The term haute couture is French for “high sewing” or “high dressmaking”. It refers to the creative process of designing and producing exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Made to order for a specific customer, it is usually cut from high-quality, expensive fabric. This is and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques.
Sounds French, but haute couture was invented by an Englishman
The term originated in the mid-nineteenth century and referred to the work of an Englishman Charles Frederick Worth. He was employed at several prosperous London drapery shops before moving to Paris in 1846. He was hired by Gagelin and Opigez, well-known Parisian drapers. While working in their shop, he married one of the firm’s models, Marie Vernet. Worth made a few simple dresses for his wife and customers started to ask for copies.
Worth urged his partners to expand into dressmaking, but they hesitated to risk their reputation in a business as low-class as dressmaking. Worth found a wealthy Swede who was willing to bankroll the venture and opened the dressmaking establishment of Worth and Bobergh in 1858.
Dressmaker to nobility
Worth was soon patronised by the French Empress Eugénie, and after that by many titled, rich, and otherwise notable women. Catherine Walters and Cora Pearl, the famous demimondaines, and Pauline von Metternich, an Austrian princess and musical patron, were Worth devotees, the infamous beauty Virginia Oldoini, Countess di Castiglione was often dressed by him. He also dressed actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and singers such as Nellie Melba. Many of his customers travelled to Paris from other countries, coming from as far away as New York and Boston.
The most iconic client of his was Elizabeth, Empress of Austria. Obsessed with her appearance she followed a strict and draconian diet and exercise regimen to maintain her 20-inch waistline, wasting away to near emaciation at times. Estranged from her husband, Emperor Franz Josef, she restlessly roamed Europe and was eventually stabbed by an anarchist in 1898. This occurred on the shore of Lake Geneva, directly opposite what is now Red Carnation’s Hotel d’Angleterre – you can see a statue marking the spot directly opposite the hotel’s Windows restaurant.
The father of the catwalk
Rather than let the customer dictate the design, as had previously been dressmaking practice, four times a year he displayed model dresses at fashion shows. His patronesses would pick a model, which would then be sewn in fabrics of their choice and tailored to their figure. Worth was sufficiently successful that he had to turn away customers. He completely revolutionised the business of dressmaking. He was the first of the couturiers, dressmakers considered artists rather than mere artisans.
Red tape is introduced
In France, the term haute couture is protected by law and is defined by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris based in Paris. Their rules state that only “those companies mentioned on the list drawn up each year by a commission domiciled at the Ministry for Industry are entitled to avail themselves” of the label haute couture. The criteria for haute couture were established in 1945 and updated in 1992. However, the term is also used loosely to describe all high-fashion custom-fitted clothing, whether it is produced in Paris or in other fashion capitals such as Milan, London, New York and Tokyo.
The sixties – all change
In the 1960s a group of young designers who had trained under men like Dior and Balenciaga left these established couture houses and opened their own establishments. The most successful of these young designers were Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges, Ted Lapidus, and Emanuel Ungaro. Japanese native and Paris-based Hanae Mori was also successful in establishing her own line.
The 1960s also featured a revolt against established fashion standards by mods, rockers, and hippies, as well as an increasing internationalization of the fashion scene. Rich women no longer felt that a Paris dress was necessarily better than one sewn elsewhere. So while Paris is still pre-eminent in this world, it is no longer the sole arbiter of fashion – hence the popularity of London Fashion Week.