Have you’ve been wondering and asking, "What is haute couture?" Fashion has a long history, and haute couture has been around for decades. It refers to high-end fashion, usually associated with some of the most luxurious brands around the world.
What is Haute Couture - An Overview
A term often confused with couture, the difference between the two is in the names themselves; one doesn’t bear the French term “Haute”, which translates to elegant or high. Haute couture is pieces of custom-made clothing for high-end clients. They are expensive and only made in famous fashion capitals or cities, including Paris, Milan, New York, and London.
What is Haute Couture’s History?
The late 17th century opened the doors for France in terms of fashion. It was when they became the center for manufacturing and selling luxurious, innovative silk textiles. Since then, fashion and costume history has never been the same. The haute couture system was established and then flourished into what we know now.
With so much significance in fashion’s history, let’s look at some of the most significant changes that led to the development of what is haute couture as we know it today.
The 18th Century
France’s high recognition in the fashion industry began when almost all countries in Europe started imitating the court of Versailles’ architecture, art, fashion, and music. Europeans who traveled to Paris brought home articles of clothing and paid local dressmakers to copy them. Some women even ordered dolls wearing the latest fashion trend in Paris, which their chosen dressmakers used as models to create their clothing.
With the development and increase in the number of steamships and railroads, traveling around Europe became easier. As such, most of the wealthiest women traveled to Paris, not just for leisure but to purchase accessories and clothing. That is, of course, because they preferred authentic Paris items more than the imitations.
The 19th Century
When you start learning about what is haute couture, Charles Frederick Worth is a name you’ll always hear since he is regarded as the Father of Haute Couture. He was a British-trained tailor and dressmaker who moved to France and began introducing a lot of changes in the fashion industry.
He opened the doors to other male designers and tailors in a used-to-be female-dominated industry. That is all thanks to his unique designs and pieces of garments made from luxurious textile, which he obtained from a silk weaving company in France. His services weren’t cheap, so his clients are amongst the wealthiest, including the European court’s nobilities.
He also allowed his clients to choose the specific fabric and color, which he used to create their clothes. For the design, Worth presented his clients with live models wearing his creations at the House of Worth.
As such, couturiers no longer went to their client’s homes, but the clients visited the so-called salons that Worth and his contemporaries also started establishing. With its popularity and promise of high income, some designers followed the footsteps of Worth, such as Balenciaga, Chanel, Callot Soeurs, Dior, and Mainbocher.
Worth also initiated the creation of a body or group that lobbied and dealt with production, tax, and labor issues dressmakers faced.
The 20th Century
Around 1910, the clear distinction between couture (custom-made) and convection (ready-to-made) pieces of clothing began. Only salons creating fashion collections for private clients used the term la haute couture.
In terms of what is haute couture, you will hear several regulating bodies. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne body established membership rules and regulations for selling and reproducing the member’s designs.
To prevent the piracy and for the designs to remain exclusive, Madeleine Vionnet created L'Association de Protection des Industries Artistiques Saisonnières (PAIS) in 1921. Haute couturiers photographed all sides of their designs worn by their mannequins and registered them with PAIS.
That was their way of documenting them, which can serve as court evidence when someone pirates any of their designs. The Chambre Syndicale also started offering vocational training for future sewers and designers.
Then, in 1930, they developed a fashion show calendar that helped accommodate the high number of haute couture enthusiasts, including commercial and private clients and journalists.
Haute Couture Classification
The worst years of haute couture were during World War II, but it recovered after the war. They started having fashion shows for European and North American commercial clients and private clients. Then, the Chambre Syndicale ensured further control of the prestige and quality of haute couture by introducing new and stricter regulations. This led to the division of haute couture into two classes, namely couture, and couture-creation.
What is haute couture creation?
