We all have that annoying friend who’s getting married. Maybe we’re jealous, maybe we’re angry, maybe we’re just sick of the idea. But what’s really annoying is when she drags you to her fitting so you can see her squeeze into about 3,000 yards of off-white tulle, satin, bows and ribbons, all the while hearing her droll “Isn’t this GORGEOUS? And you know, it’s HAUTE COUTURE.”
Now, the constant misuse of this term is nothing to really get your knickers in a twist about, I know. After all, this country’s still murdering people and we have no fucking money, but as an unruly and angry person preoccupied with the glitter in life, I thought I’d take this time to shed a little light on the confusion.
More often than ever the term “haute couture” pervades department stores, small-scale boutiques and celebrities’ clothing lines, but the appropriation of the term does not make it anything special.
Haute Couture is actually a title legally protected by the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, an association of which is the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Basically what all that French means is the government of France is the only authority allowed to designate fashion houses with the title “Haute Couture,” and anyone else who does it is lying, cheating and stealing. Wikipedia maps out the specific rules a house must follow in order to qualify as Haute Couture:
Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings.
Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time.
Each season (twice a year, typically in January and July) present a collection to the Paris Press, comprising at least thirty-five runs/exits with outfits for both daytime wear and eveningwear.
Literally (according to Google Translate, anyway. Six years of French has failed me) the term means “high sewing” or “high dressmaking,” merely establishing it as an intensive process of design and construction, usually requiring meticulous handwork, the use of very expensive fabrics (even the lining) and intricate patterns and sewing techniques. So, instead of glass beads, black pearls will be used as embellishment. Or, instead of dyed chicken feathers, rare plumage from the endangered Glaucous Macaw will be sewn onto the hems of gowns. OK, maybe not, but you get the point.
Cost can range anywhere from the modest $16,000 to the ever-so-slightly more price of $100,000. This may seems extravagant, but it’s Haute Couture, darling. Besides, it can take over 400 hours to create one outfit, and the cost of materials is really staggering. And before your head explodes from the nauseating consumerism, keep in mind the haute couture business model is pretty unsustainable.
With so few clients (the numbers now don’t rise above 2,000 and only 200 are regulars) the houses barely make a profit on haute couture, relying instead on their prêt-à-porter (aka ready-to-wear) lines, bridge lines, accessories and cosmetics to keep the electricity on in the atelier.
As of 2011, these are the following houses that are designated as “Haute Couture” (guest members, Accessories houses and jewelry houses have been left off the list):
Correspondent Members (Foreign)
In that light, Haute Couture can be seen as a pure expression of aesthetic, meant to display the creativity and vision of a particular house rather than as some cash cow. Or, if you’re still cynical about it, couture shows can be seen as functioning as a rather extravagant advertising campaign, making even Jean Paul Gaultier cologne seem like an extension of the wondrous couture collections of the house. Either way, don’t get all upset over the display of wealth. So few customers even own couture, and most celebrities just get the gowns lent to them.
Interestingly enough, according to the Vancouver Sun, the biggest market for Haute Couture now is not Westerners. Patrons from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are becoming increasingly loyal to Haute Couture houses, particularly the Lebanese designer Elie Saab.
Now, since this post focused on contemporary Haute Couture and grossly neglected the rich history of the industry, I would implore you to check out the Victoria & Albert’s timeline of the Golden Age of Haute Couture or Harold Koda and Richard Martin’s book Haute Couture, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. That will give you background on the inception of Haute Couture, and how it has evolved into what it is today.
So, the next time your at a friend’s wedding dress fitting and she won’t stop bragging about her gown, politely tell her that you’re in a David’s Bridal in Secaucus, not Chanel’s Paris atelier, and her dress is in no way Haute Couture.
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