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High Fashion: What is Haute Couture?

What is haute couture

If you love fashion, especially high fashion, then you have probably heard of “haute couture.” While most people think haute couture simply refers to high-end clothing, it is so much more than that. Let’s take a look at what is haute couture, where it came from and how it exists today.

What is Haute Couture?

If you haven’t guessed already, haute couture is French. “Haute” means “high” or “elegant,” and couture” means “sewing” or “dressmaking.” France has been a vital part of the haute couture system due to its luxurious textile industry.

As mentioned above, haute couture is so much more than high fashion clothing; it is about the actual process of designing, creating and selling these one-of-a-kind clothes to high-status clients.

Each made-to-order clothing item is made by hand from scratch and usually requires several fitting; it can take between 100 to 700 hours to make one dress, and the cost ranges from $25,000 to $100,000. They are known for their high-quality, expensive fabric and extreme attention to detail.

A Brief History

It may surprise you to know that though haute couture was founded in France, an Englishman started it. Charles Frederick Worth, the father of haute couture, established the first haute couture house in 1858. During this time, only women made women’s clothing – until Worth came along. He worked with France’s silk textile industry to create expensive, luxury fashion for upper-class women so they could stand out.

Worth started several innovations that are still norms for the high fashion industry. For example, he organized yearly showings of his clothing and used live mannequins to model his designs. Clients would select a model they liked, specify the colors and fabrics they wanted and then have the garment tailor-made at his house.

The creation of haute couture houses was extraordinary. The workrooms and “les petite mains,” or seamstresses, were distributed based on two sewing techniques: “flou” (dressmaking for dresses and draped garments) and “tailleur” (tailoring for suits and coats). The vendeuse, or saleswoman, ran the house and scheduled the fittings.

Worth is also credited as the first “fashion designer” because he put his name on a label and attached it to the clothing. This validated Worth, and other fashion designers, as authority figures on luxury clothing. When you bought haute couture, you weren’t just buying clothes – you were investing in the designer and their style.

In 1868, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, des Confectionneurs et des Tailleurs pour Dame (the Chambre Syndicale) formed to protect the high fashion industry’s designers and houses. Designers had to earn the haute couture label by making clothing specifically designed for each client using high-quality fabrics and materials. The Chambre Syndicale transformed into the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM) that exists today.

the 1900s

For the next 60 years, haute couture attracted sales, prestigious clients and international acclaim. In 1921, the L’Association de Protection des Industries Artistiques Saisonnieres (PAIS) formed to protect designs from copycats. The designers would photograph their designs on a mannequin (front, back and sides) and register the photos as evidence.

Several years later, the Chambre Syndicale established vocational sewing and design training. Schools offered three-year apprenticeships that taught practical sewing skills, garment construction techniques and women’s tailoring and drooping.

By 1939, there were over 70 houses. In 1945, the Chambre Syndicale created official rules for the haute couture label (see below). Two years later, Christian Dior revolutionized the fashion industry with his “New Look” collection that featured tight waists, stiff petticoats and billowing skirts.

This was the golden age of haute couture, where over 150,000 people bought it, including the socialite Duchess of Windsor Wallace Simpson. Profits were at an all-time high, as was press coverage; it was considered the leading source for international fashion design.

The 1950s were also a time of change. Haute couture became a design source for commercial buyers. Designers adapted the clothing to limited editions and sold for cheaper in mass-market fashions, though the house’s labels were still featured.

By the 1970s, though, houses were dwindling in numbers; there were over 100 houses in 1946 and only 19 by 1970. Many houses struggled to meet the intense regulations, which lead to the commercialization of rights for mass reproduction and licensing agreements.

Haute Couture Today

Though haute couture is not what it was 150 years ago, it still has a major impact on the fashion industry.

The clothing is no longer regarded as a way to make money; in fact, only a few thousand buy it nowadays. Some houses actually lose money making the one-of-a-kind clothing. Instead, it exists to enhance the house’s reputation, credibility and brand name through publicity and international press coverage. For example, you might see haute couture on the red carpet, as many designers loan clothes for celebrities to wear for that extra publicity.

To make up for the loss, most houses now sell ready-to-wear (pret-a-porter) collections and accessories, including shoes and perfumes, as they have a higher rate of return.

The legality of Haute Couture

Did you know that the term “haute couture” is legally protected and can only be given to certain brands that meet a list of rules?

In 1945, the Chambre Syndicale created a list of criteria a designer must meet in order to be called haute couture. These criteria exist to control the quality and prestige of the clothing. Once the designer meets the necessary requirements, the French Ministry of Industry approves the brand. Failure to meet the regulations means you lose the title.

  • The designer must create made-to-order garments for private clients.
  • Garments must require more than one fitting before being completed.
  • The designer must employ 15 or more full-time staff at an atelier (workshop), along with 20 full-time technical workers
  • The designer must present his/her collection twice a year at Paris’s Couture Fashion Week in January and July. The audience includes editors, clients and buyers (also called porte-monnaie sur pattes, or “walking purses.”
  • Each collection must include at least 50 separate outfits for day and eveningwear.

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