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Fashion In Film: Frederic Tcheng’s ‘Dior and I’ Drops Couture Fashion Into Netflix

The film Dior and I premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and huzzah! it is now available for the everyday fashiony folk to soak up on Netflix.

“People are utterly fascinated by what would happen at this house,” says Cathy Horyn, fashion critic at the New York Times and there’s no argument from the viewer. At the end of ‘Dior and I’ we capitulate in the film’s friendly, easy style, to the gravitas of this brand.

The name Christian Dior has taken center stage since he opened his first atelier in Paris.

A year later in 1947, his ‘New Look’ indelibly altered women’s fashion. Dior is a house with so much “fashion DNA” that it instantly conjours up the exclusive world of cigarette-slim models, impeccibly glamorous magazine covers and the starbursts of endless flashbulbs on mirrored runways.

But what makes film fashionista Frederic Tcheng’s docco unusual is its timing.

In choosing to centre his documentary around the arrival of Raf Simons to the House of Dior as Creative Director – the Belgian fashion designer broke into the fashion world in only 1995 – he takes us on a journey through a radical change in the house.

Throughout the film you sense that risk but also how enervating and modernising Simons’ process and ideas are.

It’s a new appointment and it isn’t going to be easy. Upon realising he has a mere 8 weeks to generate an entire collection Simons leans back in the lift and says: “Oh Fuck! Stress.”

He is told that managing the ‘human element’ is crucial and the reason for that unfolds.

Florence is introduced to him as the Premiere for dresses and for suiting the Premiere is Monique.

These are two ladies you could pass in the street and not think ‘couture’ but they are the highest and “most important people in the whole company…because they manage very large teams and insanely large collections.”

Monique is so important that she is sent to New York with a salesperson at the drop of a hat because a client is unhappy with the fit of a garment. Simons reluctantly accedes to this fact of life in the midst of the 8 weeks he requires her to complete his collection.

Simons doesn’t sketch. His ideas are prepared visually in ‘files’ of concepts, others sketch those ideas, stylists translate them onto computers, he chooses 3 or 4 and when the decision is made, the seamstresses and cutters get to work interpreting these sketches into the 3D outfits.

The Atelier Team Choose The Design They Want To Work On.
The Atelier Team Choose The Design They Want To Work On.

When the sketches arrive Monique lays the designs on the table, the white coats gather round and as she talks through the designs, and people volunteer to make them.

Dior aficionados will know that they are wearing the same white coats that hark back to what the mild mannered man wore in the same atelier in the original days.

Making the designs into garments is a surprisingly democratic process when you consider that the sketches are just that. Sketches. Unlike paper patterns home dressmakers are familiar with, these designs do not come with instructions.

Once you compare the start of this construction process with the finished garment, your respect for the skill of the workers in the ateiliers triples.

When you watch the team bring in reinforcements to unpick cloth with thousands of tiny glistening hand sewn beads without a swear word or moaning – just a short nap in the small hours and then back to it – it will triple again.

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Unpicking cloth sewn with thousands of beads. Not a moan heard from any of them!

Monique and Florence are rightly revered for their talent.

Simons knows about Dior, of course but he finds the future more romantic than the past.

As an hommage to the great man, his first collection is inspired by Dior’s designs, particularly the silhouette of the New Look collection and his exquisite textiles.

Fashion lovers will enjoy these segments – they are delicious glimpses into the past. Gloved hands gently touch the archived textiles and clothing designs. They are kept rolled up in a way that makes you wonder if they understand how priceless they are to us as viewers but the gentle way they handle them tells all.

“Juxtaposing something of that time with something of this time, is very dynamic,” says Simons.

And Tcheng uses this historical reference too. He includes clips from a documentary made with Dior before his death in 1957. A whimsical and entirely French retrospective it weaves through the film drawing the viewer in like a fairy tale, grounding us in a sense of the past.

‘Dior and I’ reminds us of how the glossy spreads of haute couture we flick through is the end result of intricate, expert craftsmanship, design work and, let’s not forget, the clarity that comes with razor sharp business sense.

Tcheng illuminates the rarified, closeted world to show us again why it has so much fascination – because of the secrets it holds and the talents it represents.

