Evening dress, Chanel, 2011
If I could, I would support the haute couture, speaking of it here in its most narrow definition as the "creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is made to order for a specific customer, and it is usually made from high-quality, expensive fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques." Its literal translation is "high sewing."
In this narrow definition, today it involves only those few houses that are official, correspondent, and guest members of the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Haute couture in itself is not a road that leads to riches. The standards for hand sewing, materials, and design for those with the ability and interest to buy unique pieces of the finest clothing in the world are kept extremely high. For instance, as Karl Lagerfeld explains in describing to an interviewer in the BBC production,The Secret World of Haute Couture , the feathers for his designed evening gown composed of embroidery in the bodice and feathers in the skirt, are specially produced on a farm in South Africa. In short, all pains are taken to render an article of the highest possible quality and all the fabrics are created and treated specially. For his 2011 fall-winter collection, the designer Valentino, reported the September Vogue, showed a "magnificent coat of hammered gold brocade ... which had the brilliant texture, almost a relief effect, of a Russian icon's surface, clocking in at 750 hours' worth of embroidery."
Chanel embroidered gossamer, 2011.
Such "high sewing" could become a lost art. Twenty years ago, a haute couture designer would fashion up to 160 different pieces of clothing for a collection; today the number hovers around 40. In the years after World War II, Parisian haute couture kept 46,000 embroiderers, lacemakers, and hand seamstresses busy in subcontracting ateliers. Today that number has dwindled to 4,500. The money lies in ready-wear, which are duller shadows of the original dress.
Despising ready-wear as a form of prostitution, the French designer Alix Gres, for example, died in penury and obscurity in 1993, after creating clothes for such non pareils as Jacqueline Kennedy. Madame Gres, as she was called, was a sculptor who turned to dress design in the 1940s. Taking inspiration from the Greek and Roman statues of antiquity, she molded a dress from one, uncut piece of cloth directly on the model, through pinning tiny pleat after pleat--with exquisitely graceful results.
A gown of white silk jersey by Madame Gres, 1958
For sure there are plenty of designer clothes that I find incomprehensible or dislike. That said, haute couture repesents the pinnacle of excellence in turning a two-dimensional object--in this case, the cloth--into a three dimensional object, the finished article of clothing, in a way that expresses both the designer's and the owner's ideas and sensibilities. Those who collect haute couture regard their purchase as an investment in a work of art, in the same way that a wealthy person collects original paintings. I can only imagine that if haute couture succumbs, the quality of all of our clothes, including those in the sales bins at our favorite department store, will slip irrevocably downward.
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