FRANCE: Dictator by Demand

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(8 of 9)

There He Soaks. Christian Dior, assiduously unassuming, rarely appears at theaters, operas or balls. Mornings, he starts the day with a cup of mint tea, served in his crimson-canopied antique bed by his sinisterly handsome Spanish butler. When he is preparing his collections, he then repairs to the bathroom with its Empire tub of green marble lined with silvery metal and fitted with swan's-head faucets. There he soaks. Hours later, he has covered hundreds of tiny scraps of paper with tiny figures, a kind of hieroglyphic reverie of contours and silhouettes.

From these sketches, Dior and his staff select the "line" for the season—some 150 to 200 models. They are assigned to various workrooms, which make up "toiles" —replicas in plain muslin.

Each dress is reviewed by the patron himself, sitting in a straight chair, clad in a long white butcher's smock. With a long, gold-tipped cane, Dior points and criticizes, orders a bow changed, a seam moved. Scattered through the collection are the five or six models which are called, because they may prove to be disasters, the "Trafalgars"—the dresses which are the most extreme and will make headlines or covers in the fashion magazines. Dior deliberately plans them to startle and shock, thinks of them as trial straws in the wind, to be developed if the wind is favorable next season. Being a good businessman as well as couture's best showman, Dior is always careful to include also soundly designed dresses in more conservative, bread-and-butter styles.

His "Flat Look" of two years ago created an uproar; but in fact, only one dress out of five actually incorporated the flat line. The rest were soundly rounded, and sold very well while the Flat Look fell medium flat.

As the day for the opening approaches, nerves grow tense in the studios. Assistants throw tantrums, models faint from exhaustion, Dior himself bursts into tears of emotion. On opening day, he takes refuge in the models' dressing room, a madhouse of half-clad models, hurrying dressers, seamstresses making last-minute adjustments. As each girl hurries back in, gets out of one gown and dons a new one ("girdle-to-girdle" time is calculated at three minutes), Dior questions her anxiously about the reaction, kisses her warmly if her model has been a success.

At the last the applause ripples out, and Dior timidly parts the curtain to face the onrushing ladies.

The Ephemeral. Dior has no illusions about the permanency of his creations. "We are placed under the sign of the ephemeral. Rigorous construction, precision of cut, quality of execution alone separate us from the travesty of fancy dress." But he is nonetheless serious about his ephemeral trade. "In a machine age," he says, "dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable. In an epoch as somber as ours, luxury must be defended inch by inch."

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