The Costumes In ‘The New Look' Are A Fashion Nerd’s Dream

They include a Dior Bar Suit and Chanel-inspired wardrobe.

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Courtesy of Apple TV+
A Dior retrospective runway show in The New Look on Apple TV+

Despite its name, The New Look isn’t so much a show devoted to the 20th Century history of Parisian haute couture. Instead, the Apple TV+ limited series chronicles the emotional, and often-times harrowing, journeys of Christian Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) and Coco Chanel (Juliette Binoche), and their contemporaries, navigating critical life-or-death choices and moral compromises to endure the Nazi occupation of France in World War II.

But there's still fashion, of course, which helps illustrate not only the distinct design aesthetics, philosophies and approaches of both legends, but also their personalities and values.

The series opens in 1955 in the Sorbonne’s Le Grand Amphithéâtre, packed with students boisterously chanting, “Dior! Dior! Dior!” As the first fashion designer to lecture at the illustrious institution, Christian headlines the “The Aesthetics of Fashion,” which highlighted the significance of the industry in rebuilding the post-war French economy and societal fabric.

A coterie of models begins sauntering and twirling out to thundering applause for a Dior retrospective runway show, opening with the Première Soirée white dress, covered in delicate floral ruffles with dangling pearl-beading. The blue strapless column gown, Soirée d’Asie — also from the Autumn/Winter 1955 haute couture collection — follows, with silk-covered buttons and an asymmetrical bow-flourish at the back.

The Soirée à Londres gown from the Dior retrospective at the Sorbonne in 1955.Courtesy of Apple TV+

For the retrospective, The New Look costume designer Karen Muller Serreau paid a visit to Dior Heritage, the secret treasure trove of the house’s storied history, where creative directors continuously mine past designs for new inspiration. “[Dior experts and I] talked through the dresses that we were going to feature, [so we were all] happy,” says Muller Serreau. She also heavily researched fabric swatches, colorways, press coverage from the time and illustrations from collections, starting with Dior’s Spring/Summer 1947 debut. Ultimately, they determined 10 looks that best showcase the designer’s signatures to then build in Muller Serreau’s atelier.

“The retrospective was punctuated with color, which gives us a wider scope [of Dior’s work]. There's always a very pastel and then a strong color,” explains Muller Serreau, in determining the run-of-show on-screen. The looks segue into a steady flow of celebrated Dior pieces in striking hues, from the buttercream yellow tulle Soirée à Rio to the the sculptural off-the-shoulder Soirée à Londres from Dior’s Autumn/Winter 1955 “Y” Line to a poppy orange bubble-skirted dress to the grand finale.

The Soirée à Rio gown from the Dior retrospective show at the Sorbonne in 1955.Courtesy of Apple TV+

“Of course, there's the Bar Suit because you have to have a Bar Suit,” says Muller Serreau, about the defining “New Look” silhouette, introduced in Dior’s game-changing inaugural collection. Muller Serreau meticulously recreated the iconic design’s intricate seaming, and the sculpted nipped-waist shape, which marked a return to post-war optimism (if not extravagance), exemplification of Parisian haute couture, and a fashion-spurred economic bump.

Muller Serreau also utilized Dior Heritage in custom-designing Mendelsohn’s dark, streamlined wardrobe true to Dior’s personal style. “He was fairly conventional, with a suit and tie, just very elegant and neat,” says the costume designer. “He liked to buy his suits in England, and he had an Italian tailor in Paris. All that put together, he looked quite French with these mixtures.”

Christian Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) at work.Courtesy of Apple TV+

As the storyline jumps back to 1943, three years into the Nazi occupation of Paris, Christian often wears his shirt with the top button open, sans tie, or goes jacket-free, showing his suspenders. He feels more low-key and focused on his craft, instead of plotting to run his own house — especially compared to the striving Pierre Balmain (Thomas Poitevin), in flashier ties and sleek pinstripes.

Mendelsohn himself also concentrated on Dior’s craft — or at least learned to look like he was a skilled couturier. “Ben used to come into our workshop and we would give him advice on how to hold a piece of cloth and the scissors to cut,” says Muller Serreau.

