A gigantic bow on the neck, a veil stretching to the ground, a plastic basque. Do we need the so-called haute couture at all?
Haute couture (French for “high sewing”) is the creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing as opposed to factory-made clothing, prêt-à-porter (French for ready-to-wear). High fashion is above all characterized by fine quality fabric, is sewn and finished with extreme attention to detail. Frequently hand-made, garments are made as custom-fit. However, not all collections are haute couture even if all such standards are met. It has been a protected name since 1945.
Haute couture dates back to the turn of the 18th and 19th century when clothing began to be perceived as more than just handicraft products. Dressmaking started to be seen back then as art.
A fashion minister and founding father
Rose Bertin (1747–1813), a French hatter and fashion designer to Queen Marie Antoinette is regarded as one of haute couture harbingers. In 1770 she opened a dress shop, Le Grand Mogol. It was one of landmarks when it comes to the establishment and history of haute couture but somebody else is credited as its true originator.
In spite of the French name, the Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth (1826–1895), is regarded as haute couture’s founding father. In partnership with Otton Gustav Bobergh he opened Worth & Bobergh fashion house in 1858. Worth’s success is, to a large extent, owed to an innovative, for that era, approach to advertising or self-promotion and the way he ran his business. It was his idea to create fashion collections. He was also the one to introduce the first fashion shows with live models.
Worth & Bobergh fashion house offered a much broader range of services than those available from dressmakers so far. Dresses could be made to order based on Charles Frederick Worth’s own designs. Clients selected a model, with possible minor adjustments on request, specified fabrics and had a duplicate garment tailor-made. It was also possible to request more fancy outfits to be made to order for special occasions, e.g. masquerades. However, Worth and Bobergh also offered ready-to-made pieces of clothing that required no adjustments, e.g. coats and other outer garments. Accessories were sold as well such as shawls, capes or fabrics.
Worth, however, went one step further and in 1868 initiated the establishment of an institution associating fashion houses that developed collections and made custom-fitted clothing, namely, Chambre Syndicale de la Confection et de la Couture pour Dames et Fillettes, a trade association believed to be the predecessor of today’s High Fashion Trade Association. Since its establishment, the number of the associated fashion houses has been steadily growing. However, stratification between them grew, too, as not all of them met specific conditions.
1910 marked a split. A new, very elitist Parisian Fashion Trade Association was established whose mission was to create high-end clothing. It associated the best of the best – top leading Parisian fashion houses. Apart from a fresh and reduced group of members, also the Chamber’s top priorities were modified. Greater emphasis was placed on sophisticated, elitist, proprietary designs that customers could admire on live models. Apart from individual customers, also wholesalers came into play and were able to, among other things, order many pieces of the same design.
Tri-partite division of power
Freedom and independence fostered the Paris Fashion Trade Association’s growth. However, a crisis during the World War II put a stop to its development. To survive, the organization turned to France for help. In 1945 Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (High Fashion Trade Association) was established. Because it was connected to the Ministry of Industry, it became more formalized and the fashion houses operated based on more standardized rules. 1973 marked a serious revolution. Two more bodies were established back then: a chamber associating men’s fashion designers and another one for prêt-à-porter collection creators. Many years had to pass until the Association’s Regulations were amended even further. It was not until 1992 when fashion houses from outside France were allowed to take part in haute couture shows.
Members of the elite
Not everyone is allowed to use the term haute couture. It is protected by the law and the French Ministry of Industry decides which fashion house is allowed to use it (and thus whether it is a member of the High Fashion Trade Association). Before each season (in January the spring-summer collections are shown and in July – the fall-winter ones) a decision is made on the membership in such elitist group and an updated list of the members is published on, among others, the official website, www.modeaparis.com. In fact there are three lists. The High Fashion Trade Association’s members (namely, fashion houses having the right to use the haute couture label) are divided into French fashion houses and those from outside France (correspondent members) as well as guest members.
