Clothing

October 23, 1957 – Christian Dior and Fifties Fashion in France

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Designer Christian Dior and models in London, April, 1950.

On October 23, 1957, one of France’s foremost couturiers passed his haute torch to a young prince who would come to dominate the houses of Paris’ eighth arrondissement. The dying monarch was Christian Dior and the coming king was Yves Henri Donat Matthieu-Saint-Laurent. Dior’s father, a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer, hope his second son would become a diplomat, but uncooperative Christian loved art. During the years that father Maurice’s business flourished, Christian managed a gallery and exhibited works by the likes of Pablo Picasso. After the onset of the Great Depression and the loss of his subsidized gallery, Christian went to work for designers Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong. At the end of World War II and the French Occupation, Dior opened his own atelier in 1946. His first collection was presented in February, 1947.

Harper’s Bazaar then-editor-in-chief Carmel Snow captured the essence of Dior’s creations with the phrase, the “New Look.” With wartime fabric shortages becoming a thing of the past, Christian produced voluptuous styles, shapes, and silhouettes. Smoothly-fitted bodices, narrow waists, and flaring skirts gave society’s style-setters a most feminine and curvaceous appearance.

The house of Dior was highly successful through the 1950’s. Young, upcoming designers would join the atelier to learn and contribute their vision and skills. One such young man came to Paris in 1953 as the winner of the International Wool Secretariat designer contest. He stayed on in Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and won the Secretariat competition again (beating out, among others, a young Karl Lagerfeld). On the strength of his sketches, and his shared sensibilities about fashion, Yves Saint Laurent was accepted into the Dior studio and began careful tutelage as a new apprentice.

Over time, more of Saint Laurent’s designs found their way into each season’s offerings at Dior. By August, 1957, Christian had decided that young Yves was the man to fill his slippers when the time came for a successor. He revealed his choice to Saint Laurent’s mother, who found the revelation confusing, since Dior was only 52 at the time.

Then, on October 23rd, Christian Dior passed away on holiday in Italy. Several conflicting reports as to the cause of his death have never been fully resolved. At 21 years old, Yves Saint Laurent took the reins at the grand house of Dior. His highly successful early collections were described as a softer version of Dior’s New Look, including the famous “trapeze dress.” Toward the end of the 1950s, Saint Laurent became interested in his world’s version of street style, the “beatnik” look. The press was not amused. After conscription and a brief stint in the French army, Saint Laurent came back in the 1960s and 1970s with his own atelier to become one of Paris’ powerhouse designers, with accomplishments and innovations almost too numerous to list. He was a bona fide member of the international jet set and a force to be reckoned with in haute couture for decades.

“Les Annees 50: La Mode in France” (The Fifties: Fashion in France, 1947-1957) opened last July 12th at the Palais Galliera in Paris. The multitude of pieces on display – basques, petticoats, corolla skirts, pointed shoes, bright floral prints, wasp-waisted or straight suits, strapless sheath dresses, cocktail, dresses, crystal embroidery, feathered hats with veils – “retraces the evolution of the female form through the decade 1947-1957: from the birth of the New Look to the death of Christian Dior and the advent of Yves Saint Laurent.” French fashion dominated the fifties closet-scape not only because of Dior and Saint Laurent, but also due to the contributions (included in Les Annes 50) of Jacques Heim, Chanel, Shiaparelli, Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Jacques Griffe, Hubert de Givenchy, and Pierre Cardin. Mary Hawthorne, writing for The New Yorker in their September 16th issue, contrasted the fashion on display with the clothing choices she observed among the exhibit-goers and the hijab-wearing demonstrators on the streets. If you are a fashion-loving fifties fan, plan to attend Les Annees 50 soon. The exhibit closes November 2nd.

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Vintage 1957 – Barbara Hutton Buys Cartier’s Tiger Clip Brooch

Purr-fectly gorgeous: Cartier Paris Tiger Clip Brooch

Purr-fectly gorgeous: Cartier Paris Tiger Clip Brooch

What would you do if you had all the money in the world?

