Christian Dior and Lucky in his studio in Paris, 1952.
Suiting Christian Dior’s enchanted kingdom, his models were exquisitely turned out and referred to as "mes chéries" or "mes enfants". The designer enthused, "My mannequins give life to my dresses." Unlike the Balenciaga models, hired to be androgynous coat hangers – "Cristóbal Balenciaga felt that attractive models distracted from his clothes," Benno Graziani, a journalist for Paris Match, revealed – Dior’s chéries reflected the clientele’s allure.
"The one exception was the model Victoire Doutreleau," recalled Marie-Christine Sayn-Wittgenstein (the daughter of Dior’s childhood friend Serge Heftler-Louiche, who ran Christian Dior Parfums). "Dior admired her hint of impertinence." According to Paule Boncoure, a seamstress in the atelier at the time, "Victoire’s arrival caused a mini revolution." Narrow-hipped, with a generous cleavage and a suggestive smile, Doutreleau had animal magnetism. Blatant about her appeal, she set the cat among the pigeons at 30 avenue Montaigne.
"She was a man-eater who immediately seduced the only straight, attractive person at Dior," one of her peers said. Unashamed of brandishing her modern attitude and, in her own words, "not caring a hoot" what others thought, Doutreleau amused media folk such as John Fairchild with her spirit. They saw her as "bohemian and sexy".
Various well-connected men attended couture shows to ogle the models. "They did not have the thinness of the girls now," the aristocrat Reinaldo Herrera, who attended Balmain and Dior with his father, said. ‘"They had feminine bodies with a waist and a bosom." In Herrera’s opinion, Balmain’s Marina Logaridis was one of the great beauties. "She was Greek and had the loveliest proportions," he said. But in the opinion of Graziani, who went to shows in a professional capacity, "Dior’s girls, along with Jacques Fath’s models, were the prettiest in Paris." Chez Dior, France was a classical blonde whom many young Parisians wanted to resemble. "She was wonderful-looking," Graziani said.
France’s sweet disposition melted men’s hearts. "You can’t imagine how gracious and kind she was," Yorn Michaelsen, who was one of Dior’s assistants, said. The young, good-looking German had fun with the models. "They taught me French," Michaelsen said. "When I arrived, I spoke about three words.’ The half-Russian Alla epitomised the exotically arrogant; Marie-Thérèse and Lucky could swish and add drama; Claire’s purity of features lit up the wedding finale; Lia’s slight, high bosom was ideal for suits; and Renée was Dior’s favourite. "Renée’s body was fuller," Pierre Cardin said. "She was not like Tania, who was skeletal and resembled a monster without her clothes on." In Doutreleau’s opinion, "Renée’s figure resembled a shop-window mannequin and everything always worked on her."
Dior’s couture house became a goal for many hopefuls. "Everyone had heard of Monsieur Dior and he had an excellent reputation concerning the models," said the Romanian-born Lia Lucas, who joined Dior in 1950 as a doublure de mannequin or a model’s stand-in, used when buyers viewed individual outfits. "But it was really difficult getting a foot into Dior’s cabine [fitting room] because, once installed, his girls didn’t want to leave." As Dior believed 13 was a lucky number, "There were always 13 girls in the cabine," Doutreleau said.
Each couture house had its own models who would get ready in the cabine. The designer described it as "a world of its own" with the same "tawdry atmosphere" as experienced "backstage at the theatre". "The row of desks reminds me of a school room with its pupils studying to take a degree in beauty," he wrote. Hours were spent at the mirror, while at the desk of each chérie Dior noticed "a hidden horde of sweets, knitting, lucky mascots, photographs and love letters".
In general, daughters from nice families were not encouraged to be in-house models. "Being a studio model was viewed as preferable," said Régine Debrise, who posed for the photographers Irving Penn and Henry Clarke before becoming an editor at French Vogue, "because the hours were contained and the conditions were better. Being in-house meant sharing the cabine, often a cramped room, with 10 other girls, and it lacked any kind of privacy."
