The Worth of Couture

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Now the couture shows have ended for another season. And my semester classes, brim full of enthusiastic new fashion students eager to launch themselves, have begun. The intersection of these two seemingly unrelated events provides me with the perfect junction to set up my soap box. A sort of Speakers’ Corner like in Hyde Park. I promise not to use profanity or to incite riot so no police on horseback needed. Unless sarcasm sets you off.

Listen to me, students––and not only students, some industry veterans need to coil their ears around this as well. Enough with the mistreatment of the word “couture”. Enough. It is a cherished word, infused with Gallic pomp, to be whispered in high ceilinged salons while wearing a sophisticated hairstyle involving lots of pins and a veil, not hollered, Ka-two-wah, over a can of Coke, with the peak of a baseball cap shading your eyes. Snobby, me? Just trying to redress the balance. 

Haute Couture: a term that describes a tradition of “high sewing” originating from the Parisian ateliers first ascribed to the designer, Charles Frederick Worth, in the mid nineteenth century, refers to custom made, custom fit garments using the most exquisite materials and of such superior  craftsmanship that the skilled individuals who create, bead and embellish these pieces of artistry are reduced to the title Petites Mains (Little Hands).

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Students, I have seen your sewing. And you, industry veterans, don’t look so superior, I’ve seen yours too. Less said, soonest mended, but suffice to say, we have some way to go before those hands will be described as little. If your days are spent grimacing before a sewing machine, engaged in a sweaty tug of war with those feed dogs (been there, done that, wrote the book!) that automatically excludes you from the ranks of great couturiers like Galliano, Lacroix, and Gaultier.

All of the sewing in haute couture is done by hand with immaculate precision. At your level of study most of you struggle to set in a sleeve correctly. Couture dresses cost $20,000. You routinely work with fabric that costs $10 a yard. I can’t get you to visit Barney’s; don’t talk to me about Armani Privé.

Pierre Balmain fitting a client

Pierre Balmain fitting a client

Students, never, in a bout of confidence, be tempted to put the word couture on your business card either. Please.

Lose this obsession you have with gowns. There are some steps to be made before you will dress Beyoncé for the Met Ball. Ready to wear is where it’s at. You will begin your career doing flat sketches and tech packs for Chinese production and that’s fine. Take my advice: perfect the jacket. Study lapels, closures, shoulder lines, construction. You will work your way up from tech packs, if you are lucky, maybe to some catwalk experiences. But you won’t work your way up to couture.

Here is the origin of the word’s demise; the Ground Zero, if you like:293.juicycouture.tracksuit.lc.112508How ironic that a range of pastel colored velour sweats ubiquitously worn with Uggs by celebrities traveling through airports rendering every wearer the same came to be associated with glamour. The best I can say is I’ve no doubt they were comfortable. And it was a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek name choice: Juicy Couture. But little did we know it would take us to a place from which we would struggle to recover. “Couture” is bandied about now with the same pragmatism as “spreadsheet” and “Pre-Spring drop”.

Just a reminder––yes, I believe it needs saying: There is no velour in the world of haute couture, comfort is not a priority and you don’t tend to spend $20 000 to look the same as everyone else.

This past season saw the first woman, Bouchra Jarrar, earn the title “Couturier” in thirty years. You’re as likely to win an Oscar, kids. But, now with Chanel’s couture sneakers, I foresee the confusion will continue:

paris-fashion-chanelTo diminish the word “couture” in this way is to say Michelangelo liked to doodle, Mozart composed ditties, and Le Corbusier was a brickie by trade.

So for all of us not swathed in Swarovski and feathers, wafting froths of tulle, sporting shoulders of operatic dimensions, and headdresses fit for exotic princesses, we can still enjoy haute couture’s great artistry. Here, accompanied by the words of Yeats, are some beautiful moments from the Godfather of Couture, Charles Worth, along with looks from Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli, Christian Lacroix, Christian Dior, and last week’s most stunning, Valentino…

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

                                                                     WB Yeats

fishtail dress1879-worth-wedding-dress-smalljpg-0021702fd29c9b38Sketch 2 Tracey 6Sketch 2 Tracey 7Sketch 2 Tracey 5Sketch 2 Tracey 4Sketch 2 Tracey 2Sketch 2 TraceySketch 2 Tracey 1Sketch 2 Tracey 8Sketch 2 Tracey 9Sketch 2 Tracey 3Sketch 2 Tracey 10Sketch 2 Tracey 11765_dior_haute_couture_2007_parchristian-lacroix-paris-couture-weekblog_christian_lacroix_haute_couture_fall_2009gallery_big_Valentino_Couture_Spring_2014_Look_(7)VALENTINO-Couture-Spring-2014-fashiondailymag-sel-3tumblr_m1raibr1On1qj10b5o1_1280172565140_10-419x629218My novel set in the international fashion industry is available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.

31 comments

  1. Ah, Jackie, exquisite!

  2. Sass_parella

    LOVE this post, will post it for my students to read!

  3. petermcl2013

    You tell ’em!!

