Sunday, August 30, 2009

Couture, defined

The word "couture" is bandied about a lot these days, mostly by vintage sellers who hope to up the ante by invoking the word. It tends to be used interchangeably with "really well made" or "special," but couture actually does have an actual definition.

Haute couture was originally founded in 1868, in France of course, by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. Let that name just roll around on your tongue for a while, because it sounds almost as fabulous, when said with a French accent, as what it signifies. These people were a force to contend with, because there were very strict guidelines as to who did and did not do couture, and the memberships were reviewed every year. Couture was created to create the French economy, because so much of their livelihood depended upon these lovely garments. Couture brought the French a LOT of money.

After World War 2, the French faced new challenges. The country was in a shambles, and fashion was a way to revive it so, in 1945, new regulations came out that encompassed every aspect of what the designers were creating. Here are just a few of those regulations, all of which are still true today:

  • the designers had to have a "suitable" presence in Paris. They didn't want a Walmart couture house -- these places were special, and if you aren't in Paris, you couldn't be considered haute couture. If you were in Paris, your place would have to be high end, and reflect your own personality - tasteful but expensive!

  • collections were shown twice a year, and had to have 75 designs, by either the designer or his assistants. Think about that. 75 designs. That's a lot of work! These designs are usually, to a large degree, hand sewn, hand beaded, perhaps hand embroidered, and can take weeks to create. Makes my fingers sore just thinking of it!

  • collections were shown in spring and fall, on dates that the Chambre Syndicale chose. This was the beginning of the concept of Fashion Week, which is still observed today. This helped to keep one designer from "borrowing" from another, and kept shady people from knocking off the designs.

  • couture designs are not off the rack! They are made to measure, and the CS required at least three fittings of each garment. Fittings might be coordinated by a vendeuse (saleswoman), or perhaps by the designer himself. The end result was a garment that fit like a glove.
  • A couture garment, in the end, is only 2-3% machine sewn. The remaining 97-98% is all hand rendered, including beading and embroidery.

These are just a few of the regulations that the CS imposed upon the designers. The textile sellers also had regulations. If their product was put on hold by one designer, regulations said that that product could not be shown to another designer, meaning that sometimes whole lines went to waste, waiting for someone to decide whether or not to use them. The same was true for the embroidery houses. Showing of collections was tightly regulated, and attendance was by invitation only. Those who had the ill judgement to try to sketch a dress or worse, photograph a dress, would be escorted out. Garments were shown, then made available for photographs and sketch artists, but no photos or illustrations were released until several weeks after the collections were shown. The release date was set by the Chambre Syndicale about 30 days after the openings.

Couture houses also had daily shows in the afternoons, which could be attended by private customers, by invitation only. After the show, customers were given the opportunity to view garments close up or by trying them on, all in the comfort of the designer's actual salon. Talk about service!

Keep in mind that haute couture garments were not necessarily made with the idea of someone actually wearing them. Some were made as concept garments, and others were made simply to draw attention (and income) to the house, so it was not unusual to see over the top designs. Couture houses employed dozens or, in the case of Dior, hundreds of employees, each of whom had a specific job: sewing a seam, beading, embroidery, fitting, etc. It could take years to work up through the ranks if you wanted a promotion.

Today, women have gotten away from wearing couture, as it is wildly expensive, and most of us could not afford it. This doesn't mean that you can't wear designer fashion -- it merely means that what you wear isn't haute couture. For that, you would have to fly to Paris at least three times to be fitted, but you would have a special garment indeed.

Dress above by Jean Desses, 1953

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