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The New Look: It’s A Good TV Show!

An agonising exploration of what it means to find justice after defeat

A few weeks back I was made aware of a TV show called The New Look. Set in France in the 1940s, it seemed to be about the life and struggles of fashion designer Christian Dior, and aside from the casting of Ben Mendleson (Ben Mendleson!) in the starring role, it also seemed like a total pass to me, someone with absolutely no interest in vintage couture or women's fashion whatsoever.

My bad! I just wrapped the series up and absolutely loved it. And I’m here to tell you that, sure, if you're into fashion you will find stuff here to enjoy, but mostly this is actually a show about the Second World War and France's complicated legacy of capitulation, resistance and recriminations, and that it's great. So you might enjoy it a lot more if you know that about it going in.

The New Look is bookended by Dior's ascendance to the throne of post-war French fashion, but between that it tells the story of a number of people whose lives were forever changed by the Second World War, and the decisions they made after France's crushing defeat in 1940.

It's a show of two halves. One follows Dior and his circle of friends, colleagues and competitors, working to emerge from the ruins of the war to forge a bold new vision of fashion for the modern age. And the other follows Coco Chanel, a relic of the past, whose own experiences in the war could not have been more different than her peers. I had absolutely no clue about this going into the show, but turns out Chanel--whose brand lives on today as strong as ever!--wasn't just a collaborator, but an active agent for the Nazis. She spends most of the show naively contesting her innocence, while the narrative and everything happening around her suggests she should have been put up against a wall instead.

This contrast is at the heart of the series. When your nation is defeated and occupied, who is a collaborator and who isn't? Who is helping the enemy and who is just trying to survive? Dior reflects on making dresses for the wives of Nazi leadership. His sister is an active member of the French Resistance, whose life is forever changed when she is captured by the Germans. And Chanel spends much of the show fucking a literal Nazi spy. Where do you draw the line between staying alive and working for the enemy?

It's easy for us (if you're reading this website in English, our stats show you're likely American, Canadian, British or Australian) to look back on France's part in the Second World War as a historical punchline, one that runs from Dunkirk to Allo Allo to Freedom Fries. But France is a proud nation--its forces and lands bore the brunt of the First World War--who in 1940 had one of the world's largest standing armies. Its swift defeat, occupation and history of collaboration left deep scars, which The New Look wants to pick at in ways that I'll be honest and say I've never really looked into, despite my deep interest in the broader subject matter (which I wrote about only last week!).

The years 1940-45 are a painful story for France, and so too is the story of nearly everyone in The New Look as well. The war itself is hell, of course, but even after liberation, with shortages, a sunk economy and a restored government looking for vengeance, things are still bad. So no, this is not a breezy show about designing lovely dresses for rich women. It's an utterly gripping tale of intrigue and moral reckoning, that at one point--recounting a tale from the Ravensbrück concentration camp--becomes so powerful that its words are going to haunt me for the rest of my life.

The New Look's stellar cast does an incredible job here. Mendleson is painfully stoic as Dior, Maisie Williams cuts a tragic figure as his sister, John Malkovich breaks hearts as Dior's mentor Lucien Lelong and Juliette Binoche brings a hateful glee to Chanel and her chaotic exile. And Claes Bang, well, Claes Bang rules.

It's important to note that this show isn't entirely biographical. These kinds of series never are. While the main beats are roughly correct--and at times meticulously accurate, down to the dresses that make up Dior's famous 1947 show that the show is named for--some slight changes have been made for the sake of the narrative. Emily Mortimer's sad, desperate socialite is a combination of a few different historical figures, while somehow Maisie Williams' Catherine Dior is understated, having played an even bigger and more important role in the actual war than this fictional retelling.

And I don't know if Pierre Balmain was really like this, or if the writers just needed someone to fill this role and he was the guy chosen at random to provide it, but the way he's relentlessly bullied throughout the series provides a rare but much-needed dose of comic relief.

As you might expect from an expensive Apple show about fashion, there are beautiful costumes throughout, from the designers on down, and filming on location in Paris--sometimes in the same rooms in the same buildings as the actual events taking place--all makes for a gorgeous TV show. How every single person in this series lives in the nicest apartment you've ever seen escapes me, but maybe that was just what Paris was like in the 1940s.

About my only criticism of The New Look was that for a series where a decision was made for everyone to speak English at all times, it's pretty distracting to have them all using thick French accents throughout, as though they're all French characters making a brief cameo in an English movie. It's weird!

Anyway like I said already, if you're into French fashion and the origin stories of some of the dominant houses and labels of the 20th century, this is an interesting show! But it's even more interesting if you're into a gripping series about spies, collaboration, justice and what any of that even means in the wake of a war that has upended an entire country. 

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