A crash course in couture

*From the 2010 Dior show in the gardens of the Musee Rodin in Paris.

The Paris couture shows are underway, and Cathy Horn of the New York Times, as well as many other fashion-oriented media outlets, are reviewing the bejeweled, be-ribbioned, be-ruffled confections stomping down the runways. Couture is a small but revered part of the fashion industry, so I thought I’d provide a little history to put these incredible (and incredibly expensive) collections into context.

The term haute couture refers, almost literally, to high fashion. (Haute means high; couture refers to sewing, or the creation of women’s clothing). Only a few design houses in Paris are allowed to bear the title of “haute couture,” and in order to do so, they must meet a certain set of criteria laid by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (Syndical Chamber of Haute Couture in Paris), which is controlled by France’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The criteria, established in 1945 and revised in 1992, require a haute couture house to employ an atelier (workshop) of at least 15 people, and to present a collection each season with at least 35 looks comprising day and evening wear. The somewhat unofficial criteria involve the sheer number of man hours it takes to complete a garment, and the customization of clothing to suit the client’s preferences. Often, haute couture is shorthand for one-of-a-kind.

Today, there are ten houses that can officially boast the haute couture label: Chanel, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior, Adeline Andre, Frank Sorbier, Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dominique Sirop and Jean Louis Scherrer. The Chambre Syndicale has also granted membership to a few foreign fashion houses, including Giorgio Armani, Valentino and Elie Saab. Other houses are often invited to put on guest shows.

Haute couture, both as a term and a label affixed to certain fashion houses, originated in the 1840s-1850s with designer Charles Frederick Worth, who founded the label House of Worth. In 1939, there were seventy registered haute couture design houses in Paris, including Chanel, Balmain and Balenciaga (which are still going strong today, if not in couture). The craze for haute couture peaked in 1947 with the release of Dior’s “New Look” collection, which revolved around wasp waists and full skirts. Today, the economic recession has caused the number of couture houses to shrink, but fashion editors still flock to Paris for the shows twice a year.

The clothes are often fantastical, beautiful and absolutely unwearable. Though it’s fun to imagine myself looking like a giant flower in one of Dior’s ballgowns (above), there is no place or event to which I could reasonably wear such a dress. Or afford one. Though a tiny contingent of the world can afford to collect couture, the rest of us (well, at least I do) look at the collections both as art and as sartorial inspiration. I might not go run errands with a cellophane mask on my head and a dress resembling a giant peony, but perhaps I’ll don green tights and felt petals to be a flower for Halloween. Or just break out a skirt with flowers on it.

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