to Christian Dior, his international reputation preceded him. Despite attempts from the U.S. War Production Board to censor images of his lavish styles in the American press, his sensational look was not only prevalent in the fashion magazines that praised the style, but also generated major coverage in other media outlets for its exquisite although questionable extravagance, so soon after staunch wartime rationing. Although in favor with the luxury retailers, buyers, and high-fashion press—and no doubt helping resurrect the dwindling sales of Neiman-Marcus—the look stood in direct defiance of the principles of patriotic self-denial that had been so integral to the American wartime ideology of rationing, utility, and functionality. Six months proved more than enough time to generate both proponents and critics of the style, including, as will be shown, vehement detractors. Americans had strong opinions about The New Look before Dior ever set foot on American soil.
Even if Dior had some sense of the growing ambivalence about his New Look, nothing could have prepared him for the criticism he faced upon landing in the United States. According to his autobiography, when he arrived in New York, he was immediately greeted by an immigration officer sneering, “So you’re the designer with the long skirts” and by crowds of protestors who swarmed him as he made his way through the station.5 Dior would later lament that entering America was “like being a prisoner in the dock before a terrible tribunal, with the courtroom filled with flashbulbs firing at you before you even say a word. And on this occasion faced the grave charge of wishing to conceal the sacrosanct legs of the American female.”6 It would indeed be the most conspicuous aspect of Dior’s fashions—the ankle length skirt—that the American public fixated on, for better or worse.
Although The New Look was globally controversial after the shortages and rationings of World War II—the President of the British Board of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps, tried but failed to pass a bill against the style because of its excessiveness—no opposition was as pronounced and organized as the American resistance to Christian Dior’s collection.7 American New Look resistance was very widespread, with over a dozen groups forming across the states, specifically to challenge and protest everything from the corsets to the price of the couture. The New York Times reported that by 1948, nearly 300,000 Americans belonged to some anti-New Look organization.8 To fully grasp the significance of The New Look as a fashion revolution, one must pay special attention to its counter-revolution. The resistance functions as a reminder of the symbolic power of fashion; its influence on everyday women seemingly removed from matters of French couture.
The largest and most influential of the groups that formed in the United States in opposition to The New Look was the Little Below the Knee Club (LBKC). The club started in Dallas, Texas, the same city where Dior would receive his Neiman-Marcus Fashion Award, and it boasted 1,300 members in that state alone. The LBKC formed in reaction to the longer hemline of The New Look.9 Its founder, Bobbie Woodard, a twenty-four-year old housewife, was fed up with hiding her legs and did not feel she “should have to throw out her entire wardrobe,” only to “add years” to her appearance.10 Woodard objected to Dior’s style that brought the hemline of the skirt to a minimum of eight inches below the knee, most often grazing the ankle at fourteen inches.11 She presumably possessed and had become used to a wardrobe that reflected the wartime skirt styles that complied with strict L-85 regulations that shortened the hemline to two inches below the knee, a style that LBKC members embraced as economical, as an expression of civic duty, and as liberation from more conservative styles and times. “I didn’t feel like throwing away my entire wardrobe and a lot of women feel the same way,” Woodard explained. “This winter we’re going to wear the clothes that look best on us—the styles we have right now.”12 Members of the Little Below the Knee Club followed the mantra, “The Alamo fell, our hemlines will not,” and began the first national revolt against The New Look.13
The LBKC organized small demonstrations and protests against Dior and the retailers that sold Dior’s designs, particularly Neiman-Marcus. Its first organized protest took place on the same day that Dior arrived in Dallas to accept his “Oscar.” Hundreds of LBKC members stopped traffic dressed in bloomers and other “old-fashioned” styles, making their point that The New Look ironically resembled obsolete fashions.14 In their Victorian-era style costumes that conspicuously echoed Dior’s styles, the protesters marched down Dallas’s Main Street bearing signs that proclaimed: “Shall it be This? Like Grandma?”15 In Chicago, LBKC members crashed a Dior appearance chanting “Go Home” and “Burn Monsieur Dior!”16 In Louisville, 1,265 members gathered to sign and publicize an anti-Dior petition.17 By 1948, estimates placed the Little Below the Knee Club national membership at 30,000. 18
Hoping to gain legislative attention, members of the Little Below the Knee Club demanded that the government intervene, just as they had raised hemlines during the war with rationing. Club members staged demonstrations that drew press coverage. Chapters formed all over the country as resistance to Dior’s “peaceful and feminine” style grew.19 Other groups such as the Women’s Organization to War on Styles (WOWS) and the male-dominated League of Broke Husbands (LBH), also mobilized and rallied against the expense of the excessive materials used to create the seemingly archaic style.
