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Yves Saint Laurent in the studio in 1962 © Victor Soto
Yves Saint Laurent in the studio in 1962 © Victor Soto
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A Brief History Of Haute Couture In Paris

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 2 March 2017
Haute couture, which literally translates as ‘high dressmaking’, is the production of handmade, custom-fitted clothing using the finest materials. A single dress might take an expert sewer one thousand hours to make and cost the buyer ten or twenty times as many dollars. Though, in many cases, the work of art created is priceless. Paris is the home of haute couture – where the term is protected by law and its practitioners must meet a rigid set of criteria – and has been for 300 years.

Fashion as we know it today has its origins in the court of Louis XIV. So keen was he to see the Parisian look of his day take hold that he sent life-sized fashion dolls to every European Court. Foreign dressmakers could then study the clothes, footwear, hats and accessories, master their construction and replicate them for the local nobles. France’s dominance over all things chic continued throughout the 18th century and it is Jeanne-Marie Rose Bertin, fashion designer to Marie Antoinette, who is most often cited as the world’s first couturier. She dressed the queen from 1770 to her dethronement in 1792, and can be credited with inventing the notorious, gravity-defying pouf hairstyle.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette │© WikiImages ││ Marie Antoinette in a gold dress │© tpsdave
Portrait of Marie Antoinette │ | © WikiImages ││ Marie Antoinette in a gold dress │| tpsdave

However, it was Englishman Charles Frederick Worth who in the mid-19th century fashioned haute couture into the practise we know today. In addition to creating one-of-a-kind pieces for the wealthiest of his wealthy clients like Empress Eugénie, Worth prepared a portfolio of designs which he showed on live models at the House of Worth in Paris. Clients would then select one design, specify colors and fabrics, and have a duplicate outfit made-to-fit in Worth’s atelier.

Charles Frederick Worth │© Nadar ││ Worth dress │© St Edmundsbury Borough Council
Charles Frederick Worth │ | © Nadar ││ Worth dress │| St Edmundsbury Borough Council

By the beginning of the 20th century, the major fashion houses whose names have become synonymous with Paris and whose shops still line the city’s most stylish streets today had been established following this model: Lanvin, Chanel, and Dior. The workshops of these couture houses acted as training grounds for the next crop of high fashion designers who emerged in the 1960s.

Lanvin dress from 1910 │© .pintuck ││ Lanvins dresses from 1914 │© .pintuck
Lanvin dress from 1910 │ | © .pintuck ││ Lanvins dresses from 1914 │| .pintuck

Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro were among Paris’ most preeminent representatives in a rapidly globalized fashion world. By the end of the century, a few new players had entered the mix – Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Thierry Mugler – but the French capital was now very much just one stop on a high fashion pilgrimage rather than its singular site of worship.

The criteria governing which houses can advertise themselves as being creators of haute couture, first established in 1945, were updated in 1992. The Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris guidelines, regulated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, state that members must: design made-to-order clothing for private clients, with one or more fittings; have a Parisian atelier employing at least 15 members of full-time staff; employ at least 20 full-time technical staff in at least one atelier; and present to the public a collection of at least 50 original designs twice a year in January and July comprising both day and evening garments.

For the spring 2016 season, this elite club had only 13 members, including young designers like Alexandre Vauthier, Alexis Mabille, and Bouchra Jarrar. However, the fashion week calendar is boosted by numerous correspondent and guest members.

Nowadays, the primary sources of income for fashion houses are their ready-to-wear clothing, shoes and perfumes, and licensing ventures. The haute couture lines are less about business and more about creative vision and brand identity.

In three centuries, haute couture in Paris has gone from showing the world’s nobility how to dress to showing anyone who’s watching how to perceive a brand’s position within a multi-billion dollar marketplace through the medium of a single dress.