It is the more prestigious classification that only those who meet the following criteria can be a member of:
- 25 in-house designs
- Spring and fall collections
- Designs presented on a live mannequin and appropriate location (Paris’ haute couture house)
What is haute couture technical criteria:
- Original model’s execution of the clothing
- Duplicate created in-house, specific for a client’s body measurement
- Number of fittings required
- What stage of the process fitting gets done
- Sales of the particular design
Haute Couture Salon Growth
Haute couture became even more popular in the 1950s, gaining more press releases and profits. This situation led to more haute couture salons, but Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, and Jacques Fath were the largest ones. Then, some haute couture salons started selling their paper patterns and original models. To remedy this, Chambre Syndicale updated its regulations.
The need for haute couture reconstruction came about because of the plummeting sales between the 1970s and 1980s. The Chambre Syndicale and Prêt-à-Porter Federation joined forces, creating Fedération de l'union Nationale des Artisanale de la Couture et des Activités Connexes. Some of the most famous members are Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), Christian Dior, House of Chanel, and Givenchy.
What is Haute Couture’s Characteristics?
From the bits of information about haute couture’s history discussed above, it’s clear that it has notable features. They are:
- Government Regulated
- Atelier Based
- Invite-Only Fashion Shows
- Appointment-Only Visits
The law protects haute couture, especially from piracy. Only brands that meet the criteria issued by the regulating bodies can be included in the list and label their designs or products as haute couture. Each brand included on the list also gets reviewed annually to ensure the couturier still meets the requirements. Thus, the names on the list changes; in fact, even the prestigious Givenchy got removed from the Spring 2013 list of haute couture brands.
As the world becomes more modernized, haute couture pieces remain hand-sewn, so when you ask, “What is haute couture?”, one of the distinctions is the house division. Meaning, each haute couture house has multiple departments to ensure quality and precision.
Brands usually divide their houses into atelier tailleur, where they make coats and suits for males, and atelier flou, where they create soft clothing for women, such as dresses and gowns.
Each haute couture house also has several important staff with special skill sets, such as:
- Premiere: Leads client fittings
- Head Tailor or Dressmaker: Oversees clothing creation
- Apprentice or Trainees
- Vendeuse: Sells designs to clients and negotiates with them
Invite-Only Fashion Shows
Private clients are the guests to every haute couture show or collection launching. Keep in mind, though, that not every client gets an invite. Usually, it’s the biggest spenders and high-profile clients. Of course, some press people also get invited.
Before flying to Paris or any of the haute couture cities, you must book an appointment with the brand of your choice. You must also make sure that you book months or even a year before needing a certain piece. That’s because the model garment designs are usually out of the country for presentation. That said, you can find haute couturiers that present their designs on a video to their regular patrons or serious buyers.
What is Haute Couture - The Cost
Haute couture pieces are some of the most expensive, if not the most expensive. In fact, a simple blouse can cost a buyer around £10,000. Understandably, the high price tag comes with valid reasons.
Why is Haute Couture Expensive?
Apart from the unique design, quality artistry and careful material choice are the main reasons haute couture pieces are expensive.
To ensure the clothing fits the specific body measurements of the client, the pattern undergoes multiple cuttings and fittings. This process isn’t just time-consuming but also labor-intensive. Plus, only a skilled professional can do this precisely.
The same goes for the sewing process. Add that to the additional embellishments like beads and sequins that are hand-sewn piece by piece in the right places.
All the materials used in haute couture houses are luxurious, including the most exotic and expensive types of cotton, linen, cashmere, wool, and more. Some fabric manufacturers even produce specific colors exclusive for a certain haute couturier. Even the zippers, buttons, and embellishments are outsourced from special creators. Likewise, the belts, shoes, hats, jewels, and other accessories used to match the garment are finely crafted.
What is Haute Couture - In Conclusion
Haute couture is a label or term for highly fashionable, customized, and expensive clothes designed and created by brands or houses that meet specific criteria and follow strict regulations. These brands’ clients would also usually need to fly to either of the four fashion capitals in the world to have their clothing made.
Thus, with regards to what is haute couture, overall, it’s something that isn’t for everyone since not everyone can afford it. The price, though, ensures that it is a system that provides every brand clientele with privacy and exclusivity.