The History and Significance of Haute Couture

France has long been the fashion capital of the western world. At the center of this dominance lies the beauty, detail, and innovation of haute couture.
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Today, fashion is a global phenomenon, with runway shows staged in dozens of cities around the world from New York to Shanghai. Yet despite the competition, many experts believe that Paris remains the most glamorous and competitive fashion capital. As I’ve been working on an upcoming major museum exhibition, Paris, Capital of Fashion, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes Paris special. Naturally, I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Ralph Toledano, chairman of La Fédération Française de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, the most important fashion organization in France.

“It’s something in the air.” In nineteenth and early twentieth-century newspapers, magazines, and books, commonplace explanations for the success of Paris fashion tended to be extremely vague or essentializing: “Parisians are, by nature, frivolous.” Foreigners often credited (or blamed) the “genius” (or “dictatorship”) of Parisian couturiers, who catered, as one writer opined, to “the fashionable courtesan class in the wicked city of Paris.” Since then, analyses have become more nuanced and structural, focusing on the long history of the fashion system in France and the importance of haute couture.

When Toledano first came to the Fédération in 2014, he described the organization’s mission as follows: “We aim to keep Paris the unrivaled capital of fashion.” When I met with him recently, I asked him to elaborate on the role haute couture plays and has played in making—and keeping—Paris the international capital of fashion. Quick as a flash came the answer: “It is the commitment to outstanding craftsmanship, innovation, and creativity.” He continued, noting that even before the birth of the haute couture in nineteenth-century Paris, fashion in France had evolved in a unique “environment, where institutions played an early role in French fashion history.” We can trace that history all the way back to the seventeenth century, during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Supposedly, Louis XIV’s minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, once quipped, “Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain.” Whether or not the story is apocryphal, Louis XIV did in fact make fashion central to government policy, turning fashion into a source of wealth and “soft power” for the French state. By promulgating laws to restrict imports of foreign textiles (to protect the silk industry in Lyon) and establishing institutions such as a new dressmakers guild, Louis XIV laid the foundations for the preeminence of Paris fashion. At the same time, the splendor of the royal court at Versailles drew on the skills of artisans and merchants of Paris.

Every spring and fall starting as early as 1675, the French press promoted the season’s new fashions, which foreigners eagerly adopted even as they complained about French fashion hegemony over Europe. Today’s French fashion institutions, like the Comité Colbert and the Fédération Française, have their origins in the Ancien Régime.

"Historically, Paris has been a magnet for creation in many fields, and fashion is no exception." -Ralph Toledano

Fast-forward to the nineteenth century, when “haute couture was born in France with Charles Frederick Worth,” explains Toledano. In 1845, the native of England moved to Paris, which was already regarded as the capital of feminine fashion. There, he transformed couture (literally “sewing”) from a small-scale craft into big business. Naturally, there were still many “little” dressmakers, but people like Worth created “grande” (big) couture, which came in time to be known as “haute” (high) couture.

Haute couture is a major feature of French cultural heritage,” declares Toledano. “Indeed, ‘hautecouture is unique to Paris.” The institutionalization of haute couture was central to its status, and Worth was a founding member of the first couture organization, ancestor to the Fédération. As Toledano tells it, “the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, des Confectionneurs et des Tailleurs pour Dame [Trade Association for Couture, Clothing Manufacturers and Tailors for Women] was founded in 1868. The couture section became the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in 1910 and later the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.”

The couture system survived World War I and the Great Depression, but the Occupation of Paris during the World War II nearly destroyed it. “In the post-War period,” Toledano explains, “the public authorities started implementing policies to support it. Haute couture gained at that time a legally protected status. The term ‘haute couture’ is legally protected according to rules set in 1945, and only a commission of professionals, appointed by the Ministry of Industry, is allowed to award (or withdraw) this label. Haute couture-labelled houses are officio members. Since 2001, some foreign houses (seven at the moment) are invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show on the Official Calendar as ‘corresponding members.’ Each season, a very limited number of selected ‘guests’ are also invited to participate in the calendar.”

The 1960s saw the rise of modern French ready to wear (prêt-à-porter) and the emergence of a new category: fashion designers (créateurs). “These linked forces with the couturiers, with the result that the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode was founded on October 8, 1973. That same day, the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode Masculine was born. The momentum generated by these three Chambres Syndicales led to the creation of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter, des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. On June 29, 2017, this became the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. Today, the Fédération is the governing body of the three Chambres Syndicales: Haute Couture, Women’s Fashion, and Men’s Fashion.”

"Haute Couture is a major feature of French cultural heritage" - Ralph Toledano
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Many of the world’s most talented ready-to-wear designers also choose to show their collections in Paris. I asked Toledano how the Federation decides which designers and brands will be allowed to show in Paris. “Historically, Paris has been a magnet for creation in many fields, and fashion is no exception to the rule,” he explained. “Paris Fashion Week attracts editors and buyers from around the world. For womenswear there are two stages to the selection process: One regards the schedule of Paris Fashion Week, and the other regards admission to the Fédération, which is selective—at the moment, there are approximately one hundred members, among whom are you find the most prominent brands on the global stage.”

Some critics have accused couture of serving only as a publicity machine, but Toledano insists that “haute couture is the essence of a house and the quintessence of luxury. It is a tremendous image builder, boosting prestige and enriching the brand as a whole. Haute couture is also a laboratory of ideas and aesthetics at the service of prêt-à-porter. Feather work, embroidery, lace making…Today craftsmanship is more creative than ever, as it is supported by the grandes maisons and combines with new technologies, such as laser cutting and 3D printing. The late Karl Lagerfeld’s collections for Chanel were perfect examples. Haute couture is also a real business, with increasing figures and profitable growth.”

Research shows that one of the key indicators of fashion city success is the presence of excellent fashion schools. “Our ambition is to make the best fashion school ever,” says Toledano, “to nurture tomorrow’s fashion talents.” L’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne was founded in 1927 to train couturiers and technicians. The Institut Français de la Mode was established in 1986 with an emphasis on fashion management. Recently, the two have merged. “The purpose is to bring together the excellence of their programs and to offer higher education training in fashion design, fashion management, and savoir-faire. Two new degree programs have also been added, a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts. The school offers a training center for apprentices, summer programs, and continuing education for companies and institutions, as well as an economic observatory and a specialized library. The school is located in la Cité de la Mode et du Design.”

The Cité de la Mode also presents exhibitions, as do the Palais Galliera: The Museum of Fashion of the City of Paris and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. I asked Toledano, “Why do you think so many people love to go to fashion exhibitions?” His replied with a quote from the French writer Stendhal, who said that novels are “like mirrors carried along a high road.” According to Toledano, “Fashion is the same; it says something about the era.”

Dr. Valerie Steele is Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at FIT, a division of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her exhibition, Paris, Capital of Fashion opens on September 6, 2019 and runs through January 4, 2020.


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