Certain cabines were even viewed as racy. "A hotel opposite Balmain was well frequented and notorious for its cinq à sept hanky-panky," Francine Barjon, an in-demand model who worked for Dior, Pierre Cardin and Givenchy, said. However, due to the appointment of Madame de Turckheim as head of the cabine, "Dior’s resembled a finishing school in atmosphere," Barjon noted. Turckheim was called either Tutu or La Baronne. "Well, she was a real baroness," Lucas said. She was also a stickler for punctuality, and the models being tirées à quatre épingles, or looking immaculate. The matronly Baronne furthered the family-like atmosphere established by Dior and Suzanne Luling [Dior’s childhood friend and director of the salon].
Although Dior’s chéries had a gruelling work schedule – "We did shows every day and travelled all the time," Lucas said – they had plenty of attitude. Leslie Caron recalled seeing a Dior show with her mother, a former bridge partner of Dior’s. "During that period, if you liked an outfit, you would stop the model and she would give you a twirl and show you the lining," she said.
Caron’s mother, however, was more intrigued by the red lips of a beautiful, mildly voluptuous blonde. "My mother said, 'May I ask the name of your lipstick?' and the model replied then added, 'But not everyone has my lips.' You cannot imagine how much that made me and my family laugh for years afterwards."
Once accepted by Dior, models were measured for a corset. "That was the very first thing you did," Eugénie Mauffret, who modelled for him twice in the early- and mid-1950s, said. A form was also made of their feet for Roger Vivier shoes. "They were utter agony unless you had tiny, narrow feet," Lucas said. Models were expected to do their own hair and make-up for most shows, "and it was noted if you overdid or underdid it", Lucas continued.
"The fittings with him were my favourite moment at Dior," Mauffret, who left to model for Hardy Amies, said. "Dior was so kind that it inspired you to do your best. He was also such an artist, keen that his vision be carried through." Unlike many couturiers, Dior never borrowed ideas from peers. "He was determined not to sully his image." Marguerite Carré, who directed the ateliers, "could terrify" models. "But I always forgave her tempers or moods, viewing her as someone who desperately cared and wanted to maintain incredibly high standards."
The next stage for the collection was choosing the fabric and the model who would ultimately wear the look. Dior admitted that of the chéries who presented his collection "three or four can put anything on and show it to advantage". Clearly, he was referring to Renée. "She brings fabrics to life so exquisitely that her face is lost," he wrote. "When showing the clothes in her distant, aloof way, she makes it seem as if her very life centres around the folds of the fabric." It did: Renée once admitted that "only fainting" would stop her presenting Dior’s collection.
Regarding the others, who had "a more pronounced type of feminine beauty", Dior had to take care and "harmonise their appearance". However, aware of female jealousy – his creative team consisted of three strong-willed women who loathed each other – Dior divided the looks equally, claiming that "civil war" would break out if he did not.
Actually, it was in the final rehearsal that tempers rose. When an outfit was dropped at the 11th hour or given to a fellow model, the "wigs were on the green", to use an 18th-century expression.
There were also Dior’s superstitions and habits to deal with. "If a dress fell three times, it meant something," Doutreleau said. Lucas was amused to discover Dior hiding among ball dresses before the show. "He did that to hear our conversations," she said. "It was a bit cheeky." During the show the designer stood behind the grey silk curtain and hounded his chéries with, "Do they like it?"
(L) Lucky in front of the House of Dior. (R) Models on the stairs at the House of Dior, 1953.
(L) The model France with Dior. (R) Yorn Michaelsen, an assistant to Dior, sketching the model Alla, 1956.
(L) Mauviette (left) and Victoire, both new Dior models in 1953, getting ready for a show in the cabine. (R) The models Victoire (far left) and Lucky (far right) prepare the actress Olivia de Havilland for a role as a model in The Ambassador’s Daughter.