The History of Haute Couture

Fashion | September 26, 2013

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Haute couture, also known as high fashion, is the creation of unique items of clothing, custom-fitted and made to order. The French term translates as ‘high sewing’, and refers to the extremely high standards of dressmaking required to make the intricate garments. The materials used are expensive and of the highest quality, and the garments are usually sewn and finished by hand. Fashion that is not custom-made is called ready-to-wear fashion, or pret-a-porter.

Origins

Haute couture has its roots in 17th century France. Luxurious silks and satins were made into one-off items for the wealthy. Later, the extravagant fashions worn at the royal court of Versailles were copied by wealthy women across Europe, with the most skilled dressmakers found in Paris. Women travelled to the French capital to have items tailored to fit their shape, in fabrics and colours of their choosing.

Charles Frederick Worth

Strangely enough, although haute couture is so linked to France, the ‘father of haute couture’ was an Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth. In 1850s Paris, he became the first fashion designer, producing a portfolio of several designs that were displayed on live models in front of his clients. Called fashion shows, these took place four times a year. Clients chose the garments they liked in whichever fabric or colour they preferred, and Worth would tailor the garment to their shape. The House of Worth became the first fashion house, and was immensely successful, making dresses for high society ladies from around the world, including the Empress Eugenie and Sarah Bernhardt.

Regulation of Haute Couture

Worth’s successful concept of the fashion designer as an artist, rather than just a craftsman, was widely adopted and copied. In order to maintain standards, a regulating commission was set up by Worth to protect the status of haute couture. A fashion house could only use the term in advertising if they followed a strict set of rules. These rules were slightly relaxed in 2001.

Haute Couture today

Some early fashion houses, such as Patou and Fortuny, are no longer in business, but many remain successful today, such as Lanvin and Chanel, both founded in 1909. There are currently 11 official members that qualify as haute couture fashion houses. Some other fashion houses are invited as ‘guests’ and can use the term ‘couture’, but not haute couture.

While expensive to produce, and often sold at a loss, the prestige and exclusivity of haute couture mean that it is still sought after, centuries after it first began.

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