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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Haute Couture

For more than a century, couture has been emblematic of the triumph of costume and fashion. 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. Founded in the crucible of modernism’s invention in the middle years of the nineteenth century in Paris, with the expanded patronage cultivated by the House of Worth, but still dependent upon the considerable support of Empress Eugénie, couture has long stood as the modern equilibrium between the garment as exquisite aggregate and the burgeoning notions of fashion as a system.

The persistence of haute couture is as roundly questioned and doubted and debated as the survival of painting or the supposed death of Broadway. Some may have doubted that couture would survive its founder, the entrepreneurial Charles Frederick Worth. In the early years of the twentieth century, Paul Poiret took couture into an admittedly dangerous path of change, responding to Orientalist and social sirens, but even more to the beckoning of commerce and the use of couture as a generating engine for fashion and fragrance broadly disseminated. Ironically, couture flourished in the postwar period, beginning with the immense popular appeal of Christian Dior’s “New Look” in 1947. This supposed fashion novelty was so successful in part because it knew acutely its history and reconvened the finest skills to couture.

The couture house is customarily composed of two parts, one devoted to dressmaking (flou), the other devoted to tailoring (tailleur) of suits and coats. Skilled workers in each area practice the arts apposite to the area. Embellishments and accessories are added incrementally as applied decoration, often from sources outside the couture house. However, with regard to the unembellished garment, the modern couture house is a completely autonomous workroom of dedicated ateliers. In fact, surprisingly, in view of the elegant locations of most couture houses, the creation of the garments occurs in the maisons particulières of the house, thus under the daily surveillance of the designer as well as in intimate connection with the vendeuses. Depending upon the designer, the design process might begin either with sketches or with a muslin or toile, draped and cut. Fit, both in its tailored form and in its dressmaking variant, is inevitably part of the value of couture. A designer or trusted fitter will conduct the client through a series of fittings to determine the minute adjustments of the garment to the individual’s size and sense of comfort.

Couture’s offering of distinction in design and technique remains a compelling force, one even more potent when much other quality has atrophied. 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.