A Brief History of Haute Couture

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on the history of couture at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. As someone who values excellent quality and craftsmanship above anything else when it comes to fashion, as well as having a keen interest in history, it was a wonderful opportunity. Especially since we were invited to touch and inspect the pieces (not without white gloves of course!). So it inspired me to write a piece on a brief history of couture and share with you some of the spectacular pieces we were shown at the talk (interestingly all garments below, except for the last two, belonged to Mrs Heinz, from the Heinz family).

What is Haute Couture?

The word ‘couture’ is used quite liberally today. But, with the term literally translating as ‘high sewing’, all pieces truly deserving of it are made-to-measure by hand so as to be of the highest quality and beauty. In order to identify as a Haute Couture label in France, a house must adhere to strict regulations set by the French Ministry of Industry and the Federation Francaise de la Couture. Whilst the rules are slightly more lax today (the odd machine isn’t so sacrilege), the following requirements must still be met:

  • create made-to-measure clothing for private clients
  • offer personal fittings
  • have a full-time workshop in Paris employing at least 20 staff
  • present a collection in January and July every year, including pieces for day time and formal evening wear

Its Origins

Haute Couture was established in 19th century Paris, but commandeered by the Englishman Charles Worth. Regarded as the ‘father of Haute Couture’, he shunned the humble persona of the ‘tailor’ or ‘dressmaker’ and adopted the term ‘fashion designer’ instead. Moreover, he caused a stir by using models and demanding that the majority of his clients came to him, rather than the other way round. Through this he gained a large following selling luxury fashion to elite women of the upper classes. Eventually, in 1868, to protect the Parisian fashion industry, Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was established to determine what made a ‘couture house’. But it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the notoriously strict regulations came into play and couture as we understand it today emerged.

Market dominance

The war had caused the industry to freeze as Paris became isolated from the rest of the world when Germany invaded it in June 1940. Some couturiers continued to show small collections throughout the Occupation, but generally speaking France’s fashion industry was dead. So, when Christian Dior revived it, introducing the ‘New Look’ in his first collection called ‘The Corolle Line’ in 1947, he shocked the world, taking it by storm.

This Christian Dior tulle and organza grey and lilac dress from 1957 is a model example of the 'New Look'. Originally duck-egg blue, it is designed in 2 parts: the overskirt with stunning embroidery, and the underskirt with a built in bodice. Dior was unusual as the date of the garment was always incorporated into the label.

Ironically the ‘New Look’ wasn’t actually new. It was an exaggeration of late 1930s and Occupation styles (that had promoted the extensive use of materials and labour since rationing would only benefit the occupiers). So corsets and late-19th century revival-style bustles were already on the scene. But since the rest of Europe and North America had seen none of this, it seemed like a breath of fresh air. Moreover, it was the antithesis of functional, almost military styles dominating the scene in the UK and US during the war. The ‘New Look’ was the epitome of femininity.

Dior dominated the haute couture industry producing approximately 50% of it all. He was an international phenomenon. But, perhaps surprisingly, his clients were more bourgeois. Couture was much cheaper than it is today, so it was more accessible, especially given that ready-to-wear didn’t exist. Catering for the upper class was Balenciaga, who opposed the New Look. He shunned constructed pieces by designing tunic tops over long, straight skirts, tailored suits with stand-away collars and ¾ length sleeves. He introduced the ‘chemise’ (sack dress) in 1957, which was copied by many other designers and became the leading look for most of the 1960s. The House of Dior also started moving away from the New Look, with Dior dying in 1957 and being replaced by Yves Saint Laurent.

On the right: Sarong evening dress with matching stole, part of Balenciaga's Bali inspired collection at the time. The whole dress is built on the inside with a corset and garters so as to give support to the wearer but on the outside creates a paired down aesthetic. On the left: Mid to late 60s green extremely soft velvet coat. Again, in line with moving away from construction, it is seamless, with Balenciaga's signature sack back and fitted front.

The other major player of the couture scene in the 1950s was Chanel, who reopened her house in 1954 after closing during the war. Production of No5 had continued, but Chanel was encouraged to start designing again to further raise its profile. Her line was also an antidote to the New Look, as it highlighted her classic aesthetic of functionality. It was hated in France, considered to be out-dated. But the Americans saw it’s potential, allowing her career to re-launch.

