'With Tongue in Chic' by Ernestine Carter

Fashion journalist Ernestine Carter (1906 – 83) cut her teeth in the world of glossy magazines as Fashion Editor at Harper's Bazaar. In this extract from her autobiography, she recalls the thrill of an early assignment: attending the Parisian launch of Christian Dior's legendary 'New Look'.

Fashion magazines in those days were little nests of snobbery. Before Anne (Scott-James)'s advent, the editor had been the Hon. Mrs. Rodney, the fashion editor Lady Cynthia Tothill, and the Features Editor, still there when I arrived, Lady Patricia Ward. Joan Arney, the Art Director, says that when she first came she felt the least she could have done was to have had a double-barrelled name.

Despite our lack of titles, Anne had a powerful sense of fashion magazine propriety. Infra dig was a favourite word (meaning undignified). For instance, it was infra dig to be seen on a bus. Although the salary for fashion may have been more than for features, it still didn't run to taxis, and I had to get off at the bus stop before or after to hide my shame. Crossing Grosvenor Gardens was hazardous, with taxis and cars racing to and from Victoria Station. One day as I was hesitating a kindly copper gave me sound advice. "Raise your brolly," he said, "and put on a brave smile." It worked.

Pérou, dress, Christian Dior, 1954, France. Museum no. T.12-1977. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Cecil Beaton

The National Magazine Company, of which Harper's was a part, was housed in what had been a large private house. On one floor was Good Housekeeping. On the next Harper's Bazaar. Somewhere Harper's Export and the management were stowed. In a nook at the back was the Art Department of all three publications, ours at that time consisting of Joan Arney, almost as tall as Anne. Although we were supposed to be daggers drawn with our opposition, Vogue, occasional hands-across-the-sea-of-rivalry gestures were made. The art director of Vogue took Joan to lunch. In the midst of shop talk he asked her if she had a large staff. Joan looked down at herself and replied, "Large enough." In fact, in those early days, the entire staff could fit nicely into the Company's Rolls made available to us at Collection time.

Anne's empire was a largish back room she shared with her secretary. There was a pervading smell of fish, for the secretary used to buy her dinner on her way to work and park it on the window-sill. The fashion room was somewhat larger and darker, its only light coming from a kind of interior well. These two rooms and a loo were it.

My first day I was set to writing captions. These had to be written to layout, on which was a word count, for they had to be justified right and left. Robin Cruikshank, back in his editor's seat at the News Chronicle, had asked me to lunch to celebrate, as he kindly put it, my entry into journalism. I arrived late, ink-stained and apologetic, explaining that I had been writing. Robin asked kindly what I had been writing about. "About sixty words," was my rueful reply.

Although British Harper's was technically autonomous, Carmel Snow, the editor of American Harper's, was always in the wings. I only saw her in Paris; it was not until I was on The Sunday Times that we became friends. In 1946 she was a distant, awe-inspiring figure, with her immense chic, her blue hair, blue spectacles, and her entourage of secretaries, assistants, photographers, the odd debutante, and above all, that darling of Paris, naughty, witty, minute Marie-Louise Bousquet, who, again, did not become a friend until later.

Plaisir, skirt suit, Christian Dior, made by C. D. Models (London) Ltd., 1953, England. Museum no. T.499:1&2-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Worn and given by Mrs Elsie Rashleigh

My first trip to Paris terrified me. It was freezingly cold for one thing, and Anne had said that long-haired furs were out. It would be infra dig to wear one. As I didn't dare let the side down, I sadly left behind the raccoon coat in which I had spent the war to shiver in a thin coat. I had to fight for my invitations, for the Paris Office was entirely absorbed by Mrs. Snow who had a way of sweeping up the cards for her friends.

I arrived just when all Paris was buzzing about the first showing of Christian Dior. I knew Anne would never forgive me if I missed it. But I had no invitation. Not only was I utterly unknown, but so was British Harper's Bazaar. I decided to storm the citadel on the Avenue Montaigne and explain my plight. Luckily for me the press office was headed by a light-hearted American, Harrison Elliott, who promptly took me to lunch with Suzanne Luling, Christian Dior's great friend, and one of the props of the new House. Tall and husky-voiced, she has the gift of instant friendship. Between them, they not only found me a seat, they put me on a 'fauteuil'. Like the Court of Versailles, as Nancy Mitford describes it in Madame Pompadour, there was a world of hierarchical difference between an armchair (later supplanted by two canapés) and a gilt chair. At that time I was an innocent and didn't realise the joke being played on Mrs. Snow.

When later Mrs. Snow cabled for an interview with M. Dior, which would have been a cinch before his success and was almost impossible after, these two wangled it for me.

Fête Joyeuse, dress, Christian Dior, 1955, France. Museum no. T.81-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Lady Glenconnor

The first Dior Collection was unforgettable: the model girls arrogantly swinging their vast skirts (one had 80 yards of fabric), the soft shoulders, the tight bodices, the wasp-waists, the tiny hats bound on by veils under the chin. To us in our sharp-shouldered (a legacy from Schiaparelli), skimpy fabric-rationed suits, this new softness and round-ness was positively voluptuous. All round the salon you could see the English tugging at their skirts trying to inch them over their knees. The models swirled on contemptuously, bowling over ashtrays like ninepins.

Later Dior press shows would end in a shambles as waiters carrying trays of champagne with straightarm lifts Nureyev might envy fought their way through the mob of customers, 'amis de la maison', and journalists, all intent on kissing the great man. Adding to the mad throng are the photographers desperate to photograph the scene. Drenched in champagne, bruised by swinging cameras, one's hat knocked off, one's clothes smouldering with cigarette burns, one didn't so much emerge as become extruded. When, years after, I was presented by the House of Dior with the silver medal given to mark its twentieth anniversary to those who were present at the first collection I felt that I had earned it.

Bar Suit, Christian Dior Haute Couture, Spring/Summer 1947, Corolle Line. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Even after all these years of seeing clothes beyond count, nothing has ever come up to the exhilaration of those first Dior collections, and never has so universally becoming a fashion nor one so enduring been devised. Tall women, short women, large women and small women, older women, young women, the New Look suited them all. All the couturiers, with the exception of Balenciaga, were forced to fall into line, and the small waist and full skirt endured as a dominant silhouette until 1957, the year of Dior's death, a fantastic longevity in a world necessarily dedicated to change.

© Ernestine Carter

The complete With Tongue in Chic: The Autobiography of Ernestine Carter is now available in the V&A Fashion Perspectives e-book series from online retailers.

Header image:

Plaisir, skirt suit, Christian Dior, made by C. D. Models (London) Ltd., 1953, England. Museum no. T.499:1&2-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.