Christian Dior’s Guide to Colors, Scents and Elegance

The world moves in cycles and so does beauty writing. A few years ago magazines were awash with articles singing paeans to the ineffable allure of French women who’ve solved the mysteries of bringing up bébé and tying scarves better than other creatures on the planet. Now we learn that French style is too limiting and severe. And–here comes the major revelation–that you can’t enjoy your croissants and fit into slim jeans too. Apparently, French women do get fat along with the rest of us.

It’s true that French style has a distinctive aesthetic based on a series of subtle subtractions. Like ballet, it makes difficult things look effortless. It’s limiting, I suppose, since the way to achieve it lies in removing, rather than adding elements–paring down accessories, color palette, shapes, etc. But it’s never boring, which is why it continues to fascinate us. Once beauty magazines are finished instructing us on how to look like Scandinavian amazons and achieve hygge and lagom with scented candles, we’ll be back to reading how to breathe like French women.

Despite its vintage (circa 1954), Christian Dior’s Little Dictionary of Fashion (public library) is still a good guide to the art of French style. Fashion and the world in general have changed dramatically since Dior wrote it, but the basic premise of the attention to shape, quality and elegance holds. Mind you, at no point does Dior talk about his Dictionary as French; it’s his guide to fashion in general.

Designers could have written these words today:

“Interest

There has never been such interest taken in fashion as there is today. And fashion has never been so readily available to women throughout the world.

Not many years ago only a favoured few were able to come to Paris and be dressed by the leading couturiers of the day–Vionnet, Worth, Chanel, etc. Today, through the fashion magazines, and the wholesale fashion houses, the creative art of the world’s couturiers is readily available to every woman.

The Paris Collections are reported in such detail in the world’s Press that women many thousands of miles away from France know, within a few hours, all about the newest styles. They can copy the ideas of the men whose whole lives are devoted to fashion; they can pick and choose amongst many hundreds of different designs. They have a very great advantage over their grandmothers! But with all this wealth of fashion news and detail showered upon them the problem of the modern woman today is to use her own good taste and discretion to choose only those things that are good for her.

However much you admire a certain frock or coat on somebody else before you wear a similar one yourself you must think ‘What will this do for me?’ And unless it fits in with your personality, your age, your figure, you must choose something else.”

Dior is an affable guide to the art of dressing, but he has no qualms to state his rules. I’m sure some will be amused by his statements that high heels with slacks or velvet after March are fashion nonsense. But if one is after a rule book, why be surprised that it contains categorical statements? Then again, anyone who says that “with a suit and a ball gown you can make a tour of the world and be well dressed for almost any occasion” is a person after my heart.

Dior New Look, cover of “Dior: The Legendary Images” by Rizzoli

Dior’s advice is based on such common sense and understanding of shape that it’s hard to hold his rules against him. What’s more, I don’t feel obligated to follow them. I own a beige trench coat, several little black dresses and enough scarves to adorn a small arrondissement in Paris, but I also have a cape in red satin, purple opera gloves that I wear for occasions that don’t involve opera and many slacks that I pair with high heels. I don’t aim to dress like some phantom French woman. I don’t even always dress for elegance. I dress the way that fits my lifestyle and mood.

Dior’s A to Z dictionary starts with Accent and Accessories and finishes with Zest. He says outright that elegance has little to do with wealth, and that the best way to develop it is to get to know yourself–your shape, your colors, your preferences.

What is elegance for Dior?

“This is a word that would need a book to give it its right definition! I will only say now that elegance must be the right combination of distinction, naturalness, care and simplicity. Outside of this, believe me, there is no elegance. Only pretension.

Elegance is not dependent on money. Of the four things I have mentioned above, the most important of all is care. Care in choosing your clothes. Care in wearing them. Care in keeping them.”

Again and again Dior emphasizes the important of the line, and his Little Dictionary of Fashion includes several entries that look at body shapes and the way clothes drape over them–darts, armholes, bodice, fabric patterns and belts. Visiting the Dior exhibit at the Musée des Arts décoratifs, I realized that Dior saw body the way a dancer would–as a line in space. Achieving Dior’s effect is possible with other garments as long as one keeps in mind the way clothes fall from your body, the way they elongate or shorten your limbs.

