Why is the bust so small? Dior and the H-Line

Why is the bust so small? Dior and the H-Line

When you want to learn how a dress, a corset, or anything else was really made and worn, nothing beats a primary source. You might make a lovely dress from a reproduction pattern, and that’s great, but there may be details that were lost in translation. What if you could go deeper? What if you could look over the shoulder of the première at Dior’s atelier in 1955? What did they do differently from us, and why?

Whether you’re recreating a historic dress or corset accurately or not, that little detail you notice might be just the thing to make the outfit “pop”, like an imperceptible magic you’ve brought back from 1955. It just looks right – or perhaps just unusual enough to stand out from the crowd.

Like a curious five-year-old, try to ask “why?” just one more time than the next person. For example… why is the bust of this Dior evening gown so small?

 

Cocktail dress by Christian Dior, S/S 1955 collection. (C) Leicestershire County Council Museums Service. Used with permission

Cocktail dress by Christian Dior, S/S 1955 collection. (C) Leicestershire County Council Museums Service. Used with permission

 

I mean, that’s SMALL. This dress has an inner corselette that hugs the body as a piece of foundationwear, with underwired cups just like a bra, and yet… one little scrap of taffeta with two little darts? My first bra had more shape than this!

There was lots of discussion as I went through this on social media. Well, it was probably made for a tiny woman, we thought. But people kept sending me more pictures of the innards of Dior gowns… and they all had these tiny bust cups with two little darts.

 

Christian Dior gown, A/W 1954

Christian Dior gown, A/W 1954

Christian Dior gown, 1951

Christian Dior gown, 1951

 

Well, we said, women were just smaller then. Bust size has grown dramatically in recent decades. Mmmm, I’m not buying it. My grandmother’s evening dresses have her generous bust shape, sewn by her own fair hand in the Fifties and Sixties; as I often say, the average size has changed, but all shapes and sizes were around then too. The “modern body” argument is far too convenient an answer.

So what is it?

Thank you, Internet hive mind… @jamamcg sent me the following pages of Life magazine, showcasing the furore over the controversial new Dior bust shape in the Autumn/Winter 1954 collection.

 

Life magazine cover, Sept 6 1954. Courtesy of @jamamcg

 

“Flat vs. buxom look in Paris” – Dior’s notorious H Line either attempted to flatten the bust to nothing (above left) or give a pushed-up effect (above right).

 

Life magazine, Sept 6 1954. Courtesy of @jamamcg

 

“Kittie Campbell of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin shows how side boning will lift but not abolish bust.” (top of above page)

“Worrisome rumors about what Dior was up to… a supremely un-American attempt to eliminate the female bosom and shove fashion back to the shapeless flapper mold of the ’20s.”

Oh no, not the 1920s! In 1954 that must have felt like the 90s threatening to bring back flares. But never fear… the rumors were exaggerated; there are some curves after all. In the event, Life reports that the flattened look represents “only a fifth of his collection”, and the pushed-up effect created “an extremely feminine, sexy figure… nothing to alarm either the American woman or her male admirer.”

(Oh, I am glad that the menfolk will approve. *snort*)

“Vogue on Dior” (2015) features an image that breaks it right down for us (the style looks like it’s a page from a Vogue issue from the period):

 

From "Vogue on Dior", 2015

 

And that’s why my dress has a flattened bust. At first I was trying so hard not to default to my modern idea of pushing my small bust up and in as far as I can… but it turns out that that’s pretty much what Dior was up to. If I’d never questioned that bust shape and just gone ahead and made a standard cupped corselette, I’d never have found this fascinating rabbit hole that helps me understand the intended shape and story of this gown just a little bit better. So THANK YOU to everyone who took part in this discussion! I am nothing without you!

3 Comments

  1. So funny and insightful! I especially enjoy that you reject male stereotypes from this era in such an entertaining way.
    Good wishes from Cameron in Florida.

    Reply
  2. Fascinating stuff! It took a keen eye and good research to notice this and detail it so clearly. I wonder why the Tudor bodice had cups instead of a band closer to the originals, but shallow enough cups on a generous bus basically *are*, so maybe there’s my answer. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. This is a great article. It definitely complicates my understanding of Dior’s ‘New Look’. I will be looking back at the 50s with new eyes if only because I lean more toward Degas than the Tudors. I hope nobody *really *wanted to look ‘more fragile’ though!

    Reply

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