Long before the word “fashionista” was added to English vernacular, the word used to describe a girl so passionate about current fashion, she wouldn’t think of stepping outside her door without making sure every item was beautifully coordinated, was clotheshorse.
The term “haute couture” was coined circa 1908 to describe a fashion movement in which original designs that epitomized luxury, exclusivity and fashion-forward innovation were designed by couturiers designing and manufacturing for royalty, the wealthy and celebrities. In the 100+ years since this high-profile industry was established in Paris, fashion has come a long way, baby, and according to 21st century designers, the best is yet to come!
Meet Charles Worth, the father of haute couture
You might be surprised to learn that it was an English fashion designer named Charles Frederick Worth, rather than a Paris-based couturier, who established the concept of haute couture. He even gave it the name we use today. Worth opened an exclusive clothing salon in Paris in 1858 called The House of Worth and quickly established himself as both a new face in town and an advocate of crafting one-of-a-kind clothing designs for the richest, most famous women in Paris and beyond.
Worth was something of a tyrant as he set about establishing his haute couture empire: he even forbade the people who worked for him from using the pedestrian word “dressmaker”! At his insistence, he was to be called a couturier instead, and as a small number of other dressmakers and designers joined his exclusive circle, they too were to be called by the grandiose title as the industry established a solid foothold in Paris.
An association launched to give haute couture credibility
What’s a movement without a governing body? While Worth’s contribution to the Paris fashion scene was obviously critical to the inception of haute couture, it soon became necessary to reign in other fashion designers in this exclusive community, so rules and regulations governed the production of all couture in 1868, when movers and shakers associated with Paris fashion formed Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
This exclusive society added legitimacy and credibility to the profession. Under the watchful eye of Le Chambre, designers had to prove that their work was so unique and of such remarkable quality, they earned the right to add “haute couture” to their clothing labels. French fashion journalists added their two cents to the mix: they began photographing one-of-a-kind garments from fashion houses and archiving these images so there could be no doubt who owned the rights to each design.
Despite being such an important influence on the Paris fashion industry, Le Chambre didn’t set up formal guidelines under which designers were required to comply until 1945. As of that date, one could only call his business and designs “haute couture” if the clothing met three criteria: every garment must be a one-of-a-kind and made to order; every designer must have a staff of at least 20 and every atelier (fashion house) must present at least 35 new daytime and evening designs to the press via an annual runway show.
Haute couture enters a new era
The word “exclusive” when attached to couture was the measure by which Paris designers set about establishing themselves as legitimate heirs to The House of Worth. Psychologically, the sheer existence of such elite salons established even more social barriers than those already existing between upper and lower classes. As the city fast became synonymous with high fashion, women began to think of themselves as belonging to a specific strata of society based on who made their clothing.
It took next to no time for women to begin equating “the right kind of fashion” to social status. Even during the war years when Paris was occupied, women clamored for the latest colors, designs and silhouettes coutouriers produced, despite cloth and notions rationing. The industry was re-energized post-WWII, at which point fashion designers set new and more radical design courses that gave birth to iconic styles like color blocking, mini-skirts and silhouettes that were so extreme, designers pushed outrageous boundaries to make sure their collections stood out from the crowd.
At the same time, haute couture planted itself firmly on terra firma in New York City, Milan and other metropolitan capitals eager to show the world that Paris no longer monopolized the industry. What was once the exclusive domain of Paris belonged to the rest of the world which only made the French even more determined to product the world's best original fashion.
Haute couture's very first rock stars!
In haute couture, a designer is only as good and successful as his latest innovation, willingness to take risks and flair, and so it was that a small cult of top-drawer fashion designers emerged to form a larger community in Paris post-World War II. One of the most high-profile of the pack was Christian Dior, a young man with a clever, unique eye for what looked great on women.
He carried the mantel of Charles Frederick Worth forward as a true son of Paris innovation. Dior’s “new look” was the stuff of which legends were built. First Dior collections were filled with pieces said to emulate flower petals in that many garments featured tight waists and billowing skirts atop ballooning petticoats. Dior was copied but never equaled because his aesthetic was too unique.
That didn’t mean that bright careers weren’t established as talented men and women claimed coveted apprenticeships with the House of Dior and within the design studios of other emerging couturiers, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the ideas and work undertaken by these young and talented newcomers often wound up being credited to the designer and his brand.
