Joanne Molina, Senior Editor
I’m always a bit disappointed when I see the word â€œcoutureâ€? used so casuallyâ€” â€œcoutureâ€? candles, â€œcouture bags…â€?. So this writer is asking all lovers of fashion and luxe objets du jour to take a moment to peruse a short history of haute couture that takes the term, the history and those who contributed to that history seriously.
According to fashion historians Harold Koda and Richard Martin of Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, it’s actually the Brit Charles Worth who’s considered to be the â€œfatherâ€? of haute couture. Trained by London textile merchants, Worth found himself in France during a pivotal time: the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, during which according to Jessa Krick, â€œWorth’s rise as a designer coincided with the establishment of the Second Empire in France. â€œNapoleon III implemented a grand vision for both Paris and France and the demand for luxury goods, including textiles and fashionable dress, reached levels that had not been seen since before the French Revolution (1789-99).â€?
It wasn’t until 1945 the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris established criteria for fashion houses aspiring to use the term haute couture and this criteria would remain unchanged until its revision in 1992. Although these houses still have the prÃªt-a-porter (ready-to-wear) divisions, they are not to be confused with these more artistic lines. This commission presides over the official list of houses that comply with the following regulations:
â€¢ Design made-to-order for private clients that require one or more fittings.
â€¢ Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs full-time a minimum of fifteen people.
â€¢ Present to the press in Paris each season (spring/summer and autumn/winter) a collection of at least thirty-five runs comprising outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.
â€¢ The couture house is customarily composed of two parts: One devoted to dressmaking (flou), The other devoted to tailoring (tailleur) of suits and coats.
Koda and Martin also note:
â€œSkilled workers in each area practice the arts apposite to the area. Embellishments and accessories are added incrementally as applied decoration, often from sources outside the couture house. However, with regard to the unembellished garment, the modern couture house is a completely autonomous workroom of dedicated ateliers. In fact, surprisingly, in view of the elegant locations of most couture houses, the creation of the garments occurs in the maisons particuliÃ¨res of the house, thus under the daily surveillance of the designer as well as in intimate connection with the vendeuses.â€?
Contemporary Couture Facts:
According to the Label France, a magazine of the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, â€œThere are eighteen houses of haute couture in France today: Balmain, Pierre Cardin, Carven, Chanel, Christian Dior, Louis FÃ©raud, Givenchy, Lecoanet Henant, Christian Lacroix, Lapidus, Guy Laroche, Hanae Mori, Paco Rabanne, Nina Ricci, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Torrente, Emanuel Ungaro.
Haute couture employs 4,500 people (including 2,200 workshop seamstresses); there were some 35,000 of them prior to the Second World War. Haute couture is an important economic factor: in 1994, direct turnover from haute couture excluding tax amounted to five billion French francs (1 billion dollars), with exports accounting for 73%.
So try to have a bit of psychic discipline and give credit to whom it’s due: the artisans that produce according to the rules of the game.
1. Ball gown, ca. 1951
Jacques Fath (French, 1912-1954)
Black silk velvet with ivory silk satin, white mink, and gold metal trim
2. Evening gown, 1987
Patou by Christian Lacroix (French, born 1951)
Raspberry silk taffeta
3. “Mondrian” day dress, autumn 1965
Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936)
Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow
4. Coat, ca. 1919
Paul Poiret (French, 1880-1944)
Black silk and wool blend with white leather appliquÃ©s and white fur trim
5. Evening dress, ca. 1887
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825-1895)
Silk, glass, metallic thread
6. Evening dress, 1892
House of Worth (French, 1858-1956)
Silk, crystal, metallic threads
Sources: The Metropolitan Museum of Art