Haute Couture – The “Pouf” of French Gross National Product

“If you want to establish an international presence you can’t do so from New York. You need the consecration of Paris.”

Oscar De La Renta

When hearing the expression “Haute Couture” (pronounced OTE koo-TUR), you immediately think of France, and Paris in particular. There is no coincidence in that association, since the home country of couture is France.

Daphne Guiness in haute couture. Photo credit: Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for Barneys New York

Literally “haute couture” stands for high fashion and indicates high sewing, high dressmaking, high needlework constructed by hand (without the use of sewing machines and sergers/overlockers) from beginning to end. It also presupposes using of high quality, often unusual and lavish fabrics sewn by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming and hand-executed techniques. Generally, an haute-couture garment is especially tailored for a client with the measurements and body stance of the latter.

Rose Bertin, 1747-1813

The haute-couture fashion era started in October 1773, when Rose Bertin (1747 – 1813), an unmarried twenty-four-year-old woman from Picardy, set up a little shop exotically named Le Grand Mogol on Rue du Faubourg SaintHonoré in Paris. In the large shop windows she displayed her “one-of-a-kind ensembles, covered from neckline to hemline in luscious frippery”. However, her calling card to the French court was the innovate headdress called the pouf, that she invented. Soon, Rose was introduced to the Queen Marie Antoinette and eventually became her couturière, confidante and friend – “Minister of Fashion” as her detractors used to call her. The Queen’s mourning dress, after the execution of the Louis XVI, would also be tailored by Bertin.

Bertin’s creations became a great success and haute couture orders started to arrive from London, Sankt Petersburg, Vienna, Venice and Constantinople. Thus, France made its first step towards turning into a centre of the fashion industry.

Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895).

A half century later, in 1858, Napoleon III invited Charles Fredrick Worth (1825 – 1895), an innovative English dressmaker practising in Paris, to construct a new magnificent wardrobe for his wife, Empress Eugénie. Worth came to create all of Eugénie’s official court clothes. As a result, his label – for the first time in fashion history – bore the royal crest. Accordingly, Worth became known as the Parisian couturier. Furthermore, he also turned into the preferred dressmaker of the crowned heads of Austria, Italy, and Russia. Now, the couture industry seriously started stimulating growth in the French economy.

By the 1920s, fashion would become the second largest export in France, establishing a high gauge for quality and style around the world. However, the situation was about to change a few decades later but it would be a next story…

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