Christian Dior preparing his 1957 collection, via getty images

Color affects the line, so Dior spends the bulk of the Dictionary talking about hues. It’s easily my favorite part of the book. Dior doesn’t shy away from bold statements, but since he intends his Dictionary for beginners, he recommends limiting the outfit to two colors and gives advice on selecting colors as accents. He loves grey and pink. He says he could write a whole book on black. He’s less enthusiastic about violet and warns that beige though elegant can be difficult to wear.

“Colour may be used in touches if you wish to change the look of your clothes. An emerald scarf… one brilliant red rose… a sunshine yellow stole… royal blue gloves. But if you have only a small wardrobe restrict your colours to your accessories. A coloured frock can look very gay and attractive, but you can easily get tired of it, and you will not get as much wear out of it as you would out of a little black or navy blue frock.”

Dior then focuses on fragrance. He regrets that women do not use as much perfume as they did in his youth and offers some thoughts on the matter.

“Perfume, like your clothes, can so much express your personality; and you can change your perfume with your mood. I think it is as important for a woman to have beautiful perfume as it is for her to have beautiful clothes. And do not think that you need have perfume only on yourself; your whole house can smell of it, and especially your room.”

Dior would have hated the phrase “smells like old lady.” For him, elegance is beyond age and can be achieved by anyone, regardless of the birth date in their passport. He definitely doesn’t advise the kind of boring style that is usually recommended for older women to make them look invisible. Enjoy dressing up, you’ve earned it is his message.

Clothes, of course, have other functions besides making one look elegant–comfort, experiment, statement. The definition of elegance also varies from culture to culture. For this reason, I enjoy Dior’s book as a collection of suggestions rather than rules to follow slavishly. It’s a delight to read.

On the other hand, his last advice under the letter Z for Zest echoes my philosophy. “Anything you do, work or pleasure, you have to do it with zest. You have to live with zest… and that is the secret of beauty and fashion, too.”

For another French fashion guide with a retro aura (circa 1964), please take a look at A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux (public library). For a more modern interpretation, you can consider The Parisian Chic Look Book by Inès de La Fressange (public library).

Images #1 and 4, photography by Bois de Jasmin

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57 Comments

  • Annie: Ah, such a nice article to start my morning! Dior New Look dresses are so elegant. August 31, 2017 at 9:05am Reply

    • Victoria: I also love that collection. The exhibit I saw recently showcased his whole portfolio, but that 1947 collection is unforgettable. August 31, 2017 at 9:52am Reply

  • Jeanne: I laughed out loud when I read the first few paragraphs of your article! My sister and her husband live in Houston, and I needed a good diversion.

    Great article Victoria, and really interesting. I want to read the entire book. Thanks! August 31, 2017 at 9:40am Reply

    • Victoria: We have friends in Houston, so all of you have been in our thoughts these past few days. Hope that all of your friends and loved ones are safe.

      This book is such a delight. He seems like a character. August 31, 2017 at 9:53am Reply

  • Ariane: Dear Victoria, Delightful! And I’m glad you also recommended Madame Dariaux’s wonderful book. I used to always ask myself “What would Dariaux say?” when contemplating some new style or purchase. Both books are outdated in the details, perhaps, but not the principles. Ariane August 31, 2017 at 10:20am Reply

    • Victoria: She has a distinctive voice! You put it perfectly in that while the details of fashion have changed, the basic principles still hold. August 31, 2017 at 1:03pm Reply

  • kat: This has been on my wish list for quite some time. Thanks for the reminder – just ordered my copy! August 31, 2017 at 10:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you’ll enjoy it! August 31, 2017 at 1:04pm Reply

  • Kandice: I just loved this article. What a delightful way to start the day. I now want to read the whole book. Onto my reading list it goes! Thanks for the review. August 31, 2017 at 1:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a charming book, with plenty of good advice. September 1, 2017 at 2:35am Reply

  • Lucy Raubertas: Love those vintage fashion and design books. Used to be able to find them at used bookstores and garage sales, but no more. I have a few I treasure. Especially the ones that explain how to make bound button holes or alter clothing (more on the how to sewing end) or what colors of makeup to wear that go with your hair color. I would love to have the life you’d have to live to wear that satin ball gown in the photo, for at least a year… August 31, 2017 at 3:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: On Rue des Archives in Paris there used to be a shop selling old books and magazines at very reasonable prices. I bought so many old volumes there. But as the Marais got more and more expensive, it couldn’t survive and had to close its doors. Sad.