Working under haute couture designer Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich), Christian capitulates to creating a sweetheart neckline ball gown, in a coral pink, for a gala welcoming the Head of Nazi Foreign Intelligence. Precisely cutting and draping, Christian toils overnight on the dress, which ultimately serves as a tool to warn him that his Resistance fighter sister Catherine (Maisie Williams) is in danger. Muller Serreau based the design on historical sketches Dior drew for Lelong, plus a popular color of the period.

Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich, right) looks on a Christian begins to reluctantly design a gown for a Nazi ball.Courtesy of Apple TV+

To portray Binoche’s Coco Chanel during the depicted period, Muller Serreau conducted a bit more detective work. At the start of World War II, Chanel shuttered her Parisian boutique and business to later mount her 1955 “comeback,” as Binoche says in the premiere. Documentation of Chanel (and any work) during that period remains limited. So, Muller Serrau studied photos before and after that time to devise an arc of Coco’s neutral-hued wide-leg trousers, peplum-jacket skirt-suits, rounded-collar blouses, louche gowns and chic trenches.

“They're all inspiration, rather than copies of,” says Muller Serreau, who custom-made Binoche’s entire wardrobe full of “masculine/feminine” outfit combinations and a plethora of hats. “Chanel’s known to have borrowed her boyfriend's clothes and turn them into fashionable items for herself.”

Coco Chanel (Juliette Binoche) and Elsa Lombardi (Emily Mortimer) head to Madrid.Courtesy of Apple TV+

Muller Serreau also created a character-building sartorial through line from Coco to glamorous frenemy Elsa Lombardi (Emily Mortimer), who’s a composite of international socialites, and real life Chanel muses, Vera Bates Lombardi and Misia Sert. Chanel reportedly “stole” style ideas from both. “So I wanted to give [Elsa] that very masculine/feminine look, as well,” says Muller Serreau.

After being nonconsensually drafted (or kidnapped from home, rather) on a Nazi mission by a self-preserving Coco, Elsa inventively transitions her gray bathrobe, with a tapestry-lined lapel and cuffs, into an en vogue pantsuit. “It could be her coat, then it could be inside out and become an evening dress, if we needed it,” says the equally resourceful costume designer.

Muller Serreau’s interpretation of Chanel’s personal style also helps distinguish her design aesthetic and approach from Dior’s. “You think Dior is fashion? Dior’s designs are extravagance. I have no time for extravagance. No. Simplicity, that's my style,” says Coco, bristling to a roomful of reporters.

For instance, Muller Serreau dressed Coco in downy, flowing jerseys — but not just to reflect the real Chanel’s effortlessness. “The idea of comfort; material that was not as rigid compared to what Dior was using,” says Muller Serreau. “They were coming from such different places, and were producing such different fashion.”

Coco and Spatz (Claes Bang) prepare for a pivotal dinner.Courtesy of Apple TV+

To free her beloved nephew André (Joseph Oliveness) from a brutal camp, Coco begins her Nazi collaboration, which quickly escalates as she also tries to preserve her precious business. To attend a lavish, and decisive dinner with head genocidal Reich Leader Heinrich Himmler (Thure Lindhardt), Coco wears a black wrap-style illusion gown, with diamond-patterned beaded lace and a fur stole, lined in crimson red. At first, she seems genuinely apprehensive and terrified, until Himmler brings up Lelong, and she falls for the bait. (“He’s an embarrassment to couture.”)

Then, she gives the Nazis a lesson in haute couture. “It means ‘high sewing.’’ she says, gesturing toward her glimmering gown. “Everything you see before you is produced by hand. The high quality fabrics, the highest of fashion, really, It takes 366 hours minimum to create it. The best of the best.”

Muller Serreau confirms that she and her own seamstresses put the long hours and maximum effort into that gown, to support Coco’s messaging on the importance of haute couture. She also nodded toward Chanel’s fashion trademarks, like the exquisite lacework. “We always think of Chanel in black and white, but she did like red. So we injected a bit of red, which gave her a strong character,” says Muller Serreau, also adding bold layers of lariat necklaces.

“We were conveying this strength, which is what she needed at that time to survive,” continues the costume designer. “The whole series is about survival.”

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