Fashion Basics: Deconstructing Haute Couture
Updated: Aug 28
By Kaylin Tran
Expensive, fashionable clothes produced by leading fashion houses.
The designing and making of haute couture clothing.
Noun: haute couture
"The champions of haute couture insist that it can be as visionary as any art form"
When it comes to haute couture, brands like Chanel, Dior, and Givenchy are amongst some of the most elite in the industry. Fashion—especially couture—is often perceived as frivolous, but it symbolizes a level of wealth and prestige that mainstream brands can never embody. These garments are not only a creative form of artistic expression for designers across the world, but represent significant cultural shifts in society that reflect upon historical events.
Maxime Simoens, artistic director of Azzaro, put it best in an interview with French fashion magazine L’Officiel, “Haute couture is the ultimate creative ground for a designer; the technical limits are pushed to the extreme thanks to the know-how and the French craftsmanship. It goes beyond the limits of industrialization and imposes an extreme, bold and unconventional vision.”
What is It?
Haute couture is French for “high dressmaking,” which refers to the skilled artisanship and creative artistry behind the making of each garment. Couture brands are notorious for their steep prices, but each piece is expensive for a reason.
Every bead, feather or pleat is sewn into a piece of fabric by hand to bring complex designs to life. According to Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who were co-creative directors of Valentino, their team spent anywhere from 400 to 1,000 hours working on each garment. Additionally, all couture brands work closely with their clients through multiple fittings to ensure a perfectly-tailored product.
“Couture are custom made/made-to-order clothing (as opposed to off-the-rack), beginning with the client choosing the design via the fashion show look books, an appointment is made, consultation, follows, a muslin/toile of the ordered garment is made, 3-5 fittings follow, and then a final fitting and/or delivery of the garment,” said former Project Runway contestant Nick Verreos to MadameNoire, an online magazine geared towards Black women.
The incredibly personalized aspect of couture differentiates it from mainstream fashion. Furthermore, the two address completely different areas regarding fashion. Department stores and boutiques sell practical clothing for everyday use, while couture designers have liberty to create unique pieces from one’s wildest imagination.
“For more than a century, couture has been emblematic of the triumph of costume and fashion,” as stated by Harold Koda and Richard Martin from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It represents the fusion of fashion—the modern entity that combines novelty and synergy with personal and social needs—and costume—the arts of dressmaking, tailoring, and crafts constituent to apparel and accessories.”
Charles Frederick Worth is considered to be the father of couture. The English designer rose to popularity in the Parisian world of fashion in the 1850s when his designs attracted the attention of Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. Worth created unique and luxurious dresses that were notorious for their custom fit for each client. As a result of his newfound success, he established the House of Worth, the first couture house of its kind in Paris.
The House of Worth paved the way for the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which was founded in 1868 by Worth’s son and successor, Gaston. This entity regulated which brands qualified as couture and preserved the elite status associated with it. It also became one of three associations that were founded in later years to encompass different aspects of fashion: haute couture, women’s fashion, and men’s fashion.
As a result of these groups, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode came into existence in 1973. The Fédération is the governing body of the French fashion industry that serves to express “a strategic, economic, technological, cultural, and even political vision of fashion and creation.” It oversees the couture industry in Paris by regulating designers through legal means.
What Makes Something Haute Couture?
As of 1945, haute couture became a legally protected term. Those who wish to be identified as couture designers must abide by the following specifications. There are currently 16 fashion houses who qualify as haute couture brands.
Design and create made-to-order garments for private clients through multiple fittings
Have an atelier—a workshop or studio—in Paris with at least 15 full-time staff members and 20 full-time technical workers
Present at least 50 original designs of day and evening looks to the public every January and July
Impact of Haute Couture
Couture has also had a larger impact on society as a whole. Paris was devastated after World War II. France and its citizens were physically, mentally, and economically struggling. Much of the country’s land was destroyed from the war and many people continued to rely on rations until 1949.
Christian Dior’s “New Look” collection in 1947 gave them the morale they needed to endure such difficult times. His creation of the “Bar suit” featured tightly-cinched waists and flaring hips, which emphasized a woman’s femininity.
“What he did was create a space of beauty,” said Stiletto editor-in-chief and fashion commentator, Laurence Benaïm, to the Washington Post. “He reinvented the taste of seduction. For me, it’s Christian Dior first, with his magic wand. He created a world.”
This jump started the Parisian fashion scene, giving it the movement it needed to reclaim its title as the fashion capital of the world.
Coco Chanel also used fashion to galvanize an entire population. She created simple and relaxed designs that prioritized practicality and versatility. Chanel popularized the little black dress and the Chanel suit, completely abandoning the restrictive styles of petticoats and corsets from earlier trends. Her brand not only revolutionized the fashion industry, but the feminist movement as a whole.
“She was shrewd, chic, and on the cutting edge,” said writer and editor Ingrid Sischy for Time Magazine. “The clothes she created changed the way women looked and how they looked at themselves.”
Chanel operated with the belief that “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” and her work effectively empowered women to challenge traditional beliefs.
The complex, exclusive, and free-form nature of couture serves to explore creative expression through the world of fashion. These personally curated garments represent a fantasy of luxury for the everyday consumer and manifest themselves into wearable pieces of art that hold more meaning than mainstream clothing.
“Couture’s offering of distinction in design and technique remains a compelling force, one even more potent when much other quality has atrophied,” wrote Koda and Martin. “It remains a discipline of ultimate imagination, unaccountable to cost, with the paradox of being the fashion most cognizant of its ideal clients. It is, as it began, a dream of quality in an era of industry and its succession. Haute couture persists in providing us with a paragon of the most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned and made in any time.”
Kaylin Tran is an editorial writer who focuses on social justice issues and communication strategies, especially within the entertainment industry. You can find her on Instagram.