      My philosophy on ball gowns is that they make life more glamourous, whatever the occasion. When to wear them? Anytime! Around the house works just as well. It doesn’t have to be a fancy couture gown, of course, but something fun and over the top. I photographed Dior book against my ballet tulle skirt, for instance. I sometimes wear it just for a walk in the park, and I get lots of compliments on it. September 1, 2017 at 2:49am Reply

      • Bela: I spent the first 14 years of my life Rue des Archives, at number 88, opposite Rue Portefoin. 🙂 September 5, 2017 at 5:40pm Reply

        • Victoria: I know the exact place. 🙂 It’s one of my favorite streets in Paris, although it has changed a lot even over the past 10 years. September 5, 2017 at 8:47pm Reply

          • Bela: It’s changed a lot since it became gentrified. Instead of ordinary, *useful* shops, there are now art galleries in the street where my school used to be — and chichi boutiques everywhere. The Marais used to be an industrious area, full of hard-working people. It had soul. September 11, 2017 at 9:36am Reply

            • Victoria: I really dislike the chains selling mass-produced clothing at luxury prices. That they pushed out my favorite bookstore is unforgivable. September 12, 2017 at 3:05am Reply

  • Joy Erickson: Great article, Victoria. Not having read this book, I have utilized these concepts for most of my life. My favorite basic has always been navy blue blazers or suits worn with sparkling white shirts or jewel toned silk blouses. My husband when looking into my closet wonders why I have so many white shirts! Scarves have been my drama. Occasionally when wearing a black suit to the symphony, I will add a pair of red shoes. I can’t help myself!
    Thank you for more books to add to my must read! August 31, 2017 at 3:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: When I worked in the corporate environment before grad school, suits were my staple. I even went through a period of 40s inspired suits, which were offered back then by Viktor & Rolf, but lately, I don’t wear as much of them. I do love dresses, although the most frequently worn article of clothing in my wardrobe is a pair of black jeans. And yes, a pair of red shoes is a must. September 1, 2017 at 2:54am Reply

      • katherine x: I remember your red ballet shoes! Red shoes complement my typically navy/black clothing perfectly. Dior’s advice resonates with me because it’s so practical and I agree with it!
        And as far as black clothing is concerned – it’s magic! Not only is it a great foil forsplashes of color and jewelry – it’s also slimming! September 1, 2017 at 11:23pm Reply

        • Victoria: I once had a dressed up elderly gentleman in Paris stop me to compliment my red shoes. They’re just simple ballerinas, but they’re so eye-catching. September 3, 2017 at 11:53am Reply

  • Elisa: A few months back I said something about the inelegance of those little belt loops sewn on to dresses, and a poet I admire very much said, “I love that you think about elegance!” I took that as a great compliment. I love when people think about elegance! August 31, 2017 at 6:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t agree more. Sometimes when people talk about elegance, they think of something very specific, the sucked-in cheeks elegance of the 40s-50s models, for instance. Elegance can take many forms.

      I do dislike the belt loops too, especially when they’re flabby and too large. A dress then looks like it has warts growing out of it. September 1, 2017 at 2:57am Reply

      • Elisa: I’ve taken to cutting them off, a delicate operation as I’m always worried I’m going to snip too close and cut a hole in the side of the dress. September 1, 2017 at 8:39am Reply

        • Victoria: I do the same thing. Then I stopped buying dresses with these loops. Too much bother to fix them. September 1, 2017 at 10:42am Reply

  • Karen A: Hooray for elegance! (wait, does saying hooray sound unelegant??). You’ve inspired me once again and this book plus the Dariaux book Ariane mentioned above were ordered.

