French Ambassador Emmanuel de Margerie remembers well the introduction of the New Look of Christian Dior -- the sudden drop in hemlines -- in 1947. "I was walking down the Faubourg St. Honore' with a friend in the New Look. Everyone was staring at her and I was very embarrassed. I was very shy then," he recalled.
That New Look was being celebrated last night at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which is saluting the Look's 40th anniversary with a retrospective exhibition of work by fashion photographer and portraitist Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Many photographs of Dior clothes are in the exhibit.
However, it was not the old New Look, but the newest new look, with its short flippy dresses, that was attracting much of the attention around the elaborate preview night buffet. A number of the guests, many of them in the fashion business, had bared their knees as well as their shoulders for the occasion.
"It's my last gasp," said painter Myrna Smirnoff, who was wearing a short, black tiered dress. "My legs are still holding up."
Guests who made their way up the dramatic marble staircase to see the Dahl-Wolfe photographs had an extra surprise. The 91-year-old photographer was seated in one of the rooms, near the portrait of her husband, talking to guests and signing catalogues. "She started it all," said Irving Solero, curator of photographs at the Fashion Institute of Technology's Design Lab, which lent Dahl-Wolfe's color proofs to the exhibition. "She was one of the first masters of fashion photography. She put together fashion and art."
Dahl-Wolfe was a friend of Dior. "I respected Balenciaga, but Dior was a warm and charming man," she said. Added Neal Fox, chairman of Garfinckel's and president of Raleighs: "His revolution went far beyond a change in hemlines. It was the first fashion design to have an international impact."
Renee Kraft remembers the day the Dior New Look hit Washington. "I looked out my window at the Broadmoor Hotel and saw several women on the street in long skirts. I remember immediately taking down the hem of my dress, then going directly to Garfinckel's to buy the New Look," said Kraft, who was wearing a Dior of several years back.
In fact, a small retrospective display of Christian Diors prompted many women to wear their favorite old dresses. "Galanos, 1960," said Jane Coyne proudly. "Trigere, 1962," countered Eleni Epstein, referring to her totally timely black dress.
Helene de Margerie was wearing a black-and-white Dior gown made for her before she came to Washington 17 years ago. Penne Korth was in a Dior of the current season -- short, draped and off the shoulders in a deep royal blue.
Others recalled Dior dresses they had known and loved. Anne-Imelda Radice, museum director, remembered a Dior suit of her mother's. "I didn't inherit it -- my mother still wears it," she said.
Carolyn Jones, assistant in the book department at National Geographic, had to leave her 1947 Dior at home in the closet. She had bought it when she was a model. "I was very skinny then," she said. "I couldn't breathe in it today.