Haute couture (French for “high sewing” or “high dressmaking”) refers to the creation
of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is made to order for a specific customer,
and it is usually made from high-quality, expensive fabric and sewn with extreme attention
to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using
time-consuming, hand-executed techniques. Couture is a common abbreviation
of haute couture and refers to the same thing in spirit.
It originally referred to Englishman Charles Frederick Worth’s
work, produced in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. In modern
France, haute couture is a “protected name” that can be used
only by firms that meet certain well-defined standards. However,
the term is also used loosely to describe all high-fashion custom-fitted
clothing, whether it is produced in Paris or in other fashion capitals such as
Milan, London, New York and Tokyo.
In France, the term haute couture is protected by law and is defined by
the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris based in Paris, France.
Their rules state that only “those companies mentioned on the list drawn up each year
by a commission domiciled at the Ministry for Industry are entitled to avail themselves”
of the label haute couture. The criteria for haute couture were established in 1945 and
updated in 1992. To earn the right to call itself a couture house and to use the term
haute couture in its advertising and any other way, members of the
Chambre syndicale de la haute couture must follow these rules:
- Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings.
- Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time.
- Each season (i.e., twice a year), present a collection to the Paris press, comprising at least thirty-five runs/exits with outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.
However, the term haute couture may have been misused by
ready-to-wear brands since the late 1980s, so that its true meaning
may have become blurred with that of prêt-à-porter (the French term for
ready-to-wear fashion) in the public perception. Every haute couture house also
markets prêt-à-porter collections, which typically deliver a higher return on investment
than their custom clothing . Falling revenues have forced a few couture
houses to abandon their less profitable couture division and concentrate
solely on the less prestigious prêt-à-porter. These houses, such as
Italian designer Roberto Capucci, all of whom have their
workshops in Italy, are no longer
considered haute couture.
Many top designer fashion houses, such as Chanel, use the word for
some of their special collections. These collections are often not for sale or they
are very difficult to purchase. Sometimes, “haute couture” is inappropriately used to
label non-dressmaking activities, such as fine art, music and more.
French leadership in European fashion may date from the
18th century, when the art, architecture, music, and fashions
of the French court at Versailles were imitated across Europe. Visitors
to Paris brought back clothing that was then copied by local dressmakers.
Stylish women also ordered fashion dolls dressed in the latest Parisian fashion
to serve as models. As railroads and steamships made European travel easier,
it was increasingly common for wealthy women to travel to Paris to shop for clothing
and accessories. French fitters and dressmakers were commonly thought to be the best
in Europe, and real Parisian garments were considered better than local imitations.
The couturier Charles Frederick Worth (October 13, 1826–March 10, 1895),
is widely considered the father of haute couture as it is known today. Although
born in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England, Worth made his mark in the French
fashion industry. Revolutionizing how dressmaking had been previously perceived,
Worth made it so the dressmaker became the artist of garnishment: a fashion designer.
While he created one-of-a-kind designs to please some of his titled or wealthy customers,
he is best known for preparing a portfolio of designs that were shown on live models at the
House of Worth. Clients selected one model, specified colors and fabrics, and had a
duplicate garment tailor-made in Worth’s workshop. Worth combined individual
tailoring with a standardization more characteristic of the ready-to-wear clothing industry,
which was also developing during this period.
Following in Worth’s footsteps were Callot Soeurs, Patou,
Poiret, Vionnet, Fortuny, Lanvin, Chanel, Mainbocher, Schiaparelli,
Balenciaga, and Dior. Some of these fashion houses still exist today, under
the leadership of modern designers.
In the 1960s a group of young designers who had trained under
men like Dior and Balenciaga left these established couture houses and opened their
own establishments. The most successful of these young designers were Yves Saint Laurent,
Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges, and Emanuel Ungaro. Japanese native and Paris-based
Hanae Mori was also successful in establishing her own line.
Lacroix is one of the fashion houses to have been started in
the late 20th century. Other new houses have included Jean-Paul Gaultier
and Thierry Mugler. Due to the high expenses of producing haute couture
collections, Lacroix and Mugler have since ceased
their haute couture activities.
For all these fashion houses, custom clothing is no longer the main source of
income, often costing much more than it earns through direct sales; it only adds the a
ura of fashion to their ventures in ready-to-wear clothing and related luxury products
such as shoes and perfumes, and licensing ventures that earn greater
returns for the company. Excessive commercialization and profit-making can be
damaging, however. Cardin, for example, licensed with abandon in the 1980s and his name
lost most of its fashionable cachet when anyone could buy Cardin luggage at a discount store.
It is their ready-to-wear collections that are available to a wider audience, adding a
splash of glamour and the feel of haute
couture to more wardrobes.
The 1960s also featured a revolt against established fashion
standards by mods, rockers, and hippies, as well as an increasing
internationalization of the fashion scene. Jet travel had spawned a jet set
that partied—and shopped—just as happily in New York as in Paris. Rich women
no longer felt that a Paris dress was necessarily better than one sewn elsewhere.
While Paris is still pre-eminent in the fashion world, it is no
longer the sole arbiter of fashion.