    When I think of elegance, I think of kindness – to others and yourself. So that the way a person moves through the world makes it a better place, being comfortable enough with yourself to put others at ease. August 31, 2017 at 7:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: You can click on my link below the article to read an excerpt from Dariaux’s book. It’s about perfume. Her comments about clothes are even more interesting, especially since she created accessories for the couture houses and later was the directress of Nina Ricci’s salon. She’s even stricter than Dior, though, but her book contains lots of practical advice. Much of it is not dated at all, some we might argue with. September 1, 2017 at 3:02am Reply

      • Karen A: The books interested me more for just reading and inspiration than looking for advice – sometimes just the phrasing of a sentence or insights in to that era is enough for me. September 1, 2017 at 3:50pm Reply

        • Victoria: You’ll enjoy them both, then! September 1, 2017 at 4:24pm Reply

          • Karen A: Both books arrived. I need more frocks. And ensembles. And places to wear them. September 12, 2017 at 5:37am Reply

            • Victoria: Now that’s a good dilemma to resolve. 🙂 Enjoy! September 12, 2017 at 12:00pm Reply

  • Brock Keeling: I wonder what Mr. Dior would think of his house’s horrific and drab fragrance offerings? August 31, 2017 at 7:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: In a word, inelegant. September 1, 2017 at 3:03am Reply

  • spe: Hands down, Dior has historically been my favorite design house. This will sound blasphemous, but I thought Bill Gaytten’s collections were gorgeous. He was replaced with more modern designers years ago, and they just don’t do it for me. The “line” isn’t as accentuated. But I haven’t seen Fall yet, so maybe that has improved.

    Anyway, Victoria, if you would, please suggest some current fragrances that call to mind for you the Dior aesthetic. I’m intrigued to know!

    Thank you for referencing the book. I bought it. A few years back, I went on a French elegance book binge. It turns out I dress that way naturally, so there wasn’t much new for me there. I attribute that to luckily having a Mom with refined European flair. August 31, 2017 at 9:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: Raf Simmons was excellent at keeping the line clean, but the majority of his designs were a little too austere for me. As much as I wanted to like the designs of the current fashion director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, they seem too bland to me–either frothy tulle dresses with flower appliques or all black ensembles with large hoods. September 1, 2017 at 3:09am Reply

  • Becky: Someone once said that a true gentleman makes everyone feel at ease. I think this is a wonderful description of elegance. A focus on the essence of elegance not its form. Beautiful. I so enjoy reading the comments on this blog. Thank you. Your collective concern for the beautiful things makes me happy. It may be silly but knowing there are people like all of you out in the world makes me happy. August 31, 2017 at 9:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think Dior would agree, because elegance to him feels natural. It doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s some inherent attribute or that one shouldn’t pay attention to what goes with what, etc. It’s only that above all, it’s about feeling good in one’s skin.

      I can’t agree more with you. It makes me happy too to meet all of you and to read these comments. September 1, 2017 at 3:14am Reply

  • mj: Victoria, I have to thank you for discovering me this little book. I looked for it in Amazon, and there it is. It will make a lovely gift for some of my friends this Christmas. September 1, 2017 at 5:48am Reply

    • Victoria: They have two versions of it, by the way. One is regular, and the other, the one in my photo, has a sturdy fabric cover. It’s much nicer for a gift, I think. September 1, 2017 at 10:44am Reply

  • Elise: D’ariaux! Readers, make sure that you purchase the 1960s version, not the 2011 edition. The latter includes many things, but doesn’t include the full breadth and much of the goodnaturedness. Didactic? A little, but when you view your clothing to be part of a community art project, well…c you blame her for loving beauty for beauty’s sake while approaching each person with a good will and eagerness to like each one?

    Most importantly, she likes dogs. Especially mutts. She writes so well about all sorts of dogs in that chapter.

    Her book about handling men is also wonderful. Really, throw away your ‘love language’ book and buy hers. While not ostensibly feminist, I infinitely prefer her advice and general adherence to expecting the best out of others while still respecting yourself. September 1, 2017 at 7:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: Les Voies de L’élégance by Geneviève Antoine-Dariaux, 1965, is available online in French, but the English edition might be hard to find. I actually find that the editors of the new edition made Madame Dariaux sound more approachable and less didactic. September 3, 2017 at 11:52am Reply

      • Elise: Availability waxes and wanes. Last I checked (I recommended to a friend who came out as trans a few months ago, and several older ones were available for 11 dollars). Yes, the newer is less didactic, but the newer one deleted the parts about world travel and dogs and other parts. Whichever you read, you win.

