The history of Haute Couture: the haute couture timeline
As the Spring 16 schedule wraps up, we get clued up about the lavish world of couture and take a look back at the haute couture timeline
Not only is haute couture steeped in history and nostalgia, it is also worth remembering that these collections are the only branch of fashion that work on a short time line, making clothes for the season they are showing in. For fashion fanatics, the couture week will offer the visual pleasure of looking up close at the artistic merit and imagination of fragile techniques juxtaposed against grand sweeping volumes. Modernised haute couture shows are not designed and made to be sold, they are displayed for show and credibility. Instead of being constructed for the purpose of selling and making money, they are made to further the publicity, as well as perception and understanding of brand image. For the fashion houses taking part in couture week, custom clothing is no longer the main source of income, as there are only an estimated 2,000 female customers globally, meaning it often costs much more than it earns through direct sales. It does however raise the profile of the brand and their ventures, together with adding the aura of fashion to their ready-to-wear clothing and related luxury products.
Most would assume that couture originated in France. It has the name ‘haute couture’, which is directly translated as ‘high dressmaking’. Collections are always showcased in Paris, and a set of tight rules are enforced by The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. However, the whole concept was introduced by an Englishman. Born in 1826, this man, Charles Frederick Worth, turned the female tradition of dressmaking into the male-dominated industry it is today. In the mid-1800s, when Worth began to sew, fashion was dominated by individual dressmakers who were always women. These ladies would create outfits according to whatever their wealthy clients demanded. At this stage, Worth worked in a textile shop and although he was met with opposition as this was a female led environment, he convinced his employers the he too could sew garments. He then designed a gown for Madame Metternich, an Austrian Princess and wife to the Ambassador to Paris, which she wore to a ball where the Empress Eugénie was present, who also loved the design. Shortly after, the House of Worth was established with Charles being the first to ever put his name on a tag inside a garment, as was the concept of the ‘fashion designer’. While he created one-of-a-kind designs to please some of his titled or wealthy customers, he is best known for preparing a portfolio of designs that were modelled at the House of Worth. Clients would select a design together with their specified fabric and colour, and a duplicate garment was tailor-made in the workshop. Worth combined individual tailoring with a standardisation more characteristic of the ready-to-wear clothing industry, which was also developing during this period, and his protégés included fashion legends Coco Chanel, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Christian Dior.
Women’s roles in the world of fashion would soon be reduced to mainly that of ‘petites mains’, which literally means small hands, and men were on their way to all but monopolising fashion. ‘Les petite mains’ refers to the collective 2,200 seamstresses who painstakingly bring haute couture creations to life. Working in the ateliers, these talented and patient women are often fiercely loyal to a fashion house, spending their whole career solely at one brand. The couture house is typically composed of two divisions, one devoted to dressmaking, ‘flou’, and the other to tailoring ‘tailleur’, all under the daily surveillance of the designer as well as in close connection with the vendeuses. Embellishments and accessories are added incrementally as applied decoration, often from sources outside the couture house. Only the finest materials by the most skilled artisans will do when it comes to Haute Couture. Thus, houses call upon Lemarié for feathers, Lesage for embroidery, Massaro for shoes, Desrues for ornamentation and buttons and Causse for gloves. Speciality is key. However, in regards to an unembellished garment, the modern couture house is a completely independent workroom of dedicated ateliers. Fit, both in its tailored form and in its dressmaking variant, is also inevitably part of the value of the couture. Altogether, this offering of distinction in design and technique remains a compelling force, and a discipline of ultimate imagination, unaccountable to cost. As New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it, the goal of couture is to create, ‘a paragon of the most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned’.
The fashion landscape shifted again after World War II, when on 12th February 1947, Christian Dior, aged 42, revolutionised fashion. Dior’s ‘New Look’ replaced wartime scrimping with breath taking opulence and unabashed femininity. He presented his first haute couture collection to the press in the salons of 30 Avenue Montaigne, strewn with flowers by Lachaume. He created unique silhouettes, new lengths, smaller waists and distinctive volumes. Just two years after the war had ended, Dior together with his new collection, definitively turned the page on restriction, rationing and uniforms and wrote a new chapter in history. For more than a century, couture has been emblematic of the triumph of costume and fashion. It represents the fusion of fashion and social needs with the arts of dressmaking, tailoring, and skilled crafts. Founded in the 19th century, haute couture was a necessity for high-class Parisians. It was the ultimate in power-dressing, and women went to couture houses to have bespoke clothing that would set them apart from the rest of the fashion set. The opulent ring of exclusivity still surrounds haute couture today. However, the main buyers are no longer French socialites, but customers from Russia, China and the Middle East. The social relevance of haute couture now has a greater claim on a reality that matters. It is an employer of thousands, not just the seamstresses and tailors who work at the couture houses, but the specialists too. This is just as worth applauding as the finale laps of each collection.
1858: English couturier, Charles Frederick Worth, coined the term ‘fashion designer’ as opposed to ‘tailor’ or ‘dressmaker’ for the first time, and established the first haute couture house in Paris, selling luxury fashion to elite women of the upper classes.
1868: To set the specifications to determine what constituted a ‘couture house’, Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was established as the industry’s first gatekeepers, and put a set of guidelines in place. Designers were required to ensure clothes were custom-made to fit the wearer and exclusive in design to each client. They were also expected to be made of the highest quality fabrics and materials and hand-made by expert artisans who specialised in one particular area.
1921: The French press created PAIS, which is the abbreviation of, L’Association de Protection des Industries Artistiques Saisonnieres. This was put in place to protect couture designs from being copied. To ensure the copyright of the designers, their creations were photographed on a model or mannequin from the front, back and side as evidence.
1945: Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture set stricter rules, which are still in place today, to determine whether or not a couture label could be deemed as such. Each maison had to ensure they followed tighter criteria than previously. This included the number of staff and the size of the collection. Each atelier must have at least 15 full-time staff and is required to present a collection of at least 35 pieces to the Parisian press twice a year, that encompasses both day and formal evening wear.
1947: France’s fashion industry was successfully revived from wartime austerity with Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection. Dubbed Corolle, after the botanical term for the frail petals in the centre of a flower, the collection featured a new-found glamour in the shape of tight waists, stiff petticoats and billowing skirts.
1966: The first ever couture boutique was established by pioneer Yves Saint Laurent when he launched Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. Other brands, including Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges, Ted Lapidus and Emanuel Ungaro soon followed.
1970: The number of couture houses dropped to just 19. Many designers attributed blame to the strict rules from Le Chambre Syndicale de La Haute Couture, but other important factors include the growth of cheaper, mass-produced fashion using synthetic materials and widespread recession. Thierry Mugler and Christian Lacroix both left the Chambre at this time.
1980s: The rise of Middle Eastern oil fortunes and the Western economies stimulated more demand for couture.
2004: Versace was forced to stop holding a show between 2004 and 2012 as a result of the recession making it unfeasible for the brand.
2012: Christian Dior brought the first haute couture show to Shanghai on 14th April. This was to mark the company’s devotion to its presence in the Chinese market.
2013: Rad Hourani debuted the first ever unisex couture collection, taking androgynous chic to the next level.
2014: Ralph & Russo joined as the first British brand in over 100 years of Couture Fashion Week. The Chambre Syndicale’s former president, Didier Grumbach was quoted as saying, ‘we expect savoir faire, which is being lost, and they Ralph & Russo have it’.
by Eliza Scarborough