Barbara Hutton came close. At the age of 12, she inherited $28,000,000 from her grandmother. By the time she turned 21, in 1933, her golden nest egg hatched into a $50,000,000 ticket to whatever her little heart desired.

Except, perhaps, love. As wealth generators, Franklyn Laws Hutton (co-founder of E. F. Hutton & Co.) and Edna Woolworth Hutton (daughter of Frank W. Woolworth, founder of F. W. Woolworth Company) went above and beyond, but as loving parents the word was that they fell woefully short. After a difficult and painful childhood, Barbara went on to marry seven times. Many of her husbands were abusive or exploitative. None of the marriages lasted more than three years (one, only 53 days) and all ended in divorce. The life of America’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” is a sad and cautionary tale.

There was (at least) one thing Barbara was very good at: appreciating fine design and craftsmanship in jewelry. Her taste and instinct for precious ornaments seems to have been in place from a very early age. Having the financial means to acquire and commission exquisite pieces, she went on to amass one of the most famous collections of the twentieth century. She established working relationships with the major jewelry ateliers of the world, including Cartier of Paris. Her first significant Cartier piece was a jadeite necklace given to her by her father on the occasion of her first wedding. She later commissioned a redesign of the clasp, replacing a simple diamond with a diamond and ruby circle. The contrast of ruby red artfully enhanced the string of hand-carved jadeite green beads.

In 1957, bucking the panther trend, Barbara purchased a beautiful, articulated (he could move!) Cartier Paris tiger clip brooch. The brooch was crafted from yellow gold, multiple single- and brilliant-cut, fancy intense yellow to near colorless diamonds, marquise-shaped emeralds for the eyes, and fancy-shaped onyxes for the stripes. She was married, at the time, to husband number six: German Baron Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt Freiherr von Cramm (such a mouthful!). Baron von Cramm was a former amateur tennis champion and non-cooperator with the Nazi regime. According to Jon Marshall Fisher, author of A Terrible Splendor, von Cramm married his old friend Barbara to “help her through substance abuse and depression but was unable to help her in the end.”

Cartier is once again in the news. The Paris Biennale des Antiquaires – an exhibition held every other year at the Grand Palais – is under way. The best of the best in art and antique jewelry (some from the house of Cartier) are on display until September 21st. The event is “the cream of European salons . . . . fine arts, antiques, and collectibles of museum quality are exhibited, but this is better than a museum,” touts the Biennale’s website. For those who attend, the affair is “where art lovers and collectors rub elegantly-clad elbows with dealers of international renown under the glass nave of the of the Grand Palais.” Barbara and her elegant elbows would have loved it.

Mid-Century Modern – Vogue Magazine’s September Issue

Suzy Parker in Vogue Magazine, September 1957. Photo source: Vogue

Suzy Parker in Vogue Magazine, September 1957. Photo source: Vogue

The September 1957 issue of Vogue Magazine was probably not the iconic behemoth that currently arrives at the newsstand with a thud each fall to profile and advertise the season’s couture. But the Conde Nast bible of style, then under the editorial directorship of Jessica Daves, had much to do with guiding the taste and flair of 1950s closets. With mid-century modern bringing back a neo-50s vibe, this editorial image of Suzy Parker from September, 1957 feels right at home with the trends of today (possibly minus the green fuzzy hat).

Texan redhead Suzy Parker was one of the first very-supermodels. In addition to her editorial work for fashion magazines, Parker frequently appeared in advertisements for cosmetics and other consumer products. She was the first model to earn over $100,000 per year. Suzy was also one of the first in a long line of fashion models who made the crossover to movies. Two films released in 1957 slated Suzy for small roles: Kiss Them for Me, with Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield; and Funny Face, with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Fashion photography legends Richard Avedon, Horst P. Horst, and Irving Penn were inspired by Parker and their images, in turn, inspired 1950s women to pursue elegance with a flash of Texas sizzle. John, Paul, George, and Ringo – raging adolescents in 1957 – collectively wrote and recorded a tribute to Suzy in 1969, which was included in the soundtrack of the 1970 documentary, Let it Be.