The name Dior has been synonymous with haute couture for nearly 80 years. Out of the ruins of post-war France emerged a contender for the top fashion house in the fashion capital of Paris, dressing movie stars and royalty, and still going strong today. But who was the man behind the name?


This question is explored in Apple TV+’s series The New Look, released on 14 February. Set against the backdrop of occupied France, it explores how Dior responded to the challenges of the Second World War and rose to be the fashion titan he is known as today.

Who was Christian Dior before his fashion career?

Christian Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) holding a roll of fabric
Christian Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) in The New Look. (Picture by Apple TV+)

Christian Ernest Dior was born on 21 January 1905, the second son of a wealthy family in Normandy.

His father Maurice, an industrialist specialising in fertiliser, and mother, Madeleine, had five children in all, and lived in a clifftop villa called Les Rhumbs in the seaside town of Granville.

This setting inspired Christian as a fashion designer in later life, especially his mother’s superbly kept garden that instilled in him a love of flowers.

The Granville house became a haven for the Dior family during the First World War, apart from the eldest, Raymond, who fought in the trenches. He survived, although with severe shell shock.

As for Christian, he followed his parents’ wishes and began training for a career as a diplomat, even though his true interests were in more artistic exploits.

Leaving school in the late 1920s, he took over a small gallery – possible only with his father’s financial help – where he exhibited artists including Pablo Picasso.

What was Christian Dior’s early career like?

Everything changed for Dior after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. His father was ruined, and, in 1931, his mother passed away.

Due to the family business folding, Dior was forced to close the gallery he’d opened in Paris with his father’s financial backing. He then got his first taste of the fashion industry by selling sketches. This got him an illustrator job at the magazine, Figaro Illustre, in 1935. Three years later, he became an assistant designer for the Swiss-born designer Robert Piguet.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Dior entered military service that ended not long afterwards with the armistice between France and Germany in June 1940.

By 1941, he found himself in a different Paris, under Nazi occupation, and with a different designer, Lucien Lelong.

Timeline: the fashion career of Christian Dior

1935: Christian Dior sells fashion sketches in Paris and gets a job as an illustrator at the magazine, Figaro Illustre

1938: Couturier Robert Piguet hires Dior as assistant designer

1941: As the Second World War rages, Dior joins the team of top designer Lucien Lelong

1946: Dior’s own fashion house is founded in Paris, where it remains to this day

1947: A couple of months later, he launches his first collection. A massive success, it becomes known as the ‘New Look’

1948-57: Dior enjoys a string of hit collections every year, which introduce new styles including the H-line, A-line and Y-line

What is Christian Dior’s relationship with Lucien Lelong?

Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich) in The New Look
Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich) in The New Look. (Picture by Apple TV+)

One of the biggest names in the fashion world, Lelong had an upbringing steeped in couture, as his parents owned a fashion house. His own business took off after the First World War, around the same time as another famous French designer, Coco Chanel.

Lelon hired Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, – another young, up-and-coming name – to be his main designers. The two collaborated on a number of collections during the war.

Is it true Christian Dior made dresses for Nazi wives?

The only way that Parisian fashion houses remained open in the war was by a degree of cooperation – although not collaboration – with the occupation.

Lelong, Dior and Balmain did indeed make dresses for the wives of Nazi officers or French collaborators, but they were far from the only ones. In fact, Lelong proved instrumental in preventing the Germans moving the fashion industry out of Paris entirely and setting up in Berlin.

The Nazis planned to make couture German rather than French, and Lelong pointed out that without the thousands of artisans in France – with skills that took decades to perfect – a transfer would never be that simple.

The Nazis conceded, and Lelong managed to negotiate for fabric to maintain production.

When did Christian Dior start his own fashion house?

As the Second World War ended, Dior’s reputation blossomed. So, when the textile magnate and entrepreneur Marcel Boussac approached him with a job offer, Dior decided that this was instead the time to strike out on his own. On 16 December 1946, his fashion house opened at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris.

Then on 12 February 1947, he launched his first collection: Carolle. A radical shift from the austere and restricted looks of wartime Europe, his 90 unapologetically lavish garments accentuated the feminine form with rounded shoulders, full busts, cinched waists, pronounced hips and big flowing skirts.

The editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snow, dubbed it the ‘New Look’.

Dior launched his first perfume in December 1947. He named this floral scent Miss Dior in honour of his sister Catherine, who during the war had been arrested, tortured and shipped to concentration camps as a member of the French Resistance.

How did people react to Christian Dior’s New Look?

Not everyone welcomed the New Look. This was a time of rationing, so critics lambasted the wasteful use of materials.

The corseted waists were also maligned as oppressive, with Coco Chanel remarking, “Only a man who never was intimate with a woman could design something that uncomfortable.” It’s worth noting that Dior was a closet homosexual.

What was Christian Dior’s life like after the war?

Despite the critics – and even protests among those resentful at ongoing rationing – the New Look was a fabulous success. Dior became the brand of choice for celebrities and dignitaries around the world, like the movie star Marlene Dietrich, ballerina Margot Fonteyn and even royalty, with Princess Margaret an enthusiastic patron.

For the next decade, each year brought a new collection, all with their own daring and popular styles.

With a small cadre of trusted colleagues, Jacques Rouet, Raymonde Zehnacker, Marguerite Carre and his muse Mitzah Bricard, Dior turned his name into a global brand. He showed astute business savvy, pioneering license agreements so that ‘Dior’ appeared on a host of clothing accessories, like furs, stockings and perfumes.

How did Christian Dior die?

At the age of just 52, Dior died while on holiday in Italy on 24 October 1957, of a heart attack. It was his third.

Dior left a thriving fashion house – taken over by his 21-year-old assistant, a bright talent by the name of Yves Saint Laurent – but not only that; he had re-established Paris’s place as the beating heart of global fashion, a position it holds to this day.


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The first three episodes of The New Look are available to stream on Apple TV+ from 14 February, with new episodes airing weekly until 3 April.


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.