Classic Chanel. On the right: A chain cream mini skirt and jacket from the Mid-60s. The functionality of Chanel's designs can be seen through the existence of non-decorative pockets and the guilt chain sewn into the hem of the jacket so it hung perfectly whilst the wearer moved about. On the left: Another typical Chanel piece as evident from the cream collar (Chanel believed cream or white was most flattering around the face) but made at Bergorf Goodman in 1968.
Classic Chanel. On the right: A chain cream mini skirt and jacket from the Mid-60s. The functionality of Chanel's designs can be seen through the existence of non-decorative pockets and the guilt chain sewn into the hem of the jacket so it hung perfectly whilst the wearer moved about. On the left: Another typical Chanel piece as evident from the cream collar (Chanel believed cream or white was most flattering around the face) but made at Bergorf Goodman in 1968.

Parisian couture was globally in demand and one way it was made accessible overseas was through department stores. A store's buyer would attend a show, buy toile from it, and then return to the store for it to be reproduced, potentially incorporating small adjustments considered appropriate for its customers. So, for example the garment design would be by Chanel but actually made by Bergdorf Goodman (as above).

Diminishing glory

But at the same time other sectors of the fashion industry were emerging. The majority of custom designers in America, such as James Galanos, Anne Klein and Valentina, were moving into ready-to-wear. Plus a separate market emerged catering specifically to young people with large disposable incomes, with styles inspired by Hollywood stars such as James Dean. Additionally, from the mid-1950s Italy’s ‘alta moda’ took hold, with designs coveted in Britain and America. By the 1960s, whilst Paris was still the leader of high fashion, London was at the forefront of designing and selling trendy teenage styles, and the boutique shop emerged, selling the latest fashion in a bold and brash manner.

Princess Galitzine: An 'alta moda' short gown from late 50s. Still in the New Look style, although not in two pieces.

Eventually by the mid 1960s ready-to-wear was dominant as most young women didn't want to pay the price for couture or spend long amounts of time fittings. So, whilst the traditional clientele continued to patronise labels such as Dior, Balenciaga, Lavin and Chanel, eventually in 1968 Balenciaga retired, as the couture market no longer existed.

Yet, it saw a revival in the 1980s with wealthy Americans and the new oil-rich Middle-Eastern market demanding luxurious Haute Couture and ready-to-wear clothing. So the traditional Paris houses, including Balmain, Givenchy and Dior saw renewed interest and produced their structured, highly intricate pieces. Meanwhile, at Chanel, which had been in a bit of a lull, Karl Largerfeld was appointed as creative director in 1983. He turned the house into one that equally appealed to the youthful market as well as its traditional customers by producing designs that were a pastiche of Chanel’s signature pieces. A year later: Chanel was back as a key player in fashion.

Christian Lacroix. This 2002 dress was made for the catwalk so is pure drama. On the left is the back of the dress, whilst on the right is the front with sheer purple cups on the bodice, and a jewelled shoulder piece exemplifying the attention to detail Lacroix upheld.

And, despite the slump in the fashion industry from 1986, haute couture continued due to the continuing small, rich and particular clientele wanting breath-taking clothing. Christian Lacroix opened his house in 1986, and promoted the traditional crafts at the core of Haute Couture. And he offered a platform to other industries, such as beading and embroidery, that supported the Haute Couture industry.

However Haute Couture was never again a lucrative option. Between 1987 and 2005, Lacroix had reported cumulative losses of more than €200 million. The expertise and skills required for producing the exquisite collections, combined with costs impacting strict regulations and only approximately 2,000 female customers globally prevents it from being a profitable option. So whilst Haute Couture collections are still shown today and highly publicised, they have been reduced to a marketing tool. Their intention is to make the label more coveted to drive up sales of their ready-to-wear collections, diffusion lines and consumer products such as perfumes and cosmetics. The collections themselves result in substantial financial losses. Which is why today only large established labels headed by international conglomerates belong in the exclusive Haute Couture 'club'.

Elie Saab. Looks familiar? This is the gown Halle Berry wore when she won her Oscar in 2002 for Monster's Ball. Today Haute Couture houses receive much publicity by lending their garments to A-listers to wear on the red carpet.

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