Haute couture standards
The membership in the High Fashion Trade Association is not just a privilege. The fashion house granted the right to use the haute couture label must conform to strict rules, including sewing standards, having a workshop in Paris, having a specific number of employees and models as well as maintaining a studio or using a specific fabric surface. Other conditions also include presenting at least two shows of different collections per year in Paris. The recent rules were defined in 1992.
Revolutions: between dressmaking and art
The definition of the term haute couture evolved over the years. However, one thing remained unchanged: the fact that it has not been easy to be classified among top fashion houses. Apart from strict rules related to the membership in the High Fashion Trade Association, there are also certain unwritten haute couture rules that may determine the success of a given company or a designer. Hard work, excellent skills and technique are not enough. Haute couture is also art which can be avant-garde or even shocking. Bold or even revolutionary designs often became key to success in the world of fashion.
The man who freed women from corsets
One of such revolutionaries was Paul Poiret. Thanks to them women could finally breathe freely. He was the one to free them from corsets. Also Poiret can be credited with the 20th century fashion’s tremendous changes in the cutting of dresses: high waist, slimming seams, redesigned colours. The king of fashion as he called himself was the first couturier to launch his own perfume.
After the war, during the period of poverty and shortage, Christian Dior’s fashion house sought a way to break the stagnation, at least in the area of dressmaking. The designer returned to femininity and lightness creating collections with a new look silhouette (Corolle is the collection’s true name), combining the old and the new in perfect proportions. He dropped a bombshell creating dresses, corsets and distinctive jackets emphasizing the waistline. Amounts of fabric used to create individual outfits were also shocking. For that post-war era it turned out to be a huge revolution. Dior also set standards of work that should be applied by professional fashion houses.
Buy it – put it on – go – buy it…
The second half of the 20th century witnessed another revolution: the growing importance of prêt-à-porter fashion Even the biggest names in fashion such as Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Emauel Ungaro or Theirry Mugler went along with it. There were more than 100 haute couture fashion houses after the war which is a symptomatic fact. Until 1970s their number went down to 19.
1973 was a milestone in the world of fashion which marked the establishment of Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, associating designers producing “ready-to-wear” clothes. The crisis of haute couture had obviously great impact on the growth of that sector. It was also the point when the market began to change and haute couture was more and more often regarded as art.
Alexander McQueen – dramatically redesigned fashion
A decision to grant membership in the Givenchy’s team to a Briton, Alexander McQuenn, caused shock and disbelief in the haute couture world permeated by the French spirit. Fashion lovers were outraged to see fashion houses being treated as any other companies, whereas McQueen, British fashion’s naughty boy, was to stir up ferment and make the whole world’s eyes turn to him, thus earning profits to investors. The very references and names of previous collections were bewildering: Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims or Highland Rape, which, according to the author, were taken too literally. Despite sometimes controversial ideas (but also thanks to them!) Alexander McQueen is regarded as one of the most prominent designers. Not only imagination or talent but also great artistry played an important part in his works. McQueen had solid skills and technique which were appreciated and admired in his designs. Thanks to his extraordinary works along with designs by Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier or John Gallian, high fashion began to change. Haute couture was definitely revived and took the form of an extraordinary show.
Who needs haute couture?
Today even to a fashion layman, collections of great designers bring to mind extravagant, if not shocking, creations, garments with unusual cutting, made of original fabrics, shoes with huge folded tips or those rolled around calves like snakes, or cosmic hats. Even unaccustomed to fashion observers of fashion shows realize that haute couture fashion presented there is not for everyday use – that it is something more. Wearing T-shirt and jeans or classic suits, we have been accustomed by fashion designers that fashion shows are not solely for the sake of the presentation of a new collection. By no means. It is a show bordering on art.
Starting from 20 July a documentary (directed by Ian Bonhôte) will be shown about Alexander McQueen, legendary British fashion designer. It premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2018 partnered by British Council. McQueen is a must-see not only for fashion and design fans.
Developed in partnership with Polityka.
Aleksandra I. Kapinos