At the end of the Second World War there was a mood of anticipation, particularly amongst the women, many of whom had been assigned to men's jobs, which entailed them wearing unflattering protective clothing. They were tired of rationing and making something out of nothing, and were ready for someone to come and make them look glamorous again. Christian Dior did just that. His extravagant creations burst upon the fashion scene in 1947 and swept everyone along, bringing light and hope to a drab world.
Christian Dior, born at Angers in the Loire valley on January 21st, 1905, was second of the five children of Madeleine and Maurice Dior. Always slightly different from his brothers and sisters, with their Norman characteristics, he was a docile, delicately featured child who enjoyed helping his mother with designing both in the house and garden.
In 1911 the family moved from Angers to an apartment in Paris, where Madeleine set about creating elegant surroundings in which to entertain their friends. Even at the age of six Christian was interested in all that was going on and would make suggestions, which were not at first heeded by his rather strict mother, but eventually she began to let him help her and enjoyed his company.
Always slightly in awe of his father, who was co owner of the family fertilizer factory, Christian was quite happy with the gentler pursuits of decorating and gardening, rather than the rough and tumble of family life. At their holiday home in Granville, on the coast near St. Malo, the children would all become involved in preparations for the annual carnival, and Christian soon became well known for designing and making imaginative outfits for his brothers and sisters. At the outbreak of war in 1914 the home in Granville became a haven for the family and they did not return to Paris for four years.
As a teenager in post war Paris Christian became enthralled with the life of the artisan community. Unbeknown to his parents he visited galleries and bars frequented by painters and writers such as Picasso and Cocteau, whilst still appearing to be a shy, withdrawn young man at home. On obtaining his Baccalaureate he asked his parents if he could study at the Academy of Fine Arts, but they were scandalized and flatly refused permission. Instead he was enrolled at the Faculty of Political Science. However, he secretly continued to visit the galleries and bars and had a large circle of friends, both male and female. After four years at the Faculty it became obvious that he would never obtain his degree and his mothers hopes of him becoming an ambassador were quickly fading. Having no financial need to earn a living Christian spent the next few years enjoying himself and widening his circle of friends.
In 1927 he was conscripted to be a Sapper, second class in the Fifth Engineers Corps, where his main task was to carry railway track from one place to another.
Christian had always been interested in paintings and after his time in the army he finally decided to enter into a partnership with Jacques Bonjean in order to open an art gallery, but they required help with financing the project. Much to his surprise his mother gave him the money with which to set up the gallery, on the proviso that he never allowed the name Dior to be seen to be associated with the business. Madame Dior still clung to her Victorian values, and for her family to be concerned with trade was unthinkable.
For several years the gallery was the hub of a thriving artistic set, displaying work by unknown artists who soon became collectable. Life was running along smoothly until, in 1930, tragedy struck the Dior family. The youngest son, Bernard, who had been mentally unstable for many years, became unmanageable and had to be sent to a psychiatric institution. This was too much for Madame Dior to bear and she became ill. Too demoralised to recover from an operation, she developed septicemia and died at the age of fifty one in 1931.
This was a bitter blow to the twenty six year old Christian. Meanwhile, his father, who had for many years been involved in stocks and shares, lost all his money in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929, and was declared bankrupt, losing everything he owned, including his furniture.
To take his mind off all this misery Christian went on a tour to Russia with a group of architects. They found a country in poverty, but Christian enjoyed the sights he saw on the journey home. He did not escape from reality for long, as on his return he found that his partner in the gallery, Jacques Bonjean, had also been ruined in the crash and the gallery was closed. Christian now had no home and no business, having to rely on friends for accommodation and food. Eventually he found a room in an attic, and sold paintings in a friends gallery, whilst trying to carry on the old lifestyle of fun and parties with his friends.
After three years this gallery was also closed and the strain took its toll on Christian who became ill with tuberculosis. His friends once more rallied round and paid for his treatment in the Pyrenees, finishing up on the island of Ibiza, where he became interested in tapestry weaving and designing. After a year of recuperation he finally returned to Paris determined to succeed at something.
Try as he might he was unable to find any sort of job and was, once again, living on his friends charity. Then he came to the blinding conclusion that he wanted to become a couturier. Why had he not thought of this before? He was fortunate in finding a room with Jacques Ozenne, an illustrator, who showed him how to perfect his drawings. Ozenne was able to sell some of these sketches, giving Christian some money at last. Soon his designs were being used by all the top couturiers, his hat designs being particularly popular. Eventually, after living in a hotel for some time, he was able to afford premises in Rue Royale, where he lived and worked. He was even able to send money to his father and sister, now living in the south. © GMH