18 January 2018




The Royal Ontario Museum’s newest blockbuster exhibition in the textiles gallery, titled simply Christian Dior, looks at how Dior reinvigorated women’s fashion after decades of practicality-driven, boyish women's clothes which came about because of the war years and Coco Chanel. The transition from Chanel's flapper styled dresses to Dior's hourglass and full-skirt silhouette, was a struggle many forget when viewing Dior's collections.

Christian Dior exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum. Source

Coco Chanel opened her first fashion boutique in 1913, the first ever women's couture fashion house designed exclusively by a woman. Before Chanel, women's clothing required full skirts, petticoats, corsets, and ruffles. Her designs dropped the corsets, high waists, frills, and constricting sewing patterns worn for centuries before. Chanel changed the way women viewed fashion, which was just as much about sexual politics as design. Chanel was once quoted saying, 
“Designers have forgotten that there are women inside these dresses.”  Source
Her designs, in contrast, were simple, sophisticated, stylish, and practical. Chanel also said that she 
“…want[ed] to give women the chance to laugh and eat, without necessarily having to faint.” Source
Women loved the freedom Chanel’s dress designs gave them, with the loose boyish cuts, lower waistlines, and no enormous skirts with layers of petticoats to weigh them down or restrict movement.

Women on the streets of France in day coats, 1913. Source

Her designs gave women freedom to move without restriction, and her use of flexible jersey fabric during World War I - originally designed for men’s uniforms - meant women could comfortably work in factories and in shops, but still feel feminine. Soon her style was all the rage of both upper and lower classes. When the war ended, other fashion houses adopted Chanel’s designs, ending the era of corsets and opening to effervescent flappers. Chanel’s desire to elevate the value of women came from her value of fashion in a woman’s world.
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably, and they remember the woman.” Source
Chanel's greatest claim to fame was the little black dress. Chanel published a photograph of her LBD in American Vogue, which to this day is considered an essential in many women’s closets. However, the little black dresses made now, often very form-fitting and revealing, are very different from the intentions of the original, which was designed to be elegant but practical. Vogue referred to it as “Chanel’s Ford”, like the Model T, saying it was "a sort of uniform for all women of taste".

Coco Chanel's Little Black Dress. Source

The fashion world fell out of love with Chanel after World War II. Fashion had become so practical some considered it unexciting. Dior felt the overtly functional and masculine clothing made for women during the Second World War looked too “square shouldered, like boxers.” Christian Dior opened his first fashion house in late 1946, designing his women to look like
“flower ladies, with soft shoulders, busts in full bloom, willowy waists, and skirts that blossomed like corollas.” Source
Dior drew inspiration from the frilly, full-skirt, and corseted women of his childhood. The designs were simpler, with clean lines and enormous skirts which could take up to 30 metres of fabric to create – an extravagance which drew much criticism after years of strict rationing during the war. His pattern designs were considered revolutionary, what with the layering of five or six petticoats sewn together inside the skirt to increase its volume. Thus, the wearer only needed to put on one layer over her undergarments. Dior's hourglass silhouettes, with full skirts, padded bras, and cinched waists, were reminiscent of wealthier pre-war years.

Christian Dior exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum. Source

Women loved the designs for their feel of luxury and femininity. However, Chanel felt Dior’s designs stood against everything she had achieved for women. The weight, volume of fabric, exaggerated  cinching of the waist, and exquisite detailing of Dior’s dresses made it difficult for women to move. In the ROM’s Dior exhibition, there is a video showing women wearing enormous Dior ballgowns, wandering around a lavish French bedroom and household, socializing in beautifully decorated sitting rooms, acting as moving decoration.

Christian Dior exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum. Source

This struggle for the freedom of women’s bodies in fashion continues today through independent fashion designers striving to create designs that look good on all body types, and new inclusive couture lines. Where Chanel gave freedom to women to move, breathe, and play, Dior contributed to the thinking of those who wished to remove women from the work force and put them back in the home. Although Dior's designs are exquisite, they forgot to consider the living person inside them, and women in general, are more than mere beautiful flowers to look at.

To learn more:

Extraordinary Women - Coco Chanel

Christian Dior The Man Behind the Myth


  1. i mean Coco Chanel was a Nazi but okay

    1. Thank you for your input. In my post I explored the creative contribution Dior and Chanel made to the fashion world and the tension between them, and my research did not touch upon Chanel's personal ties.