Fashion 101: Haute Couture

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by Paige Schultz, Fashion Writer

Chanel_Haute_Couture_Fall-Winter_2011

“I don’t get fashion.”

Sigh. This common phrase will always break my heart.

Yet it naturally appears to be a sentiment echoed by many. Truthfully a lot people don’t get fashion; or, rather, they don’t get high fashion, otherwise known as couture. After all, the realm of runways, flashing lights and beautiful models is a place of luxury, unconventionality and bank-draining price tags. It’s a fantastical domain not meant for you and I. It’s a place for artistry, inspiration and innovation, not necessarily a place for the everyday and the ordinary.

Still, for the sake of fashion, it must be understood.

Christian Dior Spring 2013 Haute Couture 01

By definition the French term haute couture can be translated as high fashion, which refers to the creation of exclusive, high-quality, and jaw-droppingly expensive custom-fitted clothing.

However, the term haute couture has been misused by ready-to-wear brands since the late 1980s, obscuring its proper meaning with that of prêt-à-porter collections. These collections usually deliver a higher return on investment as opposed to custom creations, as they are not as expensive.  Yet houses that concentrate solely on creating ready-to-wear due to falling revenues from their couture divisions are not to be mistaken as haute couture, as they do not meet couture standards.

In France, these standards of haute couture are protected by law and defined by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris of Paris, France. This organization is responsible for determining which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses.

To earn the right to call itself a “couture house,” a designer must create clothing that is made-to-order, have a workshop that employs at least 15 people and 20 full-time technical people at a time, and they must present a collection to the Parisian press each season that contains a least 35 runs/exits with outfits for daytime and evening wear.

Designers that meet these requirements, originally established in 1945, include Chanel, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy, just to name a few.

Chanel Spring 2013 Haute Couture 01

Yet if couture is so inaccessible to those of us who reside in the everyday, then why do we bother educating ourselves about it?

We bother because couture influences the way everyone dresses around the world. Couture shows are like laboratories of design, where innovative ideas for fashion can be tested on living bodies. Though not all ideas make it past the runway, the ones that do inspire designers who then create their own collections, taking what we see on the runway to new levels through adaptation, modification and reproduction at all price levels.

Therefore the purpose of couture is to inspire the fashion that we live our lives in, which constitutes our closets, fills our favorite stores and is part of our culture.

Not everyone may get high fashion, but they certainly get a lot out of it. There is much to understand about fashion, but in a way couture is where it all begins.

Click through the gallery for more examples of couture from Chanel, Christian Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier, and stay tuned for lesson two next week!

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