        Lovely article! Lovely comments! September 3, 2017 at 4:43pm Reply

  • Patricia: What a lovely article, Victoria! I must read these books. My fashion tip is that every fall I add a classic upscale item to my wardrobe (sometimes a handbag). This year I want a leather jacket, but seem to find only moto jackets, which are too trendy for my taste. I also collect scarves, from Hermes to cheap and cheerful cotton bandannas. September 2, 2017 at 11:54am Reply

    • Victoria: In Brussels I keep spotting thin leather jackets in cream and beige. They look so elegant. September 3, 2017 at 11:54am Reply

  • Luxe Ford: Ha! The term “lagom” is quite a derogatory one for a Swede. It’s what we try to avoid being.

    Catherine Deneuve once said that when a woman arrives at a certain age she has to choose between her face or her body. September 3, 2017 at 10:49am Reply

  • Richard Goller: So many truths in this book. Magazines can be quite hilarious when they fixate on certain ideals, without the nuances. Great review, Victoria. I always learn something new when I read your posts. R September 4, 2017 at 9:23am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Richard! 🙂 September 5, 2017 at 8:48pm Reply

  • Inma: Hello, back to a new working year for me it is a delight reading this. So funny and interesting. “Get to know yourself” I think is a perfect advice for everything. I keep Zest as the perfect company these days! Thank you! September 4, 2017 at 9:28am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a lighthearted book. Dior talks more about the technical aspects of fashion in his autobiography, but this collection of his musings is fun to have around. September 5, 2017 at 8:50pm Reply

  • spe: Would someone please clarify for me his opinion on color in outfits?

    He states: “Two colors in any outfit are quite enough. And two touches of any one color are enough.”

    Are the touches accessories? Is the accessory color in addition to the two colors in the outfit?

    Thank you😊. September 8, 2017 at 11:25am Reply

    • Victoria: He meant that if you’re carrying a red purse, it’s enough to have another red accent like a belt, shoes or scarf. Having all of the accessories match would be too much.

      Generally, if I look at his ensembles, they follow this principle. An outfit may be in grey and white, for instance, with a brightly colored accessory. One of my favorite dresses in the exhibit was Dior’s bright red number with a turquoise belt. Just stunning. September 12, 2017 at 2:59am Reply

  • nozknoz: I bought this book on ebay based on your review and I’m so glad I did! It’s so evocative of a lost world of wealth and discretion, and the personality of its creator. For a moment I step into his atelier, a valued client, and listen carefully to his advice, as judicious as his couture:

    “For long evening dresses, brocade should be used only for great ceremonies, with a certain official character. The Coronation was a typical occasion for brocade. It’s richness and luxuriousness did justice to the dignity of the event.”

    I’ll never need to worry about what to wear to a coronation, but there’s much that’s as timeless as his designs. That opening section on Accents is a great example. Thank you! September 9, 2017 at 1:08am Reply

    • Victoria: It reminds you how much the world of fashion has changed. With H&M and Zara, people can follow the major trends on the budget. The downside, of course, is that cheap fashion means that someone else is paying for it–in child labor, atrocious working conditions, low prices to the cotton farmers, environmental degradation, etc.

      I also won’t ever have to worry what to wear to a coronation. 🙂 September 12, 2017 at 3:03am Reply

      • Christine McPhillips: Have just come from the Dior exhibition at the NGV in Melbourne and am having dinner alone and thought I would read your blog so quite a coincidence to read about Dior, fresh from his lovely designs. Interesting to see his thoughts on elegance; the clothes from 47-57 reflect them so clearly. Wish my dressmaking skills could recreate them! September 12, 2017 at 3:55am Reply

        • Victoria: What a nice coincidence! It’s such a pleasure to see his designs in person, since the details on some of the dresses are fascinating. He makes even the simplest garments look unique. September 12, 2017 at 1:33pm Reply

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