This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first showing of a full-scale collection by fashion designer Christian Dior outside France — not in London or New York as might be expected, but in Sydney, Australia.
In July 1948, David Jones presented 50 Dior designs at a gala dinner at its Sydney store. Only a year earlier Dior had introduced the Corolle line — a collection that would re-establish Paris as the centre of international style after the disruptions of World War II. Dior's revolutionary design, characterised by a below-mid-calf length full-skirt, low neckline and small waist, was quickly termed the New Look by the American fashion media.
The New Look's emphasis on busts and waists was received rapturously. After nearly a decade of shoulder pads and short straight skirts, women around the world were hungry for the glamour and feminine luxury of Dior's fashions. (Having enjoyed years of uninterrupted gazing at women's legs, men were decidedly more ambivalent about the descending hemlines.) Given the international fascination with the New Look in 1948, David Jones performed a remarkable coup indeed.
Following its Sydney debut, the New Look became rapidly popular in Australia, where French high fashion had been held in the highest esteem for decades. According to fashion historian Danielle Whitfield, many Australian women maintained a belief, fostered by local magazines such as the Australian Women's Weekly, 'in the importance of Paris as the centre of style'.
Dior's designs provided a definitive break from the austerity of World War II. The war had severely disrupted the international and local fashion industries. Occupied Europe was forced to discontinue its fashion exports, while rationing and regulations restricted the availability of fabric locally. The shortage of material for dressmaking due to government restrictions meant most Australian women spent the war attired in the 'austerity suit' — a short, straight skirt, and a jacket with no more than two pockets and four buttons.
The drop in output by the European fashion industry and local austerity measures led in turn to a drastic reduction in advertising in Australia. Paper shortages also meant women's and fashion magazines were forced to reduce their number of pages and to print on paper of inferior quality.
As paper, fabric, and colour film became gradually available after the war, the new French styles became a point of focus for thousands of Australian women. Their desire to both peruse and dress themselves in glamorous attire could be finally realised after so many years of restraint.
The popularity of the New Look was also a continuation of the emphasis on women's sexuality in fashion, film and magazines during the war. Government figures, military leaders and members of the clergy railed against the spread of venereal disease and women's supposed lax sexual morality. At the same time, however, a surfeit of images and articles encouraged women to maintain their sexual allure in order to boost the morale of serving men.
Indeed, the sexualisation of media images and women's investment in beauty culture seemingly reached a zenith during World War II, ironically a period when the accoutrements of glamour were in short supply. Women sought desperately to maintain their femininity with whatever accessories, cosmetics, and attire they could acquire. Some experts opined that cosmetics boosted the morale and productivity of female war workers, and lipstick became a particular symbol of the necessity of protecting feminine beauty.
The success of Dior's collections in the post-war period was a reflection of Australian women's undiminished yearnings for beauty after years of material restraints.
With its focus on waists and busts, the New Look required a specific kind of body management, including the donning of 'waspies' (waist-specific girdles), which evoked 19th-century corseting. June Dally-Watkins, who modelled in the 1948 David Jones parade, recalls having to perform endlessly repetitive exercises to achieve the 18-inch waist required for the Dior gowns.
While the New Look was physically restrictive, its sensual characteristics offered many wearers feelings of power. In her memoir of 1950s American suburban life, Margaret Halsey recalled trying on 'a silk print which, worn with very high heels and my hair in French roll, makes me look properly carnal ... as if I had my mind on lower things'.
The swinging, swirling skirts were a radical departure from the wartime 'austerity suit'. The tactility and beauty of the garments provoked emotional responses in many wearers. The New Look offered Australian women a fresh and glorious way of expressing their individuality and sensuality through fashion.
Madeleine Hamilton wrote her PhD thesis on the phenomenon of the Australian 1940s and 1950s pin-up girl. Previous articles have appeared in Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, Eras, and Space: New Writing.