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What is Haute Couture?

Couture, or haute couture, is a much misunderstood and often misused term. It does not, in fact, mean "expensive", although it is, nor does it mean "designer", though true haute couture is made by a very limited number of fashion houses. Haute couture actually means "high sewing" in French, where it is more than just a casual phrase to be thrown about, but in fact is an official legal appellation. This is a peek into the fabulous world of the couture.

1898, Wedding Dress,House of Worth


The Paris fashion Show Is Born

It is widely accepted that the first couturier was Charles Worth, an Englishmen who created lavish ballgowns in mid-19th Century Paris. Worth was distinguished not only by his inimitably elaborate creations handcrafted from the finest silks and embellishments, but also for being the first dressmaker to become an influential fashion designer. What was unique about The House of Worth is that it was the first to create a collection of samples that were shown to clients on live models (previously dressmakers simply made each garment to the client's specifications, rather than creating their own portfolio), from which the women would choose a style to have custom made for her. Thus the Paris fashion show was born, along with the industry of haute couture.

Then Come "Knock Offs"

Wealthy women from Europe and indeed, from as far away as the United States, turned to Charles Worth when they were seeking a truly spectacular gown for a ball, wedding, or other occasion. Worth's fashions were also used as the basis for what today we might call "knock offs", though no one could truly recreate his opulent gowns. So important was his influence on the style of the time that dolls were sold modeling copies of his gowns for women to give to their local dressmakers to duplicate.


Edward,Duke of Windsor & Wallis-Wedding Attire


Early French fashion Houses

 Worth was the first in a long line of important French fashion houses (called ateliers). By the early 20th Century, wealthy women could have garments made by icons like Lanvin (established 1889), Chanel (established 1909), and Mainbocher (established 1929), who was best known for creating the pale blue dress that Wallis Warfield wore when she married the Duke of Windsor in 1937. Fashion became big business in Paris, and in 1929, Les Ecoles de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne was established to train the highly skilled seamstresses that were needed to create the one-of-a-kind couture garments.

Who earns the label "Haute Couture"?

Haute Couture is an official term in France, and not all fashion designers are granted the designation. In 1945, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture mandated specific guidelines to help determine which French firms would be eligible to carry the prestigious haute couture label. To be considered, the company had to maintain an atelier in Paris with a minimum of 15 full time employees (at the larger houses the staff can number well into the hundreds), design made-to-order garments that were custom-fit to the client, and present a showing of their collections at least twice a year to the Paris press (thus Fashion Week was born). In addition, the seasonal presentations needed to feature at least 35 outfits, including some daywear and some evening gowns.

The Haute Couture label is awarded judiciously with fewer than a dozen or so firms typically holding the designation at any given time. Some of the current household names in this exclusive club include Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Jean Paul Gaultier. Some famous names from the past are: Atelier Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, and Emilio Pucci. When the founder of a Haute Couture fashion atelier either retires, closes up shop, or passes away, the house may disappear along with him or her, or it may continue under a new chief designer. Among the best known examples of this transition would be the reign of Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano at Christian Dior. In the 1960s, designers like Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin who had gotten their start under legends like Dior and Balenciaga launched their own labels that were to become as famous as those of their mentors.




The Creation of a Haute Couture Garment

 The actual creation of an haute couture garment can take hundreds of hours with a price tag to match. The process begins with the designer's sketch of a dress, followed by the creation of a toile, which is a mock-up made in muslin. The fine fabrics used in couture are so costly (often custom milled and running into the hundreds of dollars per yard) that the toile is employed as a substitute to get the style and fit just right before the actual fabric is cut. From there, the client will attend additional fittings with the designer and his expert seamstresses until the finished garment fits to perfection. This is why those who can afford it will spend tens of thousands of dollars on a couture dress; there is no greater luxury than having a one-of-a-kind piece that was created to impeccably flatter your figure and to suit your style to a tee.

