The fashion industry, ephemeral by design, will occasionally capture a moment in history and pin it like a butterfly to the page. Maison Christian Dior has achieved this mysterious feat twice.
In 1947 his New Look, generous in length and silhouette, signalled the end of wartime austerity and the return of bourgeois egotism. Twenty yards of material were used in a single frock. Collective restraint, bred in war, died with the birth of the Dior brand. By 1949, Dior accounted for 75 per cent of Paris fashion sales. Seen today in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the New Look declares the age of its creation more accurately than the lines around a fallen tree.
The second defining moment in modern fashion almost brought about the fall of Dior. In February, the brand's head designer, John Galliano, was accused of anti-Semitic abuse at strangers in a public place in the Marais district of Paris. There was no immediate response from Dior. Two days later, a British tabloid published a video of an incident in which Galliano, in a Marais restaurant, was heard telling two women "I love Hitler" and "your mothers, your forefathers, would all be f***ing gassed". Dior condemned the racist sentiments, announcing Galliano's suspension in terms vague enough to protect his imminent collection at Paris Fashion Week.
It took a celebrity strike to sack Galliano. Natalie Portman, clutching her Best Actress Oscar, threatened to quit as the face of Dior perfume unless Galliano was fired. The designer was finally dismissed, leaving chief executive Sidney Toledano to present the collection with a wavery line about Dior's values of tolerance and anti-Nazism (Dior's resistant sister, Catherine, was deported to Ravensbrück in 1944; her brother dressed Nazi wives and collaboratrices). The fashion world rallied in solidarity. By the end of Fashion Week, all the press was concerned with was who sat where in the show. Just another hissy fit on the catwalk, then.
Except it wasn't. More thoughtful observers of this unedifying spectacle perceived something about it that exemplified the zeitgeist of 2011, every bit as much as the New Look did of 1947. Galliano did not rant in isolation. Glenn Beck, the Fox TV loudmouth, attacked the financier George Soros in terms borrowed from the Elders of Zion, Julian Assange, the media-darling Wikileaks man, slagged off his former Guardian allies as Jews. The Guardian itself continued to post the text of a play by Caryl Churchill which the lawyer Anthony Julius denounced as anti-Semitic.
Whatever Galliano said, or is alleged to have said, was uttered against this backdrop, signifying a climate change in social attitudes. Ever since the Holocaust, anti-Semitic speech has been either suppressed or couched in such cloying ambiguities that only sworn racists could be sure they knew what was meant. In 2011, its expression has become once again permissible.
Why that evil genie has been unleashed is a matter of anguished debate. Some see it as a by-product of the Israel-Palestine conflict, others (such as the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland) find it to be the resurgence of a hatred that may lie dormant but cannot be eradicated. No matter which line you take, the public return of anti-Semitic abuse was signified and, in some sense, legitimised by the antics of John Galliano and the equivocations of his media apologists. Dior has once again defined our age. It is apparently a time to abuse Jews.