The Height of Haute

by @style

By Cara Eve Dunlop

“Haute Couture should be fun, foolish and almost unwearable” Christian Lacroix

There is one magazine I read religiously every week: The Sunday Times Style Magazine supplement, which comes with the, well, you know what newspaper. The articles are witty, influential and give a really honest opinion on approach to up and coming fashion designers and trends. And, to my relief, the supplement avoids the advertisements Vogue seems to think it is acceptable to bind and stuff the pages with. The Sunday Times Style Magazine is short, but very, very sweet. Last week Jade and I were talking about Christian Lacroix’s couture, and I would be lying if I said couture hasn’t been on my mind since. So, I was ecstatic when I pulled out The Sunday Times Style Magazine on Sunday to find a report by Colin McDowell, a first hand account of the Paris Couture Shows

I then remembered seeing a documentary on BBC4 last year about Haute Couture, and being completely blown away by some of the exquisite wardrobes of these aristocrats’ wives. I’ve tracked it down and it’s on YouTube, HERE. You will want to slap all the women in it, but watch it, the couture featured will take your breath away. I guarantee it.

 Haute Couture means ‘high dressmaking,’ and is a phrase which is protected by law in France. Defined by the ‘Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris’ based in France, the rules state that only ‘those companies mentioned on the list drawn up each year by a commission domiciled at the Ministry for Industry are entitled to avail themselves’ of the label haute couture. The criteria for haute couture were established in 1945 and updated in 1992:

• Houses must Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings

• Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time

• Each season present a collection to the Paris press, comprising at least thirty-five runs/exits with outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.

The Paris couture shows this season were at the beginning of February (see link above) There are ten official members of the Chambre, which include Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix and Givenchy. There are only four foreign members – Elie Saab, Giorgio Armani, Maison Martin Margiela and Valentino. There are only 17 Guest members and 4 accessory members. So you can see how protective over the ‘Haute Couture label’ and selective with members the Chambre are. There have also been twenty previous members, which include Yves Saint Laurent, Nina Ricci, Donatella Versace, Lanvin, Paco Rabanne, Pierre Balmain, Pierre Cardin and Emilio Pucci. Despite all being established designers, they clearly didn’t live up to the criteria set by the Chambre.

However, the best known British fashion journalist Suzy Menkes has previously said she was so inspired by the Nina Ricci Couture modelled during the first fashion show she watched that sparked her interest in high fashion. And look where that has lead Suzy – she’s an OBE, has written for some of the most prestigious magazines and newspapers and has one of the most dominant voices in the modern fashion world. And I look up to her because she’s made it in the most cynical businesses and is evidence you don’t have to 6 foot, skinny as a cigarette or unnaturally pretty to gain respect in this kind of world.

Of course, we have to take into account the Couture Capital of Paris, the city where the Chamber of Commerce and Industry is based and very much the fashion capital of the world. French leadership in European fashion dates back as far as the 18th century, when France was influential in terms of art, architecture, music and fashion; all being imitated across Europe. Dressmakers across the world would see the dresses brought back from France, and facsimile similar clothes using different fabrics. Real Parisian garments were seen to be the most exclusive in Europe, and wealthy women would travel to Paris as railroads and steamboats made travel easier.

Most people associate Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel as being the ‘Queen’ of couture. But it was a Brit – Charles Frederick Worth (13th October 1826 – 10th March 1895) who essentially established the idea of couture. He maintained that a dressmaker was more than a maker of dresses, but an artist, a designer: a fashion designer. He created one-of-a-kind designs with luxurious fabrics and complicated stitching, now worth thousands for the most wealthy and well known in Europe. His tailoring and characterisation of his clothes sent fashion forward, and look at the world it has become. Worth is the reason fashion houses such as the late Vionnet and Schiaparelli were created. Worth also influenced French fashion to branch out and become more revolutionary and daring.

The late House of Callot Soeurs, operated by the four Callot sisters drew inspiration and used lace with ribbon to create some of the most extraordinary pieces of lingerie and they were the first fashion house to use metallic lamé. Another designer who favoured Couture was Paul Poiret. A name that I think should be more known in the industry. He was the most revolutionary designer of the early 1900s – establishing his name in 1903 when he created – yes created, the controversial kimono coat. His instinct for marketing was unmatched by any other designer: he would throw lavish design parties and showcase his clothes in plays, expanding his house to include lines such as décor and furniture. He was also the first designer to have ‘a baby company’ (like Prada has MiuMiu) which specialised in perfume, so he was also the genius behind designers creating perfumes to match the clothes. Poiret was radical in getting women out of long skirts and tense corsets. His inventions including hobble skirts and harem trousers, and he was the designer who favoured simplicity whilst designers of the time would go out their way to make designs as complicated as possible. It was said that Poiret designs ‘represented a pivotal moment in the emergence of modernism’ and that he single handedly changed the direction of fashion history.

