A new look at a stairway to heaven

Two United Air Lines, Incorporated loading stands, the old vs. the new. Anon., “Air Transport – Keeping up with the ‘New Look’.” Aviation Week, 22 March 1948, 46.

How are you today, my reading friend? Are you in need of a leg up? If so, search no more for yours truly has what you need. Behold, one small step for a woman, many small steps for womankind! Sorry, sometimes I get carried away – or upward.

Being somewhat lazy by nature, yes, yes, it’s true, I thought best to tell part of our story by quoting the brief text that accompanied the photo above.

Style changes in women’s dresses have brought changes in airline equipment. United Air Lines engineers recently re-designed its loading stands, to place four steps of moderate height in the space of three. Result: It’s a big help to the ladies wearing those long and tighter skirts. On the left a passenger demonstrates the difficulties encountered with the old type loading stand, while on the right she steps on the new one with ease. The hand rails also have been extended.

A seemingly inconsequential piece of American news like this one is a reminder that technology does impact our daily lives. It was, is and will be a rare occasion when a change in something or other does not have unforeseen consequences. In some cases, corrective measures can be applied without difficulty. In other cases, the aforementioned unforeseen consequences can be quite dramatic and society as a whole has to pick up the pieces. A case of socialising the costs of someone’s personal profits perhaps, maybe, if I may be so bold.

The loading stand mentioned in the brief article published in a March 1948 issue of the American weekly magazine Aviation Week, today’s Aviation Week and Space Technology, is certainly not one of the innovations responsible for messing up the lives of people. Even so, does this innovation give yours truly a chance to pontificate? Of course it does. So, let us proceed.

Once upon a time, there was a French fashion designer by the name of Christian Dior (1905-1957). In December 1946, this gentleman founded a Paris-based couture house that bore his name and which was still going strong as of 2018. This new fashion house was financed by a French businessman. Indeed, one could argue that Christian Dior, the house not the man, was a vanity project for Marcel Boussac, an individual who had done quite well during the German occupation of France. Unlike several well known businessmen, however, Boussac was not bothered after the Second World War, in part because he had scrupulously kept on paying the salary of any employee of his deported during the conflict. But back to our story.

In February 1947, Dior, the man not the house or is it both, launched his first fashion collection. The two lines he had created for the Spring and Summer of that year were called Corolle and Huit. Yes, I know, I don’t get it either but let’s not dwell. What’s this? The two names could refer to the general shape of the garments, you say. How clever of you, my reading friend. In any event, the names Corolle and Huit soon ended up in the dust pail of history as a result of a few words spoken by Carmel Snow, the gifted and visionary editrix in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, an American fashion monthly magazine aimed at women who had access to money. It was such a new look, the revered and feared Snow said! She seemingly added that the collection was quite a revolution.

And so it was that Dior’s 1947 collection went down in history as the New Look. Better yet, it is widely credited with returning to Paris the world pre-eminence in the world of fashion it had lost as a result of the Second World War. Interestingly enough, Dior may have drawn some of his ideas from pieces designed by the United States’ first couturier, British-born Charles Wilson Braga James.

For many in Europe and North America, the New Look was a breath of fresh air after years of wartime austerity and rationing. It was glamorous and young looking. The New Look’s nipped-in waist and mid calf skirts put an emphasis on the bust and hips of women, for example. This being said (typed?), these corseted designs were quite uncomfortable, and wasteful of fabric. Being rather less practical than the clothing worn by women during the war, the New Look could be described as a step back that took away their independence. Famous French fashion designer Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel, for example, was not a fan.

In spite of it all, or perhaps because of it all, Dior’s New Look proved highly influential. After all, back in the day, fashion designers tended to be, well, men. Dare one say that the New Look continues to inform the work of some well known 21st Century fashion designers? Yes, I think I shall. The New Look does continue to inform the work of some well known 21st Century fashion designers.

Now, my reading friend, I have a question for you. Was fashion the only context in which the expression New Look made the news? No? Very good answer. In 1953, the newly elected president of the United States launched an extensive reappraisal of American military requirements. Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower wanted to bring the defence budget under control in order to better balance the country’s Cold War commitments and its financial resources.

Eager to get more bang for the buck, he reduced the size of the United States Army and United States Navy. The United Air Force (USAF), on the other hand, saw its budget increase. Its fleet of (thermo)nuclear bomb carrying long range bombers became the centrepiece of Eisenhower’s thinking. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was to be deterred from acting against the interests of the United States by a doctrine of massive retaliation. In turn, the USAF was ordered to expand its air defence network, in cooperation with the Royal Canadian Air Force. One has to wonder if the primary function of this shield was the defence of the USAF’s sword, i.e. its bomber fleet, or of North America’s civilian population. In parallel to all this, the Central Intelligence Agency was to conduct a secret war overseas against individuals, groups and governments favourable to the USSR. All in all, the 1950s were not a happy time.

It’s time for a new look at our topic. Can you think of another occasion when the expression New Look came to the fore, my reading friend? No? May I offer one with an aeronautical element? Yes? Well, that’s very kind of you. In 1965, say I, Canadair Limited, a subsidiary of American defence giant General Dynamics Corporation, acquired the production rights of a bus produced by an American firm, Flxible Company. In 1965-66, the Cartierville, Québec-based aircraft maker built 50 examples of a modified version of this New Look for the Commission de transport de Montréal, today’s Société de transport de Montréal. One could argue that this project signalled the beginning of Canadair’s involvement in mass transit production projects. The company would later be involved with a light rail vehicle known as the Intermediate Capacity Transit System, which led to Bombardier Incorporée’s Advanced Rapid Transit and Innovia Metro, but that’s a story for another day. Maybe.

Did you know that the Flxible New Look bus was seemingly produced between 1960 and 1978? This design was very similar in appearance to a another very successful if slightly less rugged bus introduced in 1959 by American automobile giant General Motors Corporation. This vehicle was known as, you guessed it, the New Look. Yours truly is pretty darn sure he made many a trip on New Look buses made by either company, in various places in Québec and Ontario.

I hope that this fashion related item was of interest. That is all for now, or is it? I am pondering the possibility of further pontificating by bringing to your attention a piece of clothing uncovered in the 10 May 1912 issue of a French bimonthly aviation magazine, La Revue aérienne. To bring or not to bring, that is the question. Bah, it can probably wait. This issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee is among the longest one so far anyway. Apologies for that. Sometimes I get carried away, or upward, and here I go again – like Daniel Coverdale, the lead singer of the British rock band Whitesnake, and… This name means nothing to you, my reading friend? Really? Here I go again, big hit, 1982? Sigh… I’m getting old.

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Rénald Fortier