  4. Thank you so very much for this excellent, no-nonsense explanation of the word “couture”…
    it’s such a ‘great’ word; one that deserves honour, respect, and today–much needed clarification…
    your post has done all this brilliantly!
    You’ve directed the misguided and lofty ideals of many back to a clear and concise “reality”…
    for it seems “reality” is something that today’s world can often dismiss, diminish or even disgrace…
    and in doing so water down or even mock the talents, skills, artistries and worth of the Masters of our world.
    Thank you again for this poignant reminder of “The Worth of Couture”~

    PS I absolutely adore your words, “To diminish the word “couture” is to say,”Michelangelo liked to doodle, Mozart composed ditties, and Le Corbusier was a brickie by trade…”
    truer words could not be said and will most definitely be quoting you via a few tweets 😉

    • Thank you for your lovely response. I see you are a woman after my own heart, a kindred spirit who suffers by this lack of elegance. We will seek to put things right in our own little way! Have a lovely weekend

  5. Oh that needed to be said! Thank you! Gorgeous images too. How I miss Galliano and McQueen….

    • It really isn’t the same without them, is it? I feel lucky to have been going through the fashion education system while their trail of fire was still blazing up ahead. Students now don’t have those living idols bringing romance and fantasy and magic to fashion and I think that’s sad. There are some great designers but those two were special and linked to a time that is now passed.

  6. I agree with you 100%! Those images (minus JC) are just amazing. We may never see that level of opulence in our time. Still, the art has to be separated from the “stuff”. X

    • I knew you’d feel the same. When you create your own beautiful pieces as you do, it is not hard to appreciate the importance of recognizing the precious nature of the ‘couture’ title. xo

  7. As long as there are voices like yours Jackie, and women couturieres of Bouchra Jarrar’s calibre, there’s still hope in the world; I can see light far ahead! (or I’m just beduzzled by these gorgeous pics of yours)…

  8. Jackie! It came! “Silk for the Feed Dogs” was in the mailbox when I got home from work last night. Cannot wait to read. P.S. Love how it feels in my hands. Some books just fit in your hands, you know? Cheers and happy weekend.

    • Cinthia, your little beauty has arrived also. I am 60 pages from the end of Donna Tartt and then the spotlight is on Dolls. I think I will be writing a blog about how annoyed the Donna Tarrt tome has made me! Can’t wait to finish and start yours! Happy weekend to you too.

  9. As a writer you are qualified to address the correct use of language. As a designer you are qualified to speak on the correct application of industry terminology. This article deserves a wider audience. Go figure that out. Well done.

    • Should I perhaps write a book, Mike, maybe…combining the two elements…just a thought..? %-D Thank you, Mike, for the ever-kind words. Happy Superbowl Sunday to you–if that is indeed your idea of a fun Sunday evening, or if you are like me, Happy Downton Abbey which I will enjoy with chips and salsa all the same 🙂

  10. ahhhhh. and then AAAAIIIIEEEE!!! Clothes that make me dream and dream like a Courbet landscape or a beautiful portrait by Sergeant. It makes me weep to see such technique and talent but I can’t even imagine having the audacity of wear such a work of art. I’d spill mustard on it. I know I would. Hence the shriek.
    Thank you for claiming back the word ‘couture’. Much appreciated.
    Go Sea Hawks…

    • Oh I’d have the audacity, Laura, let’s be clear. I say bring it and watch my audacity, see how it preens! Happy Superbowl to you–from the creature who will be watching Downton Abbey but enjoying chips and salsa so she doesn’t feel completely left out. Lady Mary says “May your Sea Hawks kick some arse!”

      • And Lady Mary was right. They did. Big parade coming to town. First win in franchise history and I was here! Lot’s of fireworks from the bay, took the dogs for a walk and congratulatory beer at the Treehouse. Such a lovely feeling!

  11. Pingback: The Couture Game | Campari and Sofa

  12. This is a truly exquisite Haute Couture post !

  13. lois

    poiret schiaparelli,vionnet as well,they never really do haute couture.simply at that time ready to wear did not exist,and clients did fitting for the clothes ,but they did use both hand and wachine for sewings.singer machine exist from mid 1800.schiaparelli was famous for the zip….haute couture as we intend it now is where no machine is allowed,everything is made by hand.poiret,chanel,schiaparelli all have used machine sewing in those dress.it’s just after the war that haute couture really develop as we know it now,and is really after the born of ready to wear that couture really develop the difference.last things….in one pic of poiret,what is show ia a dress for one of the many party he made for enterteing his friends,it’s not an haute couture dress.

    • I appreciate your attention to detail. I used the Poiret, Vionnet images and the Schiaparelli embellishment image as precursors to the modern day incarnation of haute couture. I wanted to illustrate how somewhere along the way between the House of Worth and the other greats of the early twentieth century and now, in early twenty first century, the meaning of the word couture has been bastardized. Chanel began as a sportswear house but she was registered as a couturière in 1919. The modern day haute couture began in the 1980s i think when the luxury of entirely hand made became the norm… Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts!

  14. lois

    you are welcome,what we share is a sadness for the lack of quality of “modern times”.love ur writing

  15. Lois, I sensed a kindred spirit. Thanks for reading me.

  16. Hung Tran

    Great post! I’ve also been meaning to write a post about haute couture, its history, its motivations, etc. I’m just curious: do you know how a guest member receives full couture appellation? How long do they have to be presenting in Paris before they’re eligible? And how does the Chambre Syndicale go about deeming who’s worthy? It’s something I’ve always been interested in but I haven’t been able to find the info online.

  17. Hi Hung, I know that the process of earning the couture title is based on scrutiny by a voting panel of establishment figures. I don’t think it’s widely known who the individuals are that make up The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. It examines your business, clientele, the craft of your clothing, how it is created, among other elements and, if the standards are worthy, elects you as a member. In the case of Bouchra Jarrar, she had been quietly building a clientele for some time before being granted her title. There is a book called “Paris Haute Couture” by Anne Zazzo and Olivier Sillard that you would probably find very interesting.

  18. What a gorgeous article dear! Love your blog!
    Lena
    http://www.skinnycature.wordpress.com

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