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In Christian Dior’s world, nothing is as it seams

A new Apple series about the designer, set in WW2, is sumptuous to look at but does not come to grips with the moral ambiguity of France’s darkest hour.
Caroline Baum
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Dior New look main

Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior

Published: 10 April 2024

Last updated: 10 April 2024

‘You cannot sue a Jew!” Coco Chanel’s sidekick protests in Apple TV’s latest prestige series The New Look. He is remonstrating with her at a decisive moment when she is enraged, trapped and lashing out like a wild animal, threatening to destroy her business partners, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, with whom she co-founded her business.

The ten-part series purports to be about Dior and how he created a new silhouette for women after the war that revolutionised fashion and made him one of France’s most valuable cultural and economic assets. But because that story on its own would have been too light a fabric to weave into a compelling cloth, the writers have wisely chosen to contrast his trajectory with that of his contemporary, Coco Chanel, widely acknowledged to have collaborated with the Nazis while having an affair with a Nazi spy, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, known as Spatz.

They appear to have drawn on an excellent recent biography of Christian Dior’s sister, Catherine, by Justine Picardie. (Picardie is also responsible for an authoritative biography of Chanel, having been given unfettered access to the company’s archives.)

Catherine’s remarkable and terrible story was until now, little known: as a member of the Resistance, she was caught, tortured and interrogated by the Gestapo in Paris and then sent to Ravensbruck, from where she returned.

Most movingly, but inexplicably not shown in the drama series, she became responsible for the family property in Provence where Dior cultivated the flowers he used to make his original perfume formulations. The classic Miss Dior fragrance is his tribute to his sister’s courage and devotion to her country.

The truth about these figures in those times is not black and white. There is a persistent silence around that era

Dior biographer Justine Picardie

As with any drama based on the lives of real, larger-than-life figures, the casting is critical. I am sorry to say that our very own Ben Mendelsohn, who has done outstanding work in other series including Bloodline) is lame as Dior, largely because he does not look remotely like him and cannot hold on to his French accent for even a phrase at a time.

The Jewish Independent

He can only say his sister’s name right about once in five tries: Katrine; but slips into the Anglo CaTHerine a lot and the directors obviously decided it was not worth another take. His pronunciation and emphasis flip flops all over the place like a live fish, so that at times he sounds English, at times German, possibly even Italian, but it is never secure, and so instead of forgetting it, one notices it. Why on earth did he get the part?

(As an interesting bit of biographical trivia, Mendelsohn describes himself as an Australian mongrel but is married to a Jewish writer and has said they are raising their daughter Jewish.)

Binoche, in a part that allows her to release her inner bitch, is more convincing as the monstrous Chanel, a scheming, self-interested survivor. The directors take the trouble to reference and re-stage several famous photos of her wearing signature ensembles such as extravagant ropes of costume jewellery pearls and wide-legged high-waisted mannish pants. (Not all her clothes are quite right, though: some outfits look cheap and lack sufficiently sharp tailoring. Her trousers are too wide and make her look dumpy.)

Is she antisemitic? She did definitely uses her ‘Aryan’ status to regain control of the business while the Nazis are in power. In the series, she socialises with the top brass. When the Wertheimer brothers take the formula for Number 5 to sell it without her permission in America, she decides to sue, lashing out in several scenes about how, being Jews, they are only ever interested in money. She has good reason to feel betrayed, but the script leans heavily into the suggestion that she was already prejudiced before the business conflict arose.

It has other problems too. All the dialogue is banal and expositional: everyone says exactly what they mean and there is no subtext or subtlety to anyone or to any of their actions. This flattens the drama, which is also stretched out over too many episodes, with the dullest exchanges being those between Dior and his first couture director and mentor, Lucien Lelong, played by John Malkovich, which is a bit of casting with a delicious irony to it, given that Malkovich launched a menswear line in 2017. (He, too, has accent problems.)

Balmain and Balenciaga get walk-on parts (interestingly Balenciaga went on to become the darling of the ladies of the Franco regime and never seemed troubled by the fact that his clientele was fascist).

The production is lavish in terms of locations, handsome and well-paced in terms of tension and momentum. But it fails to evoke the ambiguity of the times, and the guilt, complicity, reckoning and shame rich which France has still not come to terms with. I wonder what the French will make of this series, and why they did not make their own version of this story of rivalry, betrayal and bravery themselves. Perhaps, even now, the pain is still too raw. 

No evidence that Chanel was antisemitic, says Dior author

The New Look owes a lot to Miss Dior, Justine Picardie’s riveting biography of siblings Christian and Catherine, but takes considerable liberties with its characterisation of key players. Surprisingly, the book was not optioned by the producers, nor was Picardie hired as a consultant on the series, as she told The Jewish Independent from her home in Britain.

Nonetheless, she refrains from criticising the series, singling out Maisie Williams’ performance as Catherine Dior for praise. She describes the depiction of Chanel as “very fictionalised”.

“The truth about these figures in those times is not black and white. There is a persistent silence around that era, and a lot of records have not been digitised. To do my research on Chanel, some of which emerged directly from my work on Catherine Dior, I had to wade through cartons of documents in military archives, sifting through papers by hand.”

As a result of her research, Picardie is emphatic that “there is no evidence that Chanel was antisemitic. Two of her closest friends were Jewish: Marie Helene de Rothschild and Pierre Wertheimer”.

Documents also show that from 1943, Chanel was listed as an active member of the Resistance. “The architect of her house on the Cote d’Azur, La Pausa, was Robert Streitz. He asked her for help to hide Jews there. She agreed. I did an interview with a woman whose mother was Chanel’s housekeeper at the time. She told me about a hidden wireless transmitter in the basement that was used by the Resistance.”

As for the way the series characterises the relationship between Chanel and her business partners: “The reality is that they remained friends, despite the fact that they sued each other over business disputes. It is correct, however, that she did try to use the pro-Aryan laws to regain control of the manufacture of her perfumes in France, when the Wertheimers fled to the US and transferred their manufacturing capacity there. That did irk her. She failed to regain control of the company, of which they owned 90 per cent, a fact she later regretted. But their relationship went beyond being merely financial.”


A new revised edition of Picardie’s biography, Coco Chanel, The Legend and the Life, is available now from Harper Collins.

About the author

Caroline Baum

Caroline Baum has had a distinguished career as a journalist and broadcaster. In 2016 she contributed to the Rebellious Daughters anthology, and in 2017 she wrote Only: A Singular Memoir.


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