FRANCE: Dictator by Demand

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Bone Is Unattractive. The relationship between Christian Dior and Seventh Avenue is based on mutual need. Ten years ago last month Dior brought out the New Look and Seventh Avenue joyfully discovered that every dress in every closet in the U.S. had been outmoded at one stroke. Every year since then, Seventh Avenue has looked to Dior to do it again. Dior duly assumed the accents proper to a dictator. "The women who are loudest for short skirts will soon be wearing the longest dresses. I know very well the women." He banished knees: "This part is never to be seen. It is bone, and I do not find bone particularly attractive." On occasion (1953) he changed direction without breaking stride, declaring: "I'm just itching to pin up women's skirts."

To Seventh Avenue's manufacturers, he was a guiding lamp in an uncertain world; he could tell them not what women had liked (they knew that), but what women would like in the next months, and they could make their plans accordingly. More than any other man, Dior has succeeded in making the Paris couturier, a man dedicated to painstaking and individual design for wealthy and exacting customers, a prime factor in the 20th century era of mass-produced clothes.

Why should U.S. buyers travel to Paris for their designs? Not all of them do. But the plain fact is that Paris has a reservoir of skilled needleworkers and a tradition of craftsmanship that no other nation can match—a tradition established largely by the simple fact that no other people have been willing to devote so much time and thought to their clothes.

Dolls for Britain. Christian Dior is a product of three centuries of elegance that run back to the reign of King Louis XIV. To control the restive feudal nobles he subdued, Louis built the huge palace at Versailles, turned it into a vast gilded cage where the aristocracy, cut off from their lands, were reduced to an idle group waiting on the Sun King. In that sumptuous court, elegance became an obsession, and Louis put the obsession to use. He organized Paris' dressmakers and tailors. Two life-sized dolls, dressed in the latest fashions, were shipped monthly across the Channel to London.

The fact that Britain was engaging the French army hotly in battle over the Spanish succession did not deter George I from ordering a whole Paris trousseau for his daughter-in-law. Marie Antoinette's dressmaker, Rose Bertin, maintained Paris' reputation for extravagant whims, and after the Revolution, aristocratic ladies carried on with the macabre fancy of dressing 'àa la victime,' their hair shorn off as in preparation for the guillotine and their necks bound by a thin red ribbon to simulate the cut of the knife. Trade thrived, and soon Louis' chief minister was declaring: "French fashions are to France what the mines of Peru are to Spain."

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