Like the LBKC, the WOWS staged public demonstrations that drew attention to anti-New Look sentiments. With several chapters throughout California, the WOWS, founded by Carrol Reynolds of Berkeley, focused on both the longer hemlines and the restrictive foundation garments necessary to complete the look.20 WOWS regarded the corsets, hip pads, and whalebone girdles as at least equally as offensive as the leg-concealing skirts. The WOWS members clad in bikinis and lingerie picketed department stores that carried Dior. Scantily dressed protestors paraded outside New Look display windows with signs that exclaimed: “DO WE NEED PADDING?” and “UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED THEY [hemlines] FALL.”21 In contrast to the overdressed demonstrators from the LBKC, the WOWS protestors relied heavily on their relatively uncovered bodies to gain attention, perhaps echoing the changing sexual mores of American postwar culture.
The demonstrations and protests continued throughout 1947 as The New Look gained popularity throughout North America. In Oildale, California, Louise Horn demonstrated the dangers lurking in The New Look by letting a bus door shut on her long skirt; she ran an entire block alongside the bus until freed. 22 New organizations formed: in Dayton, the Anti-Long Skirt Association; in Toronto, the League for the Prevention of Longer Skirts for Women; in Maine, the Lizzie Stone League for the Abolition of Long Dresses in the Daytime, whose members lamented: “The new styles are a method cooked up by the textile clothing manufacturers to force women to buy a whole new wardrobe.”23 By 1948, over a quarter of a million people were now involved in an anti-New Look organization.24 American women, it seemed, had spent too long displaying their patriotism through utility to be told to do the opposite, let alone by the French. It was not that they wanted to keep rationing, but rather that they did not want something as frivolous and simultaneously oppressive as Dior’s New Look to be the new style for women after the American wartime experience.
American men were also angry at Dior’s designs—most specifically, with the price tags. In Georgia, the League of Broke Husbands formed to protest the price of The New Look-inspired dresses, calling for “30,000 American Husbands to hold that hemline by joining.”25 The group focused its efforts on the excessive and expensive fabrics used to create the styles, insisting that The New Look victimized men financially. The LBH also took issue with the aesthetics of the look, particularly the conservatism of the long skirts (“men want to see women’s legs!”) as well as the undergarments associated with the look. Male League members saw the style as a threat to their ideals of a woman’s appearance.26 In an open letter to Christian Dior, a LBH member lamented: “You and your so-called ‘genius’ have succeeded in disfiguring my wife.”27 However far-removed from women’s fashions the League of Broke Husbands seemed, and despite the dozens of female-based counter-Dior groups, it was arguably the most effective of all The New Look resistance groups. Thanks no doubt to the fact that one of its founders was a state legislator; by 1948 the Georgia Legislature announced its intention to pass a ban on long skirts after the League succeeded in getting the 30,000 signatures for its petition.28 Although the law never materialized, that the LBH persuaded lawmakers to consider such a measure was a feat unrivaled by any other anti-New Look group.
What did Dior make of the American backlash to his “revolutionary” style? When first confronted with the Little Below the Knee Club in Dallas, he seemed confused by the commotion of the “suffragist housewives”:29 “Americans are the most leisured people in the world, I am at a loss to understand this mad haste.”30 But by 1948, he developed a more deliberate sneer towards the counter-revolutionists. Asserting the irresistible power of French couture, he predicted: “The women who are the loudest for short skirts will soon be wearing the longest dresses. I know very well the women. The short skirt was never a good fashion—very vulgar. The American women will accept the new fashions. You can never stop the fashions.”31 Dior saw American women as ultimately powerless to countermand the dictates of the fashion industry.
Despite the initial resistance, the Dior revolution itself was in fact unstoppable. As Time described in 1948, “Despite the outcries, women were already showing enough enthusiasm for The New Look to pull the dress industry out of its slump and set it humming. Hems of old dresses were being let down with such speed that many a town ran out of seam tape.”32 And the American success of The New Look was just as pronounced as the resistance. When wartime clothing restrictions were abandoned in May 1945, American designers had cautiously lowered hems.33 This excited so little interest that the $4 billion women’s clothing industry—one of the biggest in the United States—fell into a major slump by the spring of 1946.34 The American fashion market needed a boost. Dior provided an excitement in style that rendered all wartime fashions obsolete.
