Following my post on Nancy Mitford’s fashion, I have transcribed Olivia de Havilland’s memories of French fashion and a fitting at Christian Dior in the mid 1950s, the same time when Nancy was a loyal customer.
To begin with, ever since coming to live here I’ve been faithful to the House of Dior, which means that I’ve known the establishment under the reign of King Christian the First, under Yves Saint Laurent, who became Prince Regent on the royal demise, and under Marc Bohan, the incumbent. And it is a question as to which of the three has tried the hardest and done the most to flatten my bosom. Not permanent, you understand – just while I’m wearing a dress.
The whole thing started at my first fitting on my first Dior dress, designed by His Highness himself. There I was, standing in merely my stockings, my slip and my bust, and the next minute I was fully clothed and bustless. At first I couldn’t think where I’d gone to. Then I was struck rigid by the idea that some sort of instantaneous and lasting transformation had occurred and that I’d suddenly lost forever what is every girl’s pride. Springing out of my paralysis and into action, I looked frantically down my decollete to see what had happened to me. Fortunately, I was still there, both of me. But bound. And gagged. Like the Japanese female foot. Or feet, rather. By a framework of net and bone. The dress’s basic foundation.
You mustn’t think, here, that I have one of those over-exuberant superstructures that really needs lashing to the decks to keep it from going overboard. No, no, not at all. It is, rather the sort that you might call appropriate, quite becoming, so it’s been said. Neat but not gaudy. However, it’s a wonder what the tender encouragement of a well-placed dart can do to put it “en valuer”. Therefore, all in favour of tender encouragement, I did not take the matter of my binding meekly, but immediately crossed pins with my fitter in the first skirmish of the Great War of Compression. But each time I advanced my cause by withdrawing a peg from my armature, the fitter would swoop in with a fresh squad of cleats and batten down the hatches tighter than ever. I tell you, there have been times during these forays when it has been my mind that cleaved and my bust that boggled.
Now that we are in the full swing of the third regime of the House of Dior, you would think, wouldn’t you, that, pin-scarred and needle-tried, I’d be able to say to you that I’d succeeded in imposing the American silhouette upon at least one dress of French haute couture? But I have not succeeded. As I charge into combat, arrayed as I am in the constraining armour of my basic bodice, oxygen starvation defeated me every time. In the end, I always lose my War of Liberation, and the French always win their War of Containment.
But I must say, I do look darn well dressed. And I’m beginning to accept the French notion that a girl’s bust really is more important when she’s got her clothes off than when she’s got them on.
Extracted from Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland, 1961.