FRANCE: Dictator by Demand

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For nearly two hours the models perform their ritualistic dance, ending with the traditional wedding dress. Then, with a spatter of conventional applause, the audience erupts from the gilt seats and flows down upon the black-clad vendeuses stationed at every step on the stairway. Each buyer has her personal vendeuse, each vendeuse her jealously guarded clients. Many will return later to make their decisions. But others, momentarily unhinged, corral their vendeuses, rush off to a grey-curtained alcove, get out of their street dresses and demand to try on themselves one of the creations they have just seen modeled.

Soon the mansion is oppressive with rampant femininity. Curtains part to reveal a feminine world of black bras and girdles, as a woman, whose soberer decisions may mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to a U.S. clothing firm, peers into a mirror with the teetering look of calculated indecision, the peculiar mark of a woman buying a dress for herself. Outside, a thousand newspapers and a hundred periodicals were beginning to thunder the word to the limit of the known world. This year the word on Dior is: "The line is free, free as the Paris air ... free from making a choice between wide and narrow . . . free to wear or not to wear a belt."

Looms of Discontent. Dior and his Paris colleagues deal in a perishable commodity—novelty. The result is an obsession with secrecy that makes the trade as security-conscious as a guided-missiles plant, its workings as carefully timed as an amphibious landing. Early last week the dresses ordered by U.S. buyers were actually delivered to them in the U.S., heavily guarded and wrapped against spying. Not until this week will the curtain be lifted to let U.S. women get their first glimpse of the actual dresses, in magazines or newspapers. Working frantically against that deadline, swank stores prepared custom-made copies, to sell at $300 and up, from originals that may have cost them from $500 to $3,500; manufacturers on Seventh Avenue trimmed and compromised to produce a $39.50 version of a simple $600 day dress to be ready for Easter sales.

Though the $1.500,000 worth of Paris designs brought back each year by U.S. buyers are a tiny item in the U.S.'s annual $4 billion dress sales, they stir the whole massive bulk of the industry to new life. Even as U.S. women flip through the fashion magazines, other manufacturers will be studying the photographs, devising ways of changing materials, reducing fullnesses, simplifying cuts so that they can present a copy of a design they never paid for. In three months the $300 custom-made copies will have been copied in their turn to sell for $49.50. and by the time the copy is copied and further simplified to reach Union Square in an $8.95 version, every stenographer will be muttering about that old thing she is wearing, and every loom from Massachusetts to Alabama, every Manhattan sewing machine and cutting table from 25th Street to 41st will be humming merrily to the tune of her discontent.

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