Dressing a Crisis: Lessons From Dior When Aspiring to a New Normal
With the news of a vaccine, the new decade ushers in hope on a grand scale. Expectations of picking up where we left off merge with an embrace of a new normal. One of our favorite top designers, Christian Dior, made his way in the industry by embracing bold new looks in the wake of crisis. The legend’s debut collection holds many lessons for how the fashion industry can embrace and drive positive change in another new normal.
Learning From the Past
In the early days of WWII, France was the undebated fashion capital of the world. However, fashion was strictly controlled; no house was allowed to make more than 75 outfits and there were restrictions on the amount of fabric permitted. As the war intensified, fashion continued to change. It became increasingly practical and patriotic—for example, the introduction of divided skirts to allow for bicycling or incorporating a red, white, and blue color scheme. Due to limitations in the supply chain, and restrictions on fabric, etc. some designers had to close (i.e. Chanel), while others (i.e. Mainbocher and Schiaparelli) went abroad.
Times of crisis, struggle, and uncertainty often have the unintended consequence of spreading ideas as well as sparking something new. When navigating the challenges of COVID-19, Natalie Kinghman, the fashion and buying director of MatchesFashion agreed, “designers always innovate in difficult times and if we all collaborate we can come up with new creative solutions.” As we prepare to emerge from quarantine, fashion has been changing again, and new ideas are on the horizon. Indeed, New York City advanced as a fashion capital following the onset of WWII, and Christian Dior is said to have credited Mainbocher with being more advanced for being in America.
Looking to Hope
Yet, it was Dior who would come to preeminence in the years following the war. Many credit Dior with saving Paris, at least couture, if not the economy. Established in 1946, according to Anne Sabba, “the house of Dior captured the widespread political desire to move on and away from the war and to do so in as obviously extravagant a fashion as possible.”
Under far different circumstances, I see people looking forward to a more hopeful decade with the restrictions of COVID-19 negated by vaccines. How many references to the roaring 20s have you heard recently? Sweatpants may have become a symbol of 2020, but it is that linkage to a turbulent year that may prevent them from transitioning entirely to daily wear in a “new normal.” Divided skirts did not linger in the post-war era. Just as Dior’s New Look embraced peace with innovative silhouettes, luxury, and extravagance, the world is looking for reminders of hope.
The Show Must Go On
Mindful of the rationing and hardships of the war years, the House of Dior altered the way it approached fashion shows and used porcelain dolls to display designs. Naming its signature perfume Miss Dior, the House attempted to highlight Catherine Dior’s role in the resistance to save its image. Defending the extravagance of the first fashion shows after the war, Dior claimed “for years we have fought to keep couture alive because it represents a Parisian industry of prime importance and because it was a means of avoiding unemployment for workers and consequent forced labor in Germany and, lastly to preserve for le Haute Couture Parisienne the place it has always had in the eyes of the world.”
COVID-19 has forced many designers to rethink their own approach to fashion shows, looking forward to a new normal. With limitations on gatherings and travel, many have turned to digital formats. Michael Gaubert, the fashion industry’s leading soundtrack designer notes that a narrative is needed to bring garments to life. Indeed, collections are given a title like a story, and a set and soundtrack are designed to match that story. The shift to a digital format highlights the emphasis on content over clothes. Instagram filters, street style, and live streams have been a major component of fashion week for years now. Dior’s Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2021 Collection short film presentation serves as a perfect example.
However inspiring, live shows come with benefits that digital formats struggle to offer. In addition to building relationships, buyers can easily judge the fabric of garments by seeing them up closer and touching them. What reads well on film often differs from what suits us in person. The infamous blue/black dress scandal being the most peculiar example. Moving away from in-person shows will change how buyers purchase new garments. Changing what makes its way to stores will ultimately impact consumer habits.
The Consumer’s Role
Necessity and force had changed Dior’s consumers’ habits as well. In the austere, post-war period there were still those enraged by Dior’s extravagant use of fabric. Some went so far as to attack models sent to Montmartre for a photoshoot. Fashion’s message can often be muddled. In 2020, people took time to reflect on their values. Remembering the importance of relationships as well as the importance of their communities, social justice, small business, and the environment. Fashion will lose its relevance if it cannot speak to these values in a new normal.
Alexander de Betak, a long-time show producer acknowledges that the waste produced by fashion shows is minuscule compared to the overall waste of producing and selling garments. However, he goes on to state, “we [fashion] are one of the most visible industries and what we do in that industry, fashion shows, are possibly the most visible short events in the world…it’s super important not just to do the action and help save what we can, but to communicate it and show it on a high level so that it creates awareness within and outside of the fashion industry.” The forced reduction in waste in 2020 calls the sustainability of many industries into question.
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A Time for Dressing New Values
In rethinking our values, many of us have also reassessed the pace at which we live our lives. Since the cancelation of fashion shows due to limitations on gatherings and travel, many have come to see this as a beneficial reset. The pace of shows—up to 6 a year—was getting out of hand. It was especially hard for newer designers to keep up. Along with the obvious benefits of reducing waste, limiting the number of shows may also allow designers to dedicate more time to maturing innovative ideas. With increased time between shows, they may also take more time to polish their message and align their values.
Of course, more established brands have the resources to produce several high-quality shows in a year. Shifting to other platforms, and extending the time between shows may reduce barriers to entry for newer, smaller labels. Without having to keep up with the breakneck pace of capsule collections, they too will be able to hone their message. And refine their practices to ensure they act out their values. As Bethany Williams stated, “with small businesses, the customer has massive power: they’re oxygen to that business. Hopefully, when this is all over, people won’t want to support brands that take advantage of people all over the world and think about who they want to give oxygen to.”
To Wrap It Up
For better or worse, 2020 was the year that many people woke up to myriad issues. Or at least realized they were much closer to home than previously acknowledged. With the changes witnessed, there is opportunity for consumers to demand more and create a new normal. Not in the way of products, but in the messages, and the corporate actions that back them. Today, we have access to a wider range of design aesthetics as well as business practices. The future of fashion will not be embodied in one collection or iconic silhouette. We all need to account for our actions, and fashion should be no different. If industry leaders are finding positive opportunities in this crisis, we as consumers must do our part to hold them accountable.
About the Author:
Emma Voigt combines her expertise in Conflict Resolution with her creative passions by exploring the power of fashion in various contexts. She currently works as a consultant supporting communications and change management efforts. She holds a degree in Social Science with a specialization in Conflict Resolution from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Voigt has led fashion-based efforts with women from around the world. And is always learning about how the challenge of dressing provides us all an opportunity for expression.
Circa 1955: French fashion designer Christian Dior (1905 – 1957) standing in a showroom with samples of his design accessories for women, including hats, hat pins, gloves, muffs, lingerie, hosiery, evening bags, and jewelry. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)