“Haute Couture should be fun, foolish and almost unwearable.”
Nowadays custom-fitted clothing of couture status produces not only in Paris but also in other fashion capitals such as New York, London, and Milan. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of haute couture, once started in Paris, still stays there with its colourful and vivacious history. Let’s look 117 years back and see what has happened to French haute couture since then.
The 1900-1910s – The King of Fashion
Paul Poiret (1879 – 1944), whose prosperity in couture fell on the first two decades of the 20th century, is considered to be “The King of Fashion” of his time. His Oriental-inspired vision of design has undoubtedly changed the direction of modern history of fashion. At the beginning of his couture-career, Poiret worked, by the way, for the House of Worth, where he was designing simple and practical dresses.
The 1920s – The modern era
The modern era of French fashion – period between the two World Wars – were years of change and reformation where Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel reigned. By then, fashion would become the country’s second largest export with thousands of employees. The couture, like the aristocratic canons, was an establishment for something like quality and style. The couture would sell a luxury image that made people feel that they were belonging to an elite.
Since French couture was in requisition, there was no need to industrialize any mass market for the French clothing, in contrast to the United States, where commercial apparel was flourishing with e.g. R. H. Macy in New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago.
The 1930s – Schiaparelli & Couture Houses
By the 1930s, when the Great Depression was taking its place in history, Elsa Schiaparelli with her “rare innovations” and Madeleine Vionnet – queen of the bias cut, were running the show. In 1939, there were seventy registered couture houses in Paris.
The post-war period by Dior
In 1947, the 42 year-old couturier Christian Dior left wide-shouldered wartime working jackets women used to wear behind and launched his prominent New Look with accentuated busts, tiny (or “wasp”) waists, and extravagantly swirling skirts, highlighting the feminine hourglass figure.
During the years of the World War II, dresses were typically made from just three meters of material, while one of Dior’s new evening dresses required no less than 25 meters of taffeta. Even today Dior’s famous “Bonbon” dress appears the etalon of modesty and restraint – Parisian elegance.
The 1950s – Givenchy and Sabrina
During 1950’s fashion borrowed from previous decade. Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy, and Pierre Balmain were the most outstanding Parisian couturiers of the time.
In 1953 Givenchy had just started his own line after working for Lucien Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli. Audrey Hepburn made an appointment at his Paris salon in order to ask the couturier to make her wardrobe for Sabrina (1954), where she would play the starring role. Hence, Sabrina Fairchild wore haute couture on the white screen and from now on Givenchy obtained a muse that until her death would inspire him.
Haute Couture meets the Mass Market
American retailers and manufacturers, with their sharp business acumen, got admission to the French showrooms, where fashion shows were held by paying a fee called a “caution”, or by ordering one or two couture dresses, often paying much higher price than private customers did. Thus, they went to Paris twice a year to get some fresh ideas for their own business of mass production.
Once during a fashion show in 1950s, Christian Dior dashed out of the backstage to seize one woman’s notebook full of sketches. However, such protectionism was not of much help, therefore the copyists could, right after a show at any fashion house, start sketching the collection from memory. Accordingly, couture design would enter the mass market.
The 1960s – Yves Saint Laurent & Ready-to-wear
In 1961 the French government stopped providing subsidies to couturiers who did not agree to use at least ninety percent French textiles in their collections. The labour costs were also rising day by day. Yves Saint Laurent was precipitously dismissed from Paris’s leading couture house, Christian Dior. It was the beginning of the designer’s brilliant career, when he granted tuxedos, transparent blouse (1970s), lace-up safari jackets and then some to the world. He gave haute couture a bourgeois shade by mixing the masculine and feminine, the classic and avant-garde and brought ready-to-wear to the Parisians.
Furthermore, the miniskirt was born in London, what radically changed the fashion tendencies – hat-and-glove standard was out of style. Shopping in boutiques would now replace the exclusivity of couture appointments. Karl Lagerfeld recalled, “The fashion of sexiness and youth didn’t come until the sixties with the miniskirt and Brigitte Bardot.”
The 1970s – YSL and the Middle East
The amount of couture houses decreased from 106 in 1946 to 19 by 1970. With ready-to-wear prevailing over haute couture in the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent was steal the leading figure of Parisian haute couture. Wealthy Middle Eastern women started buying couture, especially for weddings. In 1984 they presented only fifteen percent of the clients, but they bought more than half of the reported $24 million of garments sold by the twenty official Paris couturiers that year.
The 1980s – “Bridge”
In the early 1980s the German-born designer Karl Lagerfeld came to Chanel and started to remake Chanel’s tweed suits which soon became a status symbol for executive women. In 1987 Christian Lacroix opened his own haute couture house.
The sales of high fashion were, anyway, gradually stagnating, what forced American retailers to come up with a new marketing idea known as “bridge”. The term signifies collections that carried a designer label but were priced at least 30 percent less than the top designer lines, e.g. DKNY. The sales numbers of such collections were almost five times higher than the top designers’.
France adopted the idea but the result was “some bad fashion calls”.
The 1990s – Fashion business
The slogan of the 1990s sounded “The reason to be a designer is to sell. Fashion is not pure art. It is creativity with the goal of having as many customers as possible wearing the product.” [Bernard Arnault, chairman and Chief Executive Officer of LVMH since 1989] That was not about couture creations, was it? Furthermore, Alexander McQueen chocked the French establishment by telling Le Monde that handmade couture embroidery looked “like vomit”. Thus, ready-to-wear had come to take a prominent place in the fashion industry.
The 2000 – 2010s – Work of art
Nowadays, fashion houses gain very little profit from Haute Couture, if not to say they often lose money. Due to huge expenses and a tiny clientele (today about 4 000) the number of couture houses has decreased significantly. Nevertheless, French Haute Couture houses continue struggling against all the vicissitudes of the fashion industry, trying with solicitude to preserve the great cultural heritage for the future. As most of customers, who order couture today, consider such garments as long-term investments – like any collector’s art piece – there is a hope that haute couture will survive and continue to bring the beauty to the world.
Some of the privileged haute-couture-owners donate their pieces to the museums, what can become a good tax bargain, for instance in the USA. Apparently, according to the American legislation, haute couture garments could be considered art pieces, what might bring a donator of such garment – in case the donation is given to a qualifying museum – a federal tax deduction of up to 30 percent of their adjusted gross income. However, this is an interesting issue that could be a subject for an entire blog post, which might be out soon.