© Carrie Henderson 2015

Fashion History · The History Of Haute Couture · Vintage Fashion Blog · Vintage Fashion Research

World War 2: The CC41 Utility Scheme and Fashion On The Ration

With the plaintive wail of air raid sirens in the air, half of the British workforce in uniform and the impact of rationing, the 1940s had a stark divide between fashion during World War 2 and fashion after the war ended.   

In 1939 when the war broke out, women were wearing what we’d regard today as ultra feminine outfits – wearing trousers was frowned on and not yet accepted widely – it took the war to change that view.

In 1939 women wore dresses. It took the war to make trousers acceptable.
In 1939 women wore dresses. It took the war to make trousers acceptable.

In 1939 skirts were worn at knee length and dresses with fitted bodices and pretty sleeves were all the rage. Fabric was in abundance and the influence of the new synthetics like rayon and rayon silk was everywhere.

Every woman accessorised with a hat and gloves. Shoes were mid height with fancy patterns and colours, designed to be as attractive as the rest of her clothes. Young women dressed in pared down versions of clothes from their mother’s generation.

Women strove to wear outfits, not items. Women of a certain class had to factor in dressing for different occasions also. These women changed into different clothes for dinner, if they were having afternoon tea with friends or if they were going out to a restaurant, for instance.

November 1939 fashions.
November 1939 fashions.

The wealthy fashion conscious British woman did this because it was right, it was proper and it was expected.

In London the Savoy restaurant had a dress code for evening; women’s gowns had to be floor-length to gain entry. Despite the restrictions of the war, the elite found that Britain continued dressing to this expectation, keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of wartime austerity.

It was the good manners and social rules prior to the war that created a fashion industry revolving around the famous British social norms of what should be worn and when.

Fashionable evening gowns: autumn winter 1939 to 1940.
Fashionable evening gowns: autumn winter 1939 to 1940.

These were the social rules that gave The House Of Mirelle  a wealthy clientele in Hull who could commission and afford the clothing that the fashion House created.

Pre-war: how women bought clothes

The average women bought mass produced clothes from catalogues, local stores or made them at home. Paper patterns were widely available, as were sewing machines that often permanently sat in the corners of living rooms draped with items in various stages of creation.

Sewing at home: as normal then as watching TV is today.
Sewing at home: as normal then as watching TV is today.

Sewing skills amongst women was considered as important as knowing how to cook and were used regularly.

It was usual for those with very little money to rework clothing, patching and mending. Hand-me-down’s were passed from person to person to get the most wear from them.

Only the wealthy could afford to have their clothes made for them by dressmakers, tailors or seamstresses.

The very wealthy like the British royal family, upper classes or those on the debutante circuit could afford clothes designed and made by couturiers – a French term loosely meaning “sewers.”

Couture meant exceptional service. It was hands-on, expensive and labour intensive. It meant that clothes were designed, cut and made to fit your specific measurements by expert craftspeople.  Expense wasn’t spared and outfits cost a lot of money.

At the outbreak of war, buying couture was a concern for the upper classes, one that the average person might know something about but not have direct contact with.

“We are at war with Germany”

Picture how the country felt when on 3rd September 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced in sombre tones that England was at war with Germany. It was the second time in under 25 years the people of Britain had faced that stark news.

Clothing had been rationed in World War 1 and it was a terribly unpopular move. When Winston Churchill became British PM, he didn’t want to do the same again.

The influence of Parisian fashion and couture

Up to the war, Paris ruled the western world’s fashion industry. It was considered the most innovative and cutting edge in terms of technique and design. Paris set the styles and shapes and the world always followed.

Couture Molyneaux Dress 1939 Photographed on the Eiffel Tower by Irwin Blumenfeld
Couture Molyneaux Dress 1939 Photographed on the Eiffel Tower by Irwin Blumenfeld

Then war broke out in Europe. Within a year Paris, the center of fashion and couture, fell to the Nazi’s. The industry and its influence on fashion temporarily eradicated as a result.

Fash crash

It fast became apparent to the manufacturers of clothing and the government that there were problems with sourcing materials and selling clothing as they had done pre-war.

Although Great Britain was an island nation and to a limited extent was self sufficient in terms of materials and manufacture, the fall of Europe created problems with the scope of design, supply and manufacture of clothing.

At the start of war, UK textile and clothing manufacturing was a healthy industry with many factories operating across the country – particularly in the North. Clothes factories and British couturiers like Hardy Amies often used locally sourced and woven fabrics such as British wool and cotton. However there was also a necessary market for imported cloth or textiles from outside the UK.

