Return of the hourglass look

By Dana Thomas

Published: October 22 2010 23:06 | Last updated: October 22 2010 23:06

A fashion show presenting gowns
Designs by, from left, Louis Vuitton, Oscar de la Renta, Jason Wu and Prada

First lady Michelle Obama, the “most powerful woman in the world,” according to Forbes magazine, is back on the campaign trail, stumping for Democrats in next month’s midterm elections, trying to weave a little anti-Tea Party magic while demonstrating stylistic consistency.

In fashion terms, she’s firmly in the 1950s, hourglass, curve-celebrating camp – and she’s not the only one. This autumn, everyone including Michael Kors, Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, and Jason Wu, have revived Christian Dior’s postwar New Look for a new decade. It is, says Ikram Goldman of Ikram, the influential Chicago boutique, “a fashion moment”. The question is why or, more specifically, why now?

Ken Downing, fashion director at department store Neiman Marcus, says: “In a challenged economy, designers want to make clothes that create desire, that make women want to shop. Women want something that they do not have in their closet – something opposed to the straight up-and-down figures we’ve seen for years. Clothes that celebrate the woman’s shape do that.”

Of course, it’s not really a new look and it wasn’t even in the 1950s. When Christian Dior introduced his wasp-waist styles at his debut show in Paris in February 1947, he was simply refashioning the corseted gowns that his mother wore before world war one – a silhouette that had dominated women’s dressing for centuries. With its masses of fabric, clusters of beaded embroidery and sexy line, what Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow dubbed “the New Look” has long been hailed by fashion historians as a giddy response to the austere war years.

While the New Look eventually gave way to freer silhouettes such as the trapeze and the mini-skirt, the idea that a woman should show off her curves instead of hiding them became a permanent element in fashion design, and a trademark of designers such as Dolce & Gabbana, Roland Mouret and Azzedine Alaïa.

But now many young designers are also discovering the beauty of the 1950s and mining it for ideas. American designer Jason Wu, whose autumn/winter collection is heavily wasp-waisted, says: “I was influenced by Irving Penn’s incredible portraits and personal style as well as the majesty and craftsmanship of classic couture.” Similarly, Erdem Moralioglu, designer for the London-based fashion company Erdem, also embraced the silhouette. He says he loved the innocence of “girls in skirts and their boyfriends’ sweaters with the waist cinched in”.

Part of the reason for the prevalence of the hourglass shape is surgical: the extreme body reconstruction many women have been undergoing, with breast and bottom augmentation, alongside hours of Pilates and yoga, has created a figure as contrived and Barbie-like as bullet bras and waist cinchers (or “waspies”) did 60 years ago. “Just look at Victoria Beckham,” says Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty, London. “She is the hourglass girl.”

And, lest we forget, there’s the influence of Mad Men, the television series about a Madison Avenue advertising firm in the early 1960s. “We are all captivated by the glamour and style of the programme,” says Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods. “Grown-up, ladylike elegance is cool, and it exudes sophistication, confidence and presence.” Burstell says: “The Mad Men girls are all over the red carpet wearing the look, particularly Christina Hendricks.”

But ultimately, like most decisions in fashion today, the return of the New Look comes down to a cold-hearted business strategy. Burstell says: “There always has to be a new reason to buy and shop: the length goes up, the length goes down, the shoulders are padded, then they’re soft, street athleticism turns into curvy fabulous fashion.” The new New Look, by being the direct opposite of what Holli Rogers, buying director for, describes as “the fierce aesthetic of previous seasons”, does just that.

How long will this moment last? Judging by the spring/summer catwalk shows during the past few weeks in New York, Paris and London, just about that: a moment. Come spring, retailers will replace the 1950s hourglass dresses with tailored 1970s Yves Saint Laurent-style trouser suits, which will make everything in your closet look hopelessly out of date again. “Designers want to sell,” Downing shrugs. “That’s what we are in the business to do.”

Dana Thomas is the author of ‘Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre’ (Penguin)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.