Inside 1950s Couture: Christian Dior


Hands-on fashion history education is something of a dwindling practice these days, with more collections moving their objects to offsite storage and switching to digital only access for researchers. There is an inherent value to being able to explore the inside of historical garments, with a professor, museum professional, and classmates in the room all offering observations. As a student at NYU, I was lucky enough to have regular collection visits incorporated into our curriculum.

In the Spring of 2003, I was fortunate to have a costume history class with Professor Elizabeth Morano, author of Sonia Delaunay: Art into Fashion. The class was Clothing History IV, and was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute. On one particularly nice day, we explored a selection of Haute Couture garments of the 1950s. Two of these were designed by Christian Dior (I’ll be posting a second part on who else we looked at that day – stay tuned).

To our modern eyes, the above day dress appears to be a relatively simple, straight-forward belted-dress. However, when looking through the piece with our professor pointing out specific details, innovations and techniques, the real value of the garment and the importance of the designer became more evident. Being able to look at multiple pieces, by multiple designers – and comparing their styles, techniques and preferences helped us to develop connoisseurship.

“Trompette”, House of Dior, spring/summer 1950, Met, CI. C.I.54.6.3a–c

It also became evident that nothing about wearing couture in the 1950s was simple – multiple layers and heavy under-structures revealed some of the differences in social norms and expectations for women in that time period as compared with modern women. This dress in particular suggested ties to menswear through the fabric choice and the use of button detailing, but also made one question what is hidden and what is shown.  The under-blouse pictured below, but also his design choice to assist the wearer of this narrow skirt in walking, by incorporating fullness at the knee into the design.  The narrow silhouette, placement of buttons and the kickpleat all suggest a reference to the shape of a trumpet, drawing the eye to the back of the dress and to the calf. (Martin & Koda)

Detail photos of “Trompette”, House of Dior, spring/summer 1950, Met, CI. C.I.54.6.3a–c:


The other Dior piece we looked at that day was a silk evening gown dating to 1954. As an outside observer, this too was fairly simple looking, though elegant and slightly demure. Something about the large bow made me think it was intended for someone young and innocent.

“Priscilla”, House of Dior, fall/winter 1954–1955, Met, CI 1974.258.7

However, when a look inside reveals the the wearer of the dress was basically corseted, and the dress not as comfortable or ‘easy’ (by modern standards) as one might have thought.. The layers of chiffon-lined net add additional fullness underneath the skirt, resulting in an audible swishing sound (by rotating the mannequin back and forth) that in many ways brought the dress to life.

One could see that a simple demure-looking gown was in fact quite complicated and in many ways, contrived. Though a woman wearing this dress might in fact appear modest, knowing what was on underneath might not only affect her posture and over-all appearance, but could affect her mental attitude and behavior. Issues of sexuality and perception of ones own body immediately spring to mind. The corset itself was also an innovation for Dior, as it depicted his “H Line” which reshaped the bust into a different profile than had previously been popular.  Here, he “seemed to flatten the chest and unusually widen[ed] the upper torso.” (Koda & Martin)

L'Officiel de la Mode n°343 de 1950

All this is to say: I really value my experience as it helped me learn how to think about clothing within a historical, cultural and social context, based on what was present in the object itself. Handling the materials, hearing how they sound and seeing how they move all seem important to this process. I’m concerned that future generations of students may not have this opportunity. For museum professionals, teachers and students: What has your experience or use of historic collections been like?

As an aside, I’m happy to announce two pieces of personal news: Tomorrow, I will officially take office as program chair for the Western Region of the Costume Society of America. I also have a newly designed website, going live today! It’s fully redesigned site, with much more photos and some writing that I  hope you’ll enjoy.

More information:

Those interested in learning more about the history of couture, its designers and specific techniques should really venture over to the Golden Age of Couture microwebsite affiliated with London’s V&A Museum and its exhibition of the same name. Their time line feature by designer is an especially helpful element.

Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series)

Christian Dior (Koda & Martin)

*”Trompette”, House of Dior, spring/summer 1950, Met, CI. C.I.54.6.3a–c.

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  • Agnes Gawne June 30, 2010 11.46 am

    Thank you for posting this. I completely agree that there is nothing better than seeing (and when possible touching) the original historical garments, and especially to compare numerous pieces from the same designer or time period. I always encourage my students to see any garments at any museum, no matter how few or how ‘not in my period’ they are as one day none of these items will be available to study. I look forward to seeing your work as program chair for the Western Region of the Costume Society of America.

  • Heather Vaughan June 30, 2010 04.02 pm

    Thanks so much for reading, and for your comments Agnes!

  • Christina July 01, 2010 10.18 am

    I love this post! Fond memories…


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