Haute couture officially started in the 18th century when Rose Bertin, Minister of Fashion to Marie Antoinette, became the first designer to ever make couture popular. Then Charles Frederick Worth, who became the first modern couturier, started the world-wide movement of a new form of art, haute couture. He changed how dressmaking was originally made by making the first ever fashion shows displayed in his couture house. After the shows, the clients would pick a model, select the fabrics and colors, and a custom-made duplication was made for them.
Following Worth’s footsteps, new designer like Lanvin, Christian Dior, Gabrielle Chanel, and Cristobal Balenciaga opened their own ateliers, or couture houses. Ironically, modern couture flourished in the postwar period, after the immense popular attraction of Christian Dior’s New Look from 1947. Designers not only innovated in the dressmaking techniques but also added a strong factor to haute couture, tailoring. With this combination, the designers could easily take techniques for menswear and apply it into dresses, making couture even more interesting and comfortable.
Today, the term haute couture is protected by the French government, who established standards and practices that a fashion house must have to do haute couture. These designers are chosen by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.The requirements include: must have at least 15 people working full-time, have an atelier, the atelier must be in Paris, France, must create two couture fashion shows a year, each show must have at least 35 outfits of either daywear or eveningwear, all of the outfits must be sewn by hand, and each model should be fitted at least 4 times.
Haute couture is made from high-quality fabrics and materials, using time-consuming and hand-executed techniques, while paying attention to details. For these details an atelier uses help from exterior craftsman to adorn the outfits: embroidery; dyeing; hand-painting; addition of pearls, beads, stones or feathers; jewelry for buttons and buckles; lace and flower applications. Because each sequin is individually hand places and sewn, the process for constructing a couture jacket can often take up to 100 hours and may cost up to £60,000. ‘‘Our role is to be chameleons… we receive a sketch and it is up to us to interpret. The couturier is the architect, we are the decorators’’ said Francois Lesage, French embroiderer, talking about his role in haute couture.
Impeccable craftsmanship is the essence of couture, and its starts before the fabric is cut. The initial idea for a collection starts from a designer’s inspiration that is interpreted into sketches and later transformed into three-dimensional garments. Designers create their initial designs on sample models called toiles, which is made up of muslin, a cheap and easy to work with fabric. This saves the expensive fabrics as drafts from the original sketch. The legendary French designer Christian Dior would normally drape any fabric around a model’s body to create and experiment with new shapes. Since couture is about precision, the seamstresses, or tailors, work with millimeters because the cuts in the haute couture techniques must be as precise as possible. Thanks to these demanding techniques, couture helped accentuate the women’s body, depending on their shapes. Because it is custom-made, couture is also about exclusivity. When a client specifies their demands for a couture outfit, they expect to have one original piece of craftsmanship that fits them perfectly.
Some examples of intricate craftsmanship of modern haute couture includes the seventh look from Givenchy haute couture fall 2011 collection by Riccardo Tisci, its mathematical symmetry of the 300 meters of silk tulle cut into tiny circles, individually hand-sewn, to make a fish-like scales. Donatella Versace designed an evening dress, from Atelier Versace spring 2011, bedded from head to toe. This gown had no visible seams, all of them were hidden in the intricate design; and it is incredibly heavy despite the weightlessness it appears to have. In Sarabande, from Alexander McQueen spring 2007, Lee wanted that each of the 3,000 flowers, in the last dress, to cut each petal individually and to color each one by hand.
The persistence of haute couture is as roundly questioned and doubted as the survival of a Renaissance painting. Years upon years critics predict couture’s demise, calling this form of art as a waste of time and generates no money in a profit-driven industry. Those clients, who can and still choose to purchase couture, are an ageing clientele. The young rich prefer jeans and t-shirts by up and coming young designers. In 1946 there were 106 ateliers in Paris, in 1954 that number changed to 60, and in 2000 the number of ateliers has diminished to just 18.
Nowadays, designers use the presentation of a couture collection as publicity. Although no money is generated from a fashion show, the companies that own these ateliers make a profit from other products, such as makeup and perfumes. This helps the brand stay alive. Another way of merchandising started when the award shows became popular. Designers reserve their high-end creations for celebrities to wear down the red carpets around the world to promote their fashion houses and make the dying draft relevant.
In its earliest beginning, clothing was purely functional to keep yourself warm and protected. As time has changed clothing became a form of expression. Fashion stopped being functional and became shallow. Couture is a fantasy in fashion; it’s a dream, a vision, and all those beautiful people in exotic places celebrating the happiness of life.