Of course, the innovation of The House of Chanel drew all attention away from design houses which were only gradually progressing with revolutionary fashions. After World War I many designers found themselves losing customers and becoming bankrupt. But like everything in fashion, The House of Poiret became unfashionable, and it closed under debt and lack of support in 1929. If it weren’t for his revolutionary stance on fashion the name Poiret would have been forgotten when he died. People that could afford to buy handmade pieces were turning to the bigger fashion houses and as ‘Haute Couture’ was establishing itself as being synonymous with fashion and more exclusive with designers such as Gabrielle Chanel and Christian Dior people lost interest in spending money on less-well-known designers. Coco Chanel created a company which defines the phrase Couture. She wasn’t an obvious feminist, but she, unaware to this, completely changed the way women were perceived in the ‘gentleman’s world’ of the time.’ Every time I see anything by Chanel, I for lack of words, lust over it. I really am completely obsessed, I just about fainted when I found a replica No. 5 Parfum’ necklace in the Barras and managed to steal it for £5. The signature fragrance No. 5 was created after a fortune teller told Coco Chanel that her lucky number was five. It was released on the fifth day of the fifth month of the year, May 5th 1921 and everyone must have heard the famous Marilyn Monroe quote: ‘What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course!’

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was the only person in the fashion field to be named on TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century and it is true that she was one of the people to make fashion as liberal as it is today. Emphasis on ‘one off.’ As much as I adore Chanel’s genius I feel that she holds the reputation for being the only reason us girls don’t walk about in stiff corsets and long skirts and not enough people pay attention to all the other revolutionary things she achieved in her lifetime.

Anyone who is anyone in the world of fashion (and out of it) knows her name: Gabrielle Coco Chanel, who to me, has the most fascinating life story ever. Karl Lagerfeld now carries on the Chanel legacy of unmitigated perfection and avant-garde Haute Couture. The iconic double C logo is the most well known in the world of fashion, decorated on the distinctive quilted bags no women in her right mind would say no to. Coco’s life too was mysterious and her personal history as interesting as that of the Chanel Empire. She was secretive – she lived in the Ritz Hotel in Paris for over 30 years, interesting – she was once arrested and charged by the Gestapo under the charge that she may be a British spy, but avoided trial because the British Royal Family got involved, she was seductive – she had so many admirers and affairs with influential men of the time. Yet she ironically never married. When asked why she declined an engagement with the Duke of Westminster, she said: ‘There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.’

She came from nothing and grew up in an orphanage, where she first learned to sew. At one point she tried to be a cabaret singer. She only started millinery as a hobby until she realised it was something she had a natural talent for. When her birth was recorded no-one knew how to spell Chanel so the mayor improvised and recorded it with an ‘s,’ making it Chasnel. This misspelling made the tracing of her roots almost impossible for biographers when Chanel later rose to prominence. She would concoct lies about her history to diminish the stigma that poverty, orphanhood and illegitimacy bestowed upon unfortunates in nineteenth-century France but she’s proof that you can come from nothing and achieve great things.

There’s something secretive too about Chanel; it’s so exclusive. It’s almost impossible for other designers to do a tweed suit without someone comparing it to a Chanel one. There’s a stitch Coco Chanel used on her tweed jackets, which up until a couple of years ago was only known by the one women that figured it out, and it was kept a secret until the women was nearly dying and agreed to show a selective audience how to, so the stitch would live on. The name screams elegance and forward-thinking fashion. It’s no wonder Chanel is the leading house in Haute Couture.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London held an exhibition at the end of 2007 titled ‘The Golden Age of Couture’ which focused mainly on couture pieces from the late forties to late fifties which is still documented online HERE. Look at some of the incredible pictures, the dresses are unbelievable.

The 1960s featured a revolt against established fashion standards by mods, rockers, and hippies. There was also an increasing internationalization of the fashion scene. Jet travel created this elite 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. Milan, New York, London and Tokyo are arguably the main cities which are associated with fashion design, all with their own individual fashion weeks and leading designers.

Haute Couture has become a phrase which is not exclusive to only French designers as it once was, but has branched out incorporating American, British and Italian designers who all compete to be the world’s leading couture designer. So what is next for the world of Haute Couture? New designers are emerging every month with innovative collections. Handmade pieces are becoming popular again. The high street is filled with celeb-inspired and modern takes on traditional pieces. The recent Paris couture shows saw an absence of black, and was described as a ‘Couture Revolution’ – even Karl Lagerfeld wore a grey suit which is something he has never done before at an event as prestigious as Paris couture.

It is safe to say Haute Couture is as popular now, if not more than ever. Dresses range between £20,000 and £200,000 and it’s a market where there is so much room to expand and grow in. According to the Times article above, most of the sales are in the Middle East and Russia, but there is an interest coming from China which ‘opens up potential in a huge market.’ The pieces are so unique, some breathtaking and draw up inspiration from past pieces and nu-mod. At Paris couture futuristic Versace Privé and graceful Chanel took over the catwalks, while millinery went crazy at Jean Paul Gaultier. Dior took inspiration from vintage 50s ball gowns, gloves, riding jackets and, naturally, fur.

These kind of vintage-inspired pieces are a great way to encourage more people to ‘go vintage’ – to recycle and own your own little bit of fashion history, and who knows! You could pick up something totally unique which was, perhaps once worn by one of ladies who herself dressed in wonderful Couture. I know myself that I can’t wait for next season’s new Couture fashion show, but I’ll always favour true vintage things and for just now, Credit-Crunch-Couture – it’s ALMOST as good as the real thing.


Couture by the original couturier, Charles Worth

Givenchy couture

Paul Poiret


Beautiful work by Vionnet

Christian Lacroix couture

More Dior!


Chanel couture


Here are some videos of our very favourite ever couture shows:

We alll cried at the Lacroix