Lady Talks | What is Haute Couture?

Fashion, Fashion History

“Fashion is made to become unfashionable.” – Coco Chanel

The world of fashion is dictated by constant change. Cultural icons from all around the world, including actors, musicians, designers and even royalty; are constantly influencing what people want to wear and look like. Though clothes are primarily meant to cover and protect our bodies, they can be very revealing; as style is a powerful means of self-expression, and a way of telling people a wordless story about ourselves. Despite the ever-changing nature of fashion, one of its ramifications has managed to stake itself as inherently prestigious and exclusive: haute couture.

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Pierre Balmain, French designer extraordinaire, with actress Ruth Ford, in 1947

Haute couture (french for high sewing, or high dressmaking) originated in nineteenth-century Paris by the English Charles Frederick Worth, and remains to this day a paragon of craftsmanship and high fashion. Haute couture garments are hand crafted meticulously from start to finish by the most capable sewers, with high quality and expensive materials. They are also most often tailored specifically for the client’s taste and measurements, making every garment one of a kind. Since these garments require enormous amounts of time, skill and money to complete, its market is small, with an estimated 4000 clients worldwide. In the world of haute couture, budget is no limit.

The term haute couture is protected by law in France, and regulated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture; which is charged with determining which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses. No brand, no matter how large or prestigious, can sidestep these rigorous rules established in 1945:

  • offer private clients personal fittings, for made-to-order designs
  • have an atelier in Paris that employs at least fifteen staff members full-time
  • have at least twenty full-time technical people, in at least one atelier
  • present a collection of at least fifty original designs to the public every fashion season (each January and July), consisting of both daytime and evening wear
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John Galliano designs for Christian Dior Haute Couture

A common misconception about haute couture is that it only produces evening wear, though fashion houses are required to present daytime garments as well. While most haute couture houses are French, the idea that they exist only in France is another frequent misconception. Foreign houses can be eligible to qualify as correspondent, guest, and even official members – these include Valentino, Guo Pei, Armani, Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad and Yiqing Yin.

The prestige and quality of haute couture garments might not enough to help it survive through the 21st century. Despite there being a minority able and willing to pay for such garments, the more relaxed dressing of modern times presents a smaller viability for haute couture, which survives almost as a marketing tool and beacon of exclusivity. It is unable to provide the main income for a fashion house – instead, they rely on more reasonably priced prêt-à-porter (french for ready to wear), luxury accessories and perfumes as their main source of profit.

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Guo Pei’s gown took 100 workers 5 months to embroider. Photo by Lydia Liu

Though reading about the history of haute couture is incredibly educational, it is only a part of the exquisite beauty and handiwork that is put into the garments. All minutiae are thought through and executed aiming perfection, with no expenses spared – be it time or money. The following videos, showing how haute couture garments are made by Chanel, Georges Hobeika and Elie Saab, have helped me glimpse into this incredibly exclusive market and better understand its extravagant price tags.

Needless to say, haute couture is a pearl of craftsmanship with so much to offer the worlds of art and fashion. Discovering the costumes it has produced is as mesmerizing as observing their development – I can only imagine donning such a work of art.

One thought on “Lady Talks | What is Haute Couture?

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