A brief history of haute couture

by admin on March 21, 2011

By Hong Shearer

The mid-1800s brought two major changes to the craft of garment making. Isaac Singer’s continuous-stitch sewing machine made it far more efficient than ever before to create clothing. Before 1850 or so, most ordinary people made their own clothes by hand, and the population of a given region dressed more or less alike. The other significant shift resulted from the work of Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman whose clothing achieved great renown in Paris. Now considered the father of haute couture, Worth’s influence can still be felt among the world’s great fashion houses.

In French, haute couture literally means “high sewing” or “high dressmaking.” The term refers to the use of premium fabric, expertly sewn, to create exclusive, custom-fitted clothing, generally for elite customers. In France, only design firms that meet certain standards can call themselves creators of haute couture. The French Chamber of Commerce and Industry controls the official definition, which debuted in 1945 and was revised in 1992.  Throughout the world, however, “haute couture” is used colloquially to signify custom-made, high-end fashion.

The Chambre syndicale de la haute couture is France’s trade union of high fashion. To become a member, a house must design made-to-order garments for private clients, with at least one fitting per item; maintain a Paris workshop that employs at least 15 full-time staff; and present a collection to the Parisian press twice a year, in January and July, that encompasses both day and evening wear.

As a rule, couture houses also create ready-to-wear collections. These serve, in essence, as cash cows; their popularity and accessibility support the houses’ more ambitious, and much more expensive, haute couture. The current list of official couture houses includes Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Jean Paul Gaultier. Among the Chambre’s foreign members are such household names as Valentino and Giorgio Armani.

A typical couture house has two main divisions: flou (dressmaking) and tailleur (tailoring suits and coats). The designer often supervises production. As in the world of high art, couture emphasizes imagination; money is no object (at least in theory). As New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it, the goal of couture is to create “a paragon of the most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned.”

France has been a global leader in fashion since at least the 18th century, when countries throughout Europe began imitating art and clothing popular at the court of Versailles. If you were a stylish European woman of the time, you’d order Parisian “fashion dolls” – small mannequins dressed in miniature versions of the latest trends – to find out what was à la mode. Your dressmaker would copy the styles you liked best, et voilà, you’d be wearing France’s finest.

Born in 1826, Charles Worth did for dressmakers what Julia Child did for chefs: He turned them into stars. By the time he died, in 1895, the people who made clothes weren’t just artisans – they were artists. Worth’s designs appeared on models at a fashion house bearing his name, and his protégés included such legends as Coco Chanel, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Christian Dior. Their followers, in turn, founded such influential houses as Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin in the 1960s. Even designers who made their names later in the 20th century, like Christian Lacroix and Gaultier, benefited greatly from the groundwork that Worth had laid a century before.

According to the Met, haute couture remains a “fusion of fashion and costume,” combining the utility of the former with the glamour and high concepts of the latter. Empress Eugénie of France supported its early development, and just after the turn of the 20th century, French designer Paul Poiret incorporated a number of influences, including Orientalism and commerce.

The fashion landscape shifted again after World War II, when Dior’s “New Look” replaced wartime scrimping with breathtaking opulence and unabashed femininity. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the fashion scene became more international, thanks to the globetrotting of the jet set. At the same time, mods, hippies, and rockers challenged conventional fashion mores, introducing rebellious looks that would become iconic.

On their own, haute couture lines offer a very low, or even nonexistent, return on investment. Nonetheless, they lend a great deal of credibility to a fashion house’s ready-to-wear clothing. On the other hand, an excess of licensing can devalue a brand’s cachet; if Cardin luggage is available at bargain shops, the name ceases to mean much in fashion circles.

While haute couture remains beyond the financial means of most people, it inspires clothing stocked by countless boutiques each day. Fans of reality shows set in the fashion world, like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, have Charles Worth and his many followers to thank for the astounding, and sometimes bewildering, designs that come down the runway. Though Poiret’s decision to steer couture into the realm of commerce made it as much an industry as an art form, it’s easy to appreciate the elegance and creativity of many contemporary designers. Haute couture has made clothing a powerful form of personal expression, for its designers and wearers alike.

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