Haute Couture: A deep dive into its past, present, and future

I’m sure we all saw Zendaya gracing the red carpet wearing a futuristic robot suit.
Haute Couture: A deep dive into its past, present, and future

Jilmil Jonak Kashyap

(Bachelor of Arts, Miranda House, University of Delhi)

I’m sure we all saw Zendaya gracing the red carpet wearing a futuristic robot suit. You might have also heard that the suit was made by the legendary designer Thierry Mugler for his haute couture collection in 1995. But what is haute couture? Translated literally, haute is French for high, and couture means dressmaking. Haute couture refers to the creation of handmade, custom-fitted garments by a select few designers with the most expensive and high-quality fabrics and an incredible attention to detail. In short, it is high fashion, entirely out of reach of us ordinary folk.

The Rules of Haute Couture

Surprisingly, haute couture is a legal term. The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode is the regulating body that decides which fashion houses are eligible to be classified as haute couture houses. To be classified as a couture house and to be able to use the term haute couture, a house must pass the criteria laid down in 1945:

n Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings;

n Have an atelier in Paris that employs at least fifteen full-time staff.

n Have at least 20 full-time technical people in at least one atelier.

n Present a collection of at least 50 original designs to the public every fashion season of both day and evening garments.

Fédération de la Haute

Couture et de la Mode

When it was founded in 1868, the federation was called the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, des Confectionneurs, et des Tailleurs pour Dame. By December 14th, 1910, it had taken on the name Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. In 1945, the term ‘Haute Couture’ received legal recognition, and following this, the federation received the name Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.

Today, it is called the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. It consists of three syndicate members: the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode Féminine, and the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode Masculine. At present, the official members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture are Alexis Mabille, Chanel, Christian Dior, Franck Sorbier, Giambattista Valli, Jean Paul Gaultier, Julien Fournié, Maison Margiela, Schiaparelli, and Stéphane Rolland.

The History of Haute Couture

Queen Marie Antoinette’s designer, Rose Bertin, is said to be the person who brought haute couture to France. French fashion was imitated all across the continent of Europe. As transportation improved, wealthy women from all over Europe travelled to Paris to shop for garments made by some of the best dressmakers in Europe.

The couturier Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman, is considered to be the father of haute couture. Worth revolutionised dressmaking. The House of Worth, opened in 1858, was a French fashion house that specialised in haute couture. Herein, Worth would prepare a portfolio of designs that would be shown on models, and clients would select a model, specify the measurements and colours, and have the garment made for them.

Paul Poiret was a French fashion designer who was employed at the House of Worth. In 1903, he established his own fashion house and took fashion in an orientalist direction. Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel founded her brand in 1909 with the opening of her millinery in Paris. She was credited with liberating women from the restrictive fashion of the time. Christobal Balenciaga opened his atelier in Spain in 1918. Elsa Schiaparelli opened hers in 1927. Her designs contained elements of surrealism and modernism, as she collaborated with renowned artists like Salvador Dalí.

When rations were put on fabrics during the war, designers started presenting their designs on dolls as they required less fabric. Couture flourished in the post-war era. The House of Dior was founded in 1946. Christian Dior’s debut collection featured extravagant silhouettes that were in contrast to the simple designs of the war period. The collection was dubbed “New Look” by Carmel Show, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar.

In the 1960s, a group of designers who had received training from well-known fashion houses like Dior and Balenciaga left to open their own establishments. This group included people like Yves Saint-Laurent and André Courrèges. Hanae Mori, a Japanese designer, also established a successful haute couture house and was the first Asian woman to do so.

Christian Lacroix opened his haute couture house in 1987 and released his last collection in 2009.

Jean Paul Gaultier started his self-titled label in 1982, and Thierry Mugler found his in the 1970s.

How does it work?

Haute couture shows are mostly populated by clients. There is a veil of mystery surrounding these clients, who purchase haute couture. Clients need to make appointments with the couture houses before proceeding with the fittings. A vendeuse is responsible for the customer and supervises the fittings. They ensure that the client receives a unique piece that is of the highest quality.

Haute Couture Week

Haute Couture Week takes place twice a year: once in January for spring/summer and once in July for fall/winter. The official calendar is prepared by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. Couture Week brings together the members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, corresponding members, and guest members. It celebrates the best of high fashion around the world.

The Future of Haute Couture

The haute couture business is incredibly expensive, and thus, a brand cannot rely on it to make a profit. Brands often venture into prêt-à-porter or ready-to-wear clothing, perfumes, and other luxury goods. The demanding conditions of production are certainly a challenge. But the need for absolute perfection and independence from trends also makes it a luxury like no other. These days, it is common to see celebrities wearing haute couture on the red carpet. One can say that it is an important time for haute couture. Many believe that haute couture is a mere marketing tool and is likely to stay as such.

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