Haute couture began in France, in Paris. It was started, surprising enough, by an Englishman from Bourne, Lincolnshire, England. Charles Frederick Worth (October 13, 1826-March 10, 1895) lived and worked in Paris, which, by the mid-nineteenth century, had become the mecca of fashion. French aristocrats patronized dressmakers and accessory-makers, and the demand for beautiful clothes in turn encouraged and fostered much innovation and creativity. French dressmakers, hat makers, lace- and shoe-makers and other artisans were very skilled at their work and soon it became a matter of prestige for stylish women around Europe to be dressed in clothes made by the very best - that is, made by the French. Initially clothes bought over from France were copied all around Europe by local dressmakers, but, with the coming of modern transportation modes, it became very easy to go over to Paris for your fittings. So that's what the rich women did. Sometimes they went to Paris just to order their clothes. The Baronness Bismarck ordered everything she wore from Balenciaga. It is said that when he retired, she went into a huff and sulked in her room for several days.
But to return to Charles Worth, he established the House of Worth in 1858 and began the practice of having live models display his exclusive designs to his rich and titled clients. His clients could then choose the dress model they liked and have the dress made according to their individual measurements as well as their personal taste in color and fabric. His clients loved this idea and soon other designers in Paris, like Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Dior, Patou, Lanvin, Fortuny, and Poiret began following in his steps.
Charles Worth, who was an exclusive sort of guy, founded an exclusive association of all the exclusive fashion houses in 1868. The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, as it was known, decided who could call themselves a haute couture house. You couldn't just set up a fashion house, start selling dresses and say they were haute couture. You had to be first approved by the exclusive coterie.
You had to meet the following criteria -
- Must make made-to-order, individually tailored clothes for private clients.
- Must have a workshop in Paris and must employ at least fifteen, full-time dressmakers.
- Must present two seasonal collections a year to the Paris Press, showing both daytime and evening clothes.
These days it is the French Government that makes up the rules. The rules were revised in 1948 and again in 1997 and still focus on maintaining exclusivity. Every year upcoming fashion houses make their applications and the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture at the Ministry of Industry reviews them and admits or rejects them.
To create a haute couture dress, the designer first makes sketches or may even build up a dress by draping or cutting a toile. A toile is a sample garment made from inexpensive fabrics. This is to avoid wasting or risking spoiling the final fabrics of cotton, linen, silk, cashmere, suede, leather, fur, and so on, which are usually very expensive and sometimes even exclusively created for the fashion house.
Once the toile has been made to the designer's standard, the final version of the dress is made - most of the time to the measurements of the house model, who will be modeling it for the clients. To order a Haute Couture dress, the client must make an appointment to visit the fashion house to view their designs. These days, designs can also be viewed online. After a design has been selected, there will be a discussion about colors and fabrics and accessories. The client will be asked to give two or more fittings. If it is a regular client, the fashion house will probably have a dummy of the client's measurements and many visits for fittings may not be required. The cutting and sewing is then undertaken, each step of it carefully supervised by an experienced manager. Dress embellishments and appliqués can be created by skilled in-house workers or by separate specialist designers.
A great deal of time is invested in making a haute couture dress special and unique and, of course, all this labor does not cheap. At 500,000 pounds and upwards per dress, Haute couture is a fad restricted strictly to the jet set.
There are currently only ten haute couture houses in Paris - Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Dior, Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Adeline Andre, Dominique Sirop, Givenchy, and Franck Sorbier. And three foreign ones - Giorgio Armani, Valentino, and Eli Saab.
It is not possible for these fashion houses to make much profit catering only to the rich clientèle, so custom clothing has now become just an aura-adding side thing. The main business of a haute couture house is its ready-to-wear line, its various lines of fashion accessories and luxury products, its chain of boutiques and its licensing agreements.