Christian Dior Requires Fairy Fingers

Beyond the luxury and impeccable service, it is the meticulous quality that sets haute couture apart. The sewing of each piece is done right in the Paris atelier of the designer, allowing for his or her exacting standards to be met. There are two divisions; the flou, or dressmaking side of the house, and the tailleur, where the suits and coats are stitched. A couture gown or suit is painstakingly sewn and finished, with the inside of each piece looking as beautifully crafted as the outside. Unlike in ready made fashion, each embellishment is carefully handsewn. Many couture pieces will feature intricate embroidery, thousands of pailettes or pearls, or even more exotic details like feather or fur trim. Legendary couturier Christian Dior once referred to his talented seamstresses as having "doights de fées", or fairy fingers.

Givenchy 2009 Wedding Gown-Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week


Wedding Gowns Are the Pinnacle of Design

When you realize the fastidious effort that goes into each individual piece, it becomes more clear why haute couture garments carry such an exorbitant price tag. Naturally, the more involved the garment, the higher the cost, with ballgowns and wedding gowns generally being the most elaborate and expensive. It is the bridal gowns, or robes des mariées, that are the pinnacle of a fashion designer's portfolio. During the Paris runway shows, it is customary for the last gown down the runway to be a wedding dress (and the more fantastical, the better). Usually the designer will come out and take a bow with the model who is dressed as the bride. The wedding gown is an opportunity for the design atelier to really pull out all of the stops in showcasing its most creative side as well as its technical virtuosity.

How can you Make Money With Only 3000 Customers ?

The reality is that the haute couture sales are not a fashion house's bread and butter. In fact, the couture collection often makes up a very small percentage of the designer's sales, often resulting in a loss for the company, despite the high price tags. It is estimated that there are presently under 3000 haute couture clients worldwide, with fewer than 1000 of them regulars. The designers create the haute couture collections not for income, but for prestige and publicity. Their most spectacular efforts are what help to form the desirable image of the fashion house that drive the sales of the prête-à-porter (ready to wear) collection as well as the accessories like shoes, bags, and fragrances.

Donald Trump & Melania Knauss


Could You Walk Wearing a Fifty Pound Bridal Gown ?

Landing the right couture client can yield invaluable publicity for a designer. For example, there is the Christian Dior Haute Couture gown worn by Melania Knauss for her 2005 marriage to Donald Trump, which was rumored to cost anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000. (Of course, if you think about it, at that price, her gown fell right within the 15% of the wedding budget that it is recommended that a bride allot for her bridal attire including bridal jewelry; it's just that not all brides have a $1 million wedding.) Not only was Dior's fantasy concoction of 300 feet of silk satin and 1500 sparkling crystals seen by the hundreds of celebrity guests and socialites in attendance, but the 50 pound bridal gown scored a spot on the front page of Vogue magazine. It is this kind of attention that makes the haute couture division a valuable commodity, even if it does not generate positive cash flow.

The Coco Chanel Style

Each member of the haute couture club has always had a distinctive style. Although few can afford one of their garments, couture or readymade, the top designer's concepts eventually trickle down to mainstream mass-manufactured fashion. Some of these designers have truly revolutionized the way that women dress. One of the most influential houses of all time is that of Coco Chanel. It was she who introduced the idea of sportswear and knits to women. She also liberated fashionable women from the restrictive garments of the late 19th Century, allowing them to move freely and take a deep breath for the first time without a tight corset confining their bodies.

End of World War II Helps Christian Dior New Look

Just as influential on mainstream fashion was Christian Dior, who was in many ways Coco Chanel's opposite. His fabled "New Look",which debuted in 1947, ushered in the ladylike wasp waist and full skirt that came to symbolize the 1950s (and with it the return of waist cinchers). The full skirts of Dior's "New Look" were made possible by the end of World War II, with its fabric rationing. Not only did Dior's style become the standard for an entire decade, but his fashions provided a boost to France's post-war economy; by 1949, the House of Dior accounted for 5% of France's export revenue all by itself. Who says that high fashion is merely frivolity?

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Couture is for Couturiers

It is not only the styles of the French haute couture ateliers that have been appropriated by the rest of the fashion industry, it is the term couture itself. While the designation "haute couture" is limited to a handful of companies, it is proper for other creators of top quality one-of-a-kind custom-fit dresses to use the word couture to describe themselves and their work. This would be the case for many of the other well-known fashion houses outside of France, such as those based in New York or Milan. It is also reasonable for an individual making such special garments to call herself a couturier, as long as the same standards for design, quality, and craftsmanship are upheld. 

