Couture is a word that is used extremely loosely today. The word seems to pop up everywhere, describing everything from sweatpants to footwear. Couture has entered the daily lexicon in a way that is much different than it’s original meaning. Last year, I explored this idea in an article I wrote for Type F:
Historically, haute couture was made to measure and hand sewn for each individual customer. This requires the customer to return for several fittings to perfect the fit of the gown. In France, the term “haute couture” is protected by law under the French Ministry of Industry. Any designers wanting to advertise their garments as haute couture must be members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Think of it as the couture police. The syndicate ensures each member designs made-to-order for private clients who must have at least one private fitting; has a workshop in Paris with a minimum of 15 full-time employees and presents seasonal collections in Paris that include at least 35 ensembles split between day wear and evening wear. In America, the term couture is not protected by any governing body. Many U.S. based companies use the term couture loosely to promote their brands.
Couture is commonly misused to describe garments because custom made clothing is a dying art. America was always a great producer of ready-to-wear. Ready-to-wear described garments that are mass produced in factories. Any alterations for individual fit are made after purchasing the garments in the store. This was really America’s specialty until World War II, since Paris held the monopoly on style. Many garment manufacturers and design houses simply attended the Paris fashion shows to make copies of the styles. During the war, news of Paris fashion dwindled and American designers were able to use their own creativity in garment construction.
The details in the construction are what separates couture from ready-to-wear. The extra effort and expense in crafting a custom made garment might not be readily scene. At first glance, you can discern something special about the garment. But it takes careful examination to notice all the care that goes into couture. I spend a lot of time marveling at the techniques employed by The Utah Tailoring Mills. The fabrics are of the utmost quality. Special darts give the garment a perfect fit. The seams are matched perfectly. Small seed pearls are sewn on by hand. Beautiful self belts terminate in small, weighted bell-shaped tassels.
And if you’re lucky enough to look, you’ll notice that the inside of the garment is as carefully and perfectly constructed as the outside. Details like this would be too costly to execute in ready-to-wear.
All images are from The Stieg Collection, courtesy of The Baum School of Art.