Haute Couture

Haute couture [oht koo-toor] (French for ‘high sewing’ or ‘high dressmaking’) refers to the creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is made to order for a specific customer, and it is usually made from high-quality, expensive fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques.

It originally referred to Englishman Charles Frederick Worth’s work, produced in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. In modern France, haute couture is a ‘protected name’ that can be used only by firms that meet certain well-defined standards. However, the term is also used loosely to describe all high-fashion custom-fitted clothing, whether it is produced in Paris or in other fashion capitals such as Milan, London, New York and Tokyo.

French leadership in European fashion may date from the 18th century, when the art, architecture, music, and fashions of the French court at Versailles were imitated across Europe. As railroads and steamships made European travel easier, it was increasingly common for wealthy women to travel to Paris to shop for clothing and accessories. French fitters and dressmakers were commonly thought to be the best in Europe, and real Parisian garments were considered better than local imitations.

The couturier Charles Frederick Worth is widely considered the father of haute couture as it is known today. Revolutionizing how dressmaking had been previously perceived, Worth made it so the dressmaker became the artist of garnishment: a fashion designer. While he created one-of-a-kind designs to please some of his titled or wealthy customers, he is best known for preparing a portfolio of designs that were shown on live models at the House of Worth.

Custom clothing is no longer the main source of income for fashion labels, often costing much more than it earns through direct sales; it only adds the aura of fashion to their ventures in ready-to-wear clothing and related luxury products such as shoes and perfumes, and licensing ventures that earn greater returns for the company.

The 1960s also featured a revolt against established fashion standards by mods, rockers, and hippies, as well as an increasing internationalization of the fashion scene. Jet travel had spawned a jet set that partied—and shopped—just as happily in New York as in Paris. Rich women no longer felt that a Paris dress was necessarily better than one sewn elsewhere. While Paris is still pre-eminent in the fashion world, it is no longer the sole arbiter of fashion.

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