Is This Couture?

Juicy Couture Tracksuit

Juicy Couture Tracksuit

Expensive is Not Necessarily Couture

What has occurred since the late 1980s, however, is companies tacking the word "couture" onto their names to signify luxury, even though their products meet none of the criteria for a couture garment. One of the most egregious examples of this is the brand Juicy Couture; mass-produced velour tracksuits simply cannot be couture, no matter how expensive they are. This abuse of the name couture is also very common in the bridal industry, where every other label calls itself couture, even if its dresses are factory-made out of the cheapest possible materials. It is unfortunate, because the watering down of the couture designation is very confusing to many consumers. Of course, the fashion designers themselves are not blameless in this; Pierre Cardin, for example, destroyed his label's exclusive cachet by over-licensing his name for all sorts of low end products.  

The Health Of Haute Couture Today

Despite these bumps in the road, haute couture carries on. Although the current economic climate may not be particularly hospitable for gowns priced in the six figures, the exclusivity and pure luxury of couture will always hold a special appeal for those who can afford it. The designers who recognize that haute couture and high fashion are the fantasy and dream, but that it is the prête-à-porter and accessories that pay the bills, have continued to thrive during the economic downturn. One only needs to witness the 11% increase in 2009 first quarter profits posted by the fashion and leather goods arm of Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which owns luxury brands Dior, Givenchy, and Louis Vuitton, among others. On the other hand, this spring has also seen the demise of fabled house Christian Lacroix, whose heavy reliance on its haute couture division has long been an unprofitable strategy. The lesson appears to be that haute couture is here to stay, as long as the designers reconcile their artistic vision with a smart business plan. And that is good news for fashionistas worldwide.  


torrilynn on March 02, 2013:


thanks for speaking of

HauteCoutoure and how it hasbeen

misused in fashion. thanks again.

voted up.

Mary Kelly Godley from Ireland on March 02, 2013:

A very good read. I didn't know the different distinctions of fashion before (the designer labels in my wardrobe are non-existent I am afraid unless one was found at the end of a very good sale) so it was interesting to read. I had always wondered how many woman could actually really afford high fashion too.

karen on November 24, 2012:

I find your article fascinating, I wish they'd make a documentary of the women who sew these gowns. I do not sew, but admire the technique and talent.its a lost art what were there lives like these women were the makers of such bueatiful gowns, dresses, hats, gloves, woen were so femine.

Anna from New York, NY on November 28, 2011:

Thanks for the hub, I really enjoyed reading it from the beginning to end!

Edoka Writes on January 12, 2011:

Love this hub; very informative.

Elsa on November 05, 2010:

Too good, very useful. Thankyou.

Seabastian (author) from Raleigh on September 04, 2009:

Thank you sbeakr.

One area of fascination for me(especially with more information on history of fashion and ideas in general) is how much things are recycled although with new twists. It seems that you could just go back and look at what was popular 40-70 years ago and reincarnate the idea to become the new sensation.

One example is the use of Swarovski crystals that was a splash at the oscars and some recent fashion shows but this was actually a trademark fashion twist made famous by Coco Chanel in the 1950s as mentioned in another hub.

sbeakr on September 03, 2009:

I was once a student of fashion design and history, and sustain a slightly obsessive interest in the evolution and artistic digressions of the subject. Your statistics and objective treatment are spot-on...great read!

Seabastian (author) from Raleigh on July 20, 2009:

Thanks Brian,

It is a fascinating subject worthy of much more discussion.An interesting sidelight is how many of the so called designer brands have been hurt by the economic downturn,a lot of it their fault.

They had over extended their marketing push during the good times causing discounting and then when the recession hit,no one including the very affluent wanted to pay designer prices.

Brian Stephens from Laroque des Alberes, France on July 19, 2009:

An interesting read, made even more so by the fact we live in France and my wife is a seamstress. We knew what the literal translation was and my wife is interested in fashion as well so enjoyed reading this hub.

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