“I’m looking for the great collection to rise from the ashes of war,” says Glenn Close, acting as the narrator. Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow in the upcoming TV series The New Look.
As the Nazi occupation of Paris came to an end in 1945, the city’s once-respected couture scene was deserted. Many houses, including Chanel, were closed, and the few names that were trading and (knowingly or naively) selling ball gowns to Nazi wives were a bit tainted in the eyes of the newly liberated French customer.
Against this background, Christian Dior launched his first collection in 1947. The reception was rapturous, the lines were thought to be green shoots. Snow and her peers had found the revolutionary they were looking for. “Dear Christian,” Snow famously said, in real life, “your dresses look so New”. The collection and the reception we had changed the way we dress.
The New Look, which launches on Apple TV on February 14, marks Dior’s debut as one of the world’s most famous couturiers. Director Todd A Kessler (the writer behind Damageswho started his career on The Sopranos) has assembled a great cast – Ben Mendelsohn as Monsieur Dior, Juliette Binoche as his rival Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, John Malkovich as his former employer Lucien Lelong, and Close as her promoter, Snow. Acting legends play fashion legends, match for game.
Behind the glamour, however, the series explores the events from this unique turning point in fashion history that have “never been dramatized before”, says Kessler. The Telegraph. “The unusual circumstances that led Christian Dior to launch his first collection in 1947 inspired The New Look. The Nazi occupation of Paris for four years and the horrors of the Second World War, which affected almost everyone alive at the time, led to a renaissance of creativity.”
Between 10 editions Kessler imagines the friendship and competition between Dior and his colleagues (Chanel, Pierre Balmain and Lelong in particular). It unpicks the difficulties each personality faced during the Second World War – the question of continuing to design, with clients on the side, the struggle to help the efforts of the French resistance, and to maintain a front as high profile individuals. Many of the glittering fashion leaders of Paris were attractive names whom the Nazi leaders wanted to meet and, in some cases, relocate to Berlin.
So how much of the story is true? Dior began his career as a gallerist, then an illustrator, before taking a job as a house designer with Robert Piguet in 1938. After being called up for military service in 1939, he returned to Paris to design the house of Lucien Lelong .
Kessler’s drama unfolds here, in 1943, as Dior and his collaborator Pierre Balmain, apparently tired of designing for someone else’s name and struggling with the moral dilemma of accepting wages in return for clothing do, when the only people who left were having a party. Nazis.
This particular moment is very complex to zoom in on – and therefore ripe for drama. Kessler researched seven years “not only on the personal stories of Dior and his contemporaries (Chanel, Balenciaga, Balmain, Lelong, Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, to name but a few) but also on the two decades in France before the Nazi Occupation in Paris,” he says. “It was important for me to understand the French attitude to life and freedom as best I could, and to realize what the Germans meant at that time.”
Chanel’s loyalties during the war seemed contradictory – she is known to have been recorded by the Nazi authorities as a reliable source in July 1941, using the code name Westminster. But in January 1943, it is recorded that she joined the French Resistance as a casual agent.
She closed her couture business in 1939, and did not reopen until February 1954, at the age of 71. By then, Dior was considered the master of couture and the most famous designer in the world – Chanel came back in the press. . “Watch out for M. Dior – Mlle Chanel may be one step ahead of you,” wrote British journalist Jean Wiseman at the time.
Catherine Dior, Christian’s younger sister, played an important role in the establishment of his eponymous house. She was an active member of the French Resistance, who was eventually captured and taken to Ravensbrück in August 1944. Her brave story is usually overshadowed by the great success of her older brother. But her safe return to Paris in May 1945 added to the optimism the designer felt as he created his New Look, and the Miss Dior fragrance, which was sprayed through the atelier as he delivered his new design ideas.
“Catherine’s return seemed to transform Christian,” Justine Picardie, author Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Coutureto write i The Telegraph in 2021. “Having shown no particular ambition to have his own couture house, in April 1946 he suddenly found the confidence to do so. When he showed his New Look collection, Catherine was watching in the audience.”
Actress Maisie Williams, who plays Catherine in the series, read Picardie’s book before taking on the role, and listened to chapters of the audiobook on repeat before bed while filming.
“Everything that Catherine went through is not commonly known,” says Williams The Telegraph. “When we think of fashion and when we think of Christian Dior we don’t really think of Catherine at all. But the life she lived and the influence she had were such a huge part of his inspiration. I wanted to tell the human story, so people could relate to the way she affected him.”
In his 1957 autobiography, Dior wrote that his “unhappy chapter” had ended when Catherine returned. He was also triumphant when he saw Pierre Balmain leave Lelong and set up his own company, he followed suit. He visited a fortune, received financial support from the Boussac group, and considered it a seal of fate when the building he admired at 30 Avenue Montaigne came up for lease.
“My hope allowed me to temporarily forget that we were still living after a terrible war,” Dior reflected in his memoirs. “There were traces of it around me – destroyed buildings, destroyed countryside, rationing… and less serious, but more interesting to me, terrible fashions. Hats were too big, skirts too short, jackets too long, shoes too heavy.”
He left to stay with his friends in Fleury-en-Bière, and in two weeks he sketched the basis of his first Corolle and En 8 lines – the elegant collections that would later be known as “The New Look”. His vision was to allow women, who had limited access to fabrics and might have spent time wearing nothing but uniforms, to be feminine and beautiful, with round shoulders, full waists , and full skirts. His dresses had glamorous names – Gala, Vogue, Songe (dream) – to indicate where they were meant to be worn, and how they would make the person feel.
“We were just emerging from a sea of poverty, obsessed with ration books and clothing coupons,” Dior later revealed. “It was only natural that my creations should take the form of a reaction against this lack of imagination.”
That intuition, says Kessler, was the key to success. His series, in its drama, allows the audience to understand the sadness and the news that inspired one of the most recognized labels in the world.
Kessler wants viewers to “hit the pause button”, he says. “We speak these names daily on streets, airports, fashion houses. We should ask ourselves who were the people behind the names we have known all our lives?”