Haute Couture Fashion History
Costume and Fashion history would not be the same without
Haute Couture is a
French phrase for high fashion. Couture means dressmaking, sewing, or needlework
and haute means elegant or high, so the two combined imply excellent artistry
with the fashioning of garments. The purchase of a haute couture model garment
is at the top level of hand customised fashion design and clothing construction
made by a couture design house. A model haute couture garment is made
specifically for the wearer's measurements and body stance. The made to measure
exclusive clothes are virtually made by hand, carefully interlined, stay taped and fitted to perfection for each
Dependant on the Haute
Couture design house and the garment, the cost of a couture item runs from about
£10,000 for a simple blouse to £40,000 and often beyond that figure. A Chanel couture suit for
example in 2002 might have cost £20,000. By mid 2004 an evening
frock cost £50,000. If you are not rich it's hard
for an individual to understand why the price is so high, but it's for service,
workmanship, originality of a unique design and superb materials of the finest
In addition the client
would get a perfection of fit only achieved by painstaking methods of cutting
and fitting to the client's body. The manual labour needed to produce a garment
this way takes between 100-150 hours for a suit and up to 1000 hours for an
embellished evening dress. The evening dress might have thousands of hand sewn
beads probably done by the expert and famous Parisian embroidery and beading firm of
Lesage, founded in 1922 by Albert Lesage.
A couture house like Chanel for example will have about 150
regular clients who buy couture and a house like Dior will make about 20 couture
bridal gowns a year.
The fabrics available
to the couture house would be very luxurious and include the latest
novelty fabrics and expensive silks, fine wools, cashmeres, cottons,
linens, leather, suede, other skins or furs. In the case of a famous design
house the design and colour of a cloth, may be exclusively reserved for that
make accessories either by design or inspiration. Hats, trimmings, buttons,
belts, costume jewellery, shoes and innovative pieces are finely crafted to
complement the fabrics and fashion ideas being created. Superb craftsmanship, a
fresh idea and publicized internationally renowned names all command a price to
match. Those able to afford couture are happy to pay for exclusivity and the
privacy afforded by the system.
Designers create their
initial designs either by using muslin, which drapes well for flowing designs or
by using linen canvas or calico for more structured garments such as tailored
garments. These sample models are called toiles and save using very expensive
fabrics that can cost a £100 or more a metre. The toile can be
manipulated, marked and adjusted to fit a particular live model's measurements
until the designer and his sale staff are all satisfied.
The final toile of a
design idea is an accurate interpretation of the line or cut right down to the button placement
or hemline that the designer is seeking. Once satisfied the designer instructs
his staff to make up the garment in the selected and exclusive materials. One
seamstress or tailor will work on the garment from start to finish. The cutting
and finishing is done in one room and the workroom manageress is responsible for
everything produced in that room.
When a customer
decides to order a Haute Couture garment she needs to first make an appointment
with the design house prior to any visit to Paris. Model garments from
collections are sometimes out of the country being presented elsewhere. Some
couture houses provide a video of the collection to serious purchasers.
Once given an
appointment the client is looked after by a vendeuse, an important saleswoman
responsible for customers, their orders and supervision of their fittings.
The vendeuse gets
commission on the clothes of her own particular group of clients.
From the moment a client is received at the salon the client is
helped and humoured through all stages of fitting and sudden difficulties. A
difficulty could for example be another client from the same city who wants the
exact same design and colour garment for a prestigious function. The vendeuse smoothes
out such problems knowing full well what a disaster it could be for two women to
pay vast sums for an exclusive haute couture item only to bump into the acquaintance
at the same venue in the identical outfit.
Every ensemble ordered
is made to the requirements of each individual client. After choosing the model
she wants, a customer is measured and has to be prepared for 3 fittings,
a fitting and adjustments noted the garment is laid mis à plat. This means it's
laid flat on the table, taken to pieces, adjusted and put together again ready
for the next fitting.
The vendeuse holds
discussions between stockroom, embroiderers, furriers and client. Her final
inspection of a garment and her expectation of the highest standards ensures it's approved as couture and suitable to release to a client. Eventually the
garment fits like a glove highlighting the client's good figure points and
diminishing bad figure flaws.
work for their own label and sometimes they work for a famous Haute Couture
house. Very few couture model sales are
made in a year and these rarely total more than about 1500 sales for each house. This is not surprising when you learn that only about 3000 women or so worldwide
can actually afford to buy clothes at the highest level, and fewer than 300 buy
regularly. See Theories Of Fashion
Because of this, Haute
Couture actually runs at a loss. Design houses present expensive million pound
fashion shows of often dubious, but outrageously noticeable designs intermixed with exquisite
garments on supermodels. The couture house sells only a very limited percentage
of Haute Couture model garments to a contracting number of customers. The
profits from this activity are negligible, amounting to less than ten per cent
of gross profits of the couture name or even sometimes a loss.
You might then wonder
what the point of it all is for so low a percentage sale in relation to effort
and deadlines. The answer lies in the phrase 'selling a dream'. The fashion
shows attract huge media attention and gain enormous publicity for the couture
houses. They sell a dream of the intangible. A dream of chic cachet, of beauty, desirability
and exclusiveness that the ordinary person can buy into.
If a consumer can
afford the bottle of perfume, the scarf, the designer boutique
bag of the season, the couture named cosmetics or the ready to wear 'designer
label' products they convince themselves they are as exclusive as the 1000 women
and the supermodels who regularly wear Haute Couture model gowns.
It is fair to say that the goods are usually of very high
quality, so many people are happy to pay a price that they feel reflects the
image and standard. However if this is all way beyond your means and part of
fantasy land why not get one of the many online catalogues that feature clothes
for real people. Or try
The Body Shop Invent Your
Haute Couture is the
prestigious front for French creative fashion and original design. This ultimately
translates into the lesser priced, but still costly designer label known as Prêt-à-
Porter or ready to wear. In turn, the ready to wear and couture house beauty
industry employs a huge workforce for the many lower level sales of perfume and
accessories. This makes large profits for the couture design house through the
volume of mass market international sales.
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