Long established trade routes no longer existed due to the Nazi blockade of Europe, silks were unavailable due to the same destruction of trade routes with China and Japan.

Shortage of materials, problems on the horizon

Clothing ration book: UK.
Clothing ration book: UK.

The government saw problems on the horizon.

Problem 1 – you can’t make clothing without textiles.

Problem 2 – those very same factories and the personnel in them were needed for the war effort.

Very soon after the war began the import textile market was suffering from the global crisis. The influence of Paris had also crumbled and the lack of spare cash in the pockets of the everyday person meant the fashion economy was heading for a crash.

In 1939, writing for Mass Observation in the first months after war was announced, Pam Ashford from Glasgow said:” Miss Bousie bought a battery in a tailor’s shop. It is the only thing they are doing. No one wants clothes.” The rich were still able to afford their clothing, but the poor could not.

Something had to be done.

CC41

Clothes rationing came into being in June 1941 by an act of parliament called the Limitation of Cloth Supplies and Apparel Order. It wasn’t the only commodity that was controlled by the government but in our thinking, the CC41 scheme relates strongly with the fashions of the war era.

The scheme was called CC41, it started in 1941 – hence its name and design found on the Utility labels from the time. Some people think that the ‘CC’ in CC41 stands for “Controlled Commodity,” however this isn’t accurate and it has come about my misreporting of the time.

The two cheeses: the CC41 label.
The two cheeses: the CC41 label.

The idea behind CC41 was to control the fabrics, the designs and the manufacturing processes used to produce clothes.

Clothing designed under CC41 rules was called ‘Utility Clothing’ by the British government.

The Utility Scheme directly influenced clothes rationing. It was a way by which designers and customers could survive the limited supply of materials and protect what was needed for production in the war effort.

There was another element to the Utility scheme, however. Churchill expressed a view that he specifically wanted to avoid the British public being dressed in: “rags and tatters.“ He saw it as patriotic to remain as well turned out as possible with clothing enhancing the morale of women and men during war.

The two cheeses

The  CC41 logo designed by Reginald Shipp is affectionately known as The Two Cheeses. When it was introduced, clothing ration books hadn’t been printed and people used spare margarine coupons to buy their clothes instead.

By freeing up fabrics and materials and the factories that made them, it focused more resources on the war effort and kept fashion standards for everyone in Britain too. Historians argue that Utility clothing changed fashion, democratising quality clothing for all.

The government devised a set of penalties and incentives for manufacturers to support the initiative.

Green Rayon CC41 Dress from the British retailer Marks and Spencers.
Green Rayon CC41 Dress from the British retailer Marks and Spencers.

Manufacturers who made 85% Utility Designs were then allowed to make the rest of their items in non-utility cloth but the 15% of these “other” designs still had to follow the same restrictions and regulations. Non Utility clothing was taxed heavily, regarded as luxury items.

Times were hard and people railed against the restrictions that rationing created. The government asked British Pathe to help inform the public about the new rules.

People watched these films in cinemas which were hugely popular – the time of having a television in the home was a speck on the future sight line of mass entertainment.

CC41 – an enduring legacy 

CC41 and Utility Clothing has become iconic and legendary and its influence has been felt throughout the fashion industry. A CC41 label indicates that it is a valuable and historic item of clothing.

In 1942 regulations were tightened by the introduction of The Making Of Civilian Clothing (Restriction Orders) but relaxed at the end of the war where a new “double lines” Utility label emerged to indicate that the fabric used was of a higher quality than that found in clothes with the CC41 label or Utility designs.

Double 11 CC41 Luxury Logo 1945
The ‘double lines’ CC41 logo heralded a more luxurious Utility range in 1945.

The double lines label indicated that it was a more luxurious item than earlier items. Frocks could use a better quality of fabric and be designed with more flair.

The public felt that the frivolities of fashion may be heading back into the public consciousness again.

In reality, it was a long way off.

In this You Tube video, Imperial War Museum curator Laura Clouting talks about the Fashion On The Ration exhibition, 2015:

Fashion rationing didn’t end in Britain until 1949 long after the end of the war, but the legacy was felt deeply. It was in this period that the powerful idea of making quality fashions accessible to all was born and from it, women’s fashions changed permanently.

© Carrie Henderson 2015