In its earliest beginnings, clothing was purely functional as a way of keeping warm and protected from the elements. Over time, clothing has grown beyond that original function to also become a way of expressing one's personal style. This clearly evidenced in the rise of haute couture (pronounced oht koo TOOR. The term haute couture is French and literally means "high sewing," a somewhat obscure definition, considering what it truly represents. Haute couture refers to a specific elevated quality of garment construction. Couture garments are made to fit one wearer, which often entails alterations for particular body quirks such as a shoulder being lower than the other. Also, much of the sewing itself is done by hand with great attention paid to detail and craftsmanship of the individual elements. The fabrics used are of the highest quality and luxury. An evening gown can take hundreds of hours of work and cost upwards of $50,000. Obviously, these garments are within reach of only the ultra-wealthy.
One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art~ Oscar Wilde
Haute couture originated in Paris and to this day, Paris continues to be the center of the industry, although there are also couturier houses in London and Rome. The term haute couture is regulated by the Chambre syndicale de la Haute Couture and a design house can not label themselves as haute couture unless they fulfill specific requirements which today are: they must design made-to-order garments; employ at least 15 people in a workshop in Paris; and present two collections each year of at least 35 garments. These criteria are stringent and have relaxed over the years (previously, the garment requirement was 75 garments). Haute couture has waned over the last few decades and the number of houses has declined from a high of 53 in the early 1940s to the 11 currently included in the list today.
As mentioned above, the concept of haute couture originated in mid-19th century Paris and an English gentleman by the name of Charles Frederick Worth is considered to be the father of haute couture. Worth was born in England in October of 1825. As so frequently happens, genius is born out of tragedy and hardship. The last of five children, only the second to survive infancy, Worth was 11 years old when his father suffered a personal breakdown and deserted his wife and children. Worth had to leave his studies and take up employment to contribute to the financial affairs of the household. He spent his first year in a printshop, but was unhappy there. In April of 1838, he moved to London to apprentice at a men's drapery shop, learning the trade. He spent a number of years there expanding his knowledge of fabrics, especially silks. In the winter of 1845, he left London to ply his trade in Paris, even then the center of the fashion industry. His first several years were a struggle, to the extent that in his later years, he refused to even discuss them. After two years, he finally took a post at Gagelin, a silk mercer and worked there between 1847 and 1858 when he left to found his own dress-making shop with his partner Gustof Brogergh.
His entrance into a very much dominated female industry was the result of perseverance and marketing genius on the part of Worth in addition to his gift for creating beautiful, well fitting garments. In the mid-19th century, to have a dress made was a two-step process. First, a woman would purchase a length of fabric at a fabric retailer such as Gagelin and then have it delivered to a dress-maker to be made into a gown. Through a progression of events, Worth brought the two steps together so that he eventually sold fabric as well as designed and executed dresses, first at Gagelin and then later when he opened his own house. This created something of an uproar in Parisian society in 1860 because it was considered taboo for men to look upon a woman's body and the thought of a man doing fittings must have been horrifying. However, this objection notwithstanding, his artistic talent ultimately won him access into the highest levels of Parisian and European society where he became a favorite designer of Empress Eugenie and Princess Pauline von Metternich of Austria. He was so well regarded that he became dictatorial in the expression of fashion, daring even to tell royalty how to dress.
Worth appears to have been not only a dynamic garment designer and purveyor of style, but also a marketing genius. He understood the importance of gaining a benefactor and making his designs visible so he would often create new garments and send his wife, one of his former models at Gagelin, out in them for the express purpose of showcasing them. He was also quite experimental and influenced the development and evolution of design elements such as the crinoline and dress lines. He was somewhat obsessed with changing the waistline seam and eventually invented the princess line in 1875 which eliminates the waist seam entirely. Incidentally, he deliberately named this new construction style after Alexandra, the Princess of Wales. After his death in 1895, his two sons continued his work.
From its beginnings, haute couture has obviously changed over the centuries, but it is still about dressing the female form in an exquisite manner, with great attention paid to fit and style to create a unique garment that makes the wearer feel beautiful when it is worn.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to haute couture and its historic beginnings. I plan to write additional articles about couture techniques and hope you will visit again.