Even the process of producing seasonal clothing began to take on a formal process from fashion house to fashion house: Every studio had its signature process that included sketching, draping, fitting and finishing that met the standards of the couturier whose name appeared on that coveted label.
What goes up in haute couture, must come down
There are plenty of theories pointing to the “demise of haute couture.” Some say competition between designers became too contentious. Others believe that the “ready-to-wear” industry, also known as Prêt-à- Porter, diminished the idea of “one dress for one woman.” Growing numbers of designers established distinct, personality-filled brands despite the school of thought that saw haute couture as a dying industry.
This was the era of iconic couturiers like Madeleine Chéruit, Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Andre Courreges, Emauel Ungaro, Theirry Mugler, Christian Lacroix, Elsa Schiaparelli and Pauline Trigere. But despite their influence and the proliferation of spectacular designs and runway shows, the tide of change could not be reversed. By 1970, the heyday of ateliers had passed: There were 106 haute couture houses run by world-famous designers in 1946. By 1970, only 19 remained. Some blamed too many rules set by Le Chambre over time.
Most conceded that ready-to-wear and a changing social climate left the industry languishing in the past. Gone was the time women dreamed of owning one-of-a-kind fashion and were willing to do without other things to buy these garments. But one more dynamic must be mentioned: the world's most famous couturiers were approached by ready-to-wear manufacturers and many didn't hesitate to say yes to designing for the mass market. The concepts of branding, royalties and mass distribution quickly became an integral part of the world of fashion. The price for haute couture is always right!
What separates today’s haute couture fashion
from those legendary roots? Price tags, of course. Shoppers willing to pay for the exclusivity of owning originals followed in the footsteps of fashion icons like former presidential wives Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, plus celebs and socialites like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Princess Diana. But values shifted at the end of the 20th century.
While spending $10,000 on a dress for a single occasion remains the choice of the rich and famous, ordinary women are more interested in putting braces on their kid’s teeth and buying new cars! Where did this leave the high-level designers in Paris and elsewhere? Catering to a much small universe--but don’t think that the cash wealthy people spend to have these exclusive designs made is all about the designer making a million bucks.
It’s not unusual for today’s couturier to employ a legion of workers to hand bead a gown that can take between 100 and 150 hours to complete, even with multiple seamstresses working on the project. There’s a price tied to the originality of each design, as well as the textiles and trims required to turn an ordinary ensemble into a one-of-a-kind garment. Polyester? Mais non!
Fashion at this level requires the best of everything: pricey silks, rare cashmeres, the finest leather, furs and crystal beads from manufacturers like Swarovski. In some cases, gowns made of gold thread and gems walk red carpets at premiers, parties and high-profile events throughout the globe. Just ask today’s fashionistas—from glamorous Jennifer Lopez to quirky Lady Gaga--about the lead time couturiers require to turn around a gown for a special occasion and you might not be surprised by the amount on the price tag. What does the future of haute couture hold?
These days, women still love wearing couturier-made clothing for multiple reasons. They may simply adore the lines, fabrics, silhouettes and trim that are the hallmark of contemporary designers like Donna Karan, Stella McCartney and Gianna Versace and of course our own Noemie Goureau
, or perhaps they appreciate the fact that they’ve been given a guarantee by the atelier that no other woman on the planet will be wearing an identical outfit.
Today’s fashion designer has also spread her wings by signing off on line extensions like perfumes, jewelry, accessories and handbags that would never have crossed the minds or drawing boards of the original Paris couturiers back in the day! Thanks to branding, today’s man and woman need only go to a mall to select a Chanel garment because the fantasy implicit within haute couture has been kept alive by new designers doing their best to be original while still paying tribute to pioneers like Coco Chanel and Christian Dior.
Was it inevitable that this would happen? If you consider the evolution of today’s society, the answer is yes. Our values have changed. Price drives purchases and behaviors. Not every woman gets an adrenalin rush from donning a one-of-a-kind designer dress with an atelier label stitched inside, whether she can afford it or not.
Happily, this does not mean that we should all don black outfits and attend the funeral of haute couture! Today’s academic fashion design programs across the globe are welcoming more men and women into the ranks of professional design than ever before, so you might say that haute couture hasn’t so much disappeared as it has morphed into a new definition.
Le Chambre still exists. Paris’s reputation as fashion’s Mecca remains sacrosanct, despite successful markets flourishing around the world. And there will always be women with enough power and money to appear at Vera Wang’s atelier and ask to have a custom-made garment crafted. In that respect, the tradition of haute couture could live on forever.