Fashion magazine powerhouses—Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar and Edna Woolen Chase of Vogue—unequivocally supported The New Look designs throughout the controversies that, ultimately, made Christian Dior’s debut collection an American success.35 In the collection’s first year, Dior’s American sales accounted for 75 percent of France’s fashion exports and 60 percent of Dior’s sales.36 Additionally, despite haute couture being traditionally reserved for the French elite, Dior’s biggest independent buyers (that is, individual couture buyers versus store buyers) were American women.37 Even the corset industry, which was practically rendered obsolete by wartime styles and rationing, generated an impressive $6 million in American sales in 1948.38 The New Look—a strict departure from wartime utilitarian styles—appealed to the women who sought refuge from the bleakness of wartime regulation.
Ultimately—despite its extravagance and the resistance it encountered—The New Look became a major success in North America. The style expressed a frivolity and an optimism that were both central to the revival of American culture in the postwar years. French luxury appealed to the majority of postwar American women because it symbolized the prosperity of both prewar times and postwar ideals. Dior’s fashions, as Chase remarked, “reflected the way of life American women dreamed of for their future.”39 This way of life nodded at the social conventions of the past but emphasized all things “new” in the emerging consumer culture.40 So, although groups like the Little Below the Knee Club scoffed at and protested the old-fashioned “covering up” required by The New Look, it ironically represented the “new” to enough other women to make it successful.
1 Vogue, April, 1947, quoted in Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 11.
2 Quoted in Nigel Cawthorne, The New Look: The Dior Revolution (London: Reed International Books Limited, 1996), 115.
3 Christian Dior, Dior by Dior (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2007), 38-9.
4 Dior, 43.
5 Dior, 41.
6 Dior 40-2.
7 Valerie Steele, Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 13.
8 “Below the Knee,” The New York Times, August 31, 1947.
9 Jeanne Perkins, “Dior,” Life (March 1, 1948), 84.
10 “Manners & Morals: Resistance,” Time, September 1, 1947.
11 “Hold That Hemline! Women Rebel Against Long Skirt Edict,” See, January, 1948, 11.
12 “Texas Women Set to Bar Long Skirts,” The New York Times, August 18, 1947.
13 Diana de Marly, Christian Dior (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990) 34.
14 “Hold That Hemline,” 11-14.
15 “Women in Dallas Deride Long Skirts: Little Below the Knee Club Ties Up Traffic With Parade in Stuffy Garb,” The New York Times, August 24, 1947.
16 “Hold That Hemline,” 13.
17 “Fashion: Counter-Revolution,” Time, September 15, 1947.
18 “Below the Knee,” The New York Times, August 31, 1947.
19 Dior, 34.
20 “Hold That Hemline,” 12.
21 “Hold That Hemline,” 13.
22 Alexandra Palmer, Dior (London: V&A Publishing, 2009), 27.
23 “Hold That Hemline,” 11.
24 “Below the Knee,” The New York Times, August 31, 1947.
25 Palmer, 27.
26 “Women in Dallas Deride Long Skirts,” The New York Times, August 24, 1947.
27 Nigel Cawthorne, Key Moments in Fashion: The Evolution of Style (London: Hamlyn, 1999), 96.
28 “Manners & Morals,” Time, September 1, 1947.
29 Possibly a reflection of Dior’s attitude toward all activist women—French women were recently enfranchised only in 1944 after much activism and the French Liberation. Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2006), 79-81.
30 Dior, 47.
31 “Fashion: Counter-Revolution,” Time, September 15, 1947, emphasis added.
32 “Fashions: The New Old Look,” Time, February 23, 1948.
33 “Fashion: Counter-Revolution.”
34 “Fashion: Counter-Revolution.”
35 Brigid Keenan, Dior in Vogue (New York: Harmony Books, 1981), 10.
36 Cawthorne, The New Look: The Dior Revolution, 119, 156.
37 Dior, 34.
38 Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York: Double Day, 1981), 173.
39 “The Press: The Stylocrats,” Time, August 18, 1947.
40 Richard Jobs, Riding the New Wave: Youth and the Rejuvenation of France after the Second World War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 3.