According to Miranda Priestly, the infamous editor in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the lumpy blue sweater worn by protagonist Andy Sachs is much more than a lumpy blue sweater from any basic department store. In reality, the seemingly inconspicuous knit would not even exist if Oscar de la Renta didn’t design a collection of cerulean gowns back in 2002, nor would it be possible if Yves Saint Laurent didn’t show the color in military jackets soon after, or if eight other designers didn’t soon follow suit.
Similarly, while ready-to-wear garments from designers are often what we see worn out and about, the creativity within the craft is no doubt the most visible in its haute couture counterparts — take for example Viktor & Rolf’s upside-down Cinderella-esque ball gowns or Schiaparelli’s floor-length dress emblazoned with a lion’s head made out of faux fur, foam and resin.
Haute couture sets itself apart from ready-to-wear fashion, as it is not intended for everyday wear, but rather reserved for special occasions and the elite. The term “couture” has come to symbolize “expensive” and “exclusive,” leaving many curious about what exactly defines haute couture — is it certain designers, specific techniques or the garments they create?
So … what exactly is “haute couture?” In an era in which title and expertise have begun to lose meaning due to the rise of self-proclaimed entrepreneurs and influencers, it’s no wonder many think of “haute couture” as one of those snobby terms that can be slapped in front of any designer’s label. But in reality, that’s far from the case.
Joined together from the French words “haute,” which means high or elegant, and “couture,” which means dressmaking, haute couture is exactly as the combination suggests. It refers to handmade outfits crafted with the most intricate designs and greatest attention to detail.
However, elegance isn’t quite enough. For a fashion house to earn the ultra-exclusive label of Haute Couture — a most coveted badge of honor — it must abide by the guidelines as laid out by the governing body of the craft, Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode.
Not only do members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture need to design made-to-order garments with one or more fittings for its private clientele, they need to present 50 or more original designs of day and evening garments every fashion season (January and July). In addition, the governing body also requires all members to have a workshop based in Paris, employing 15 or more full-time staff and 20 or more technical individuals. Balmain, Chanel, Dior and Versace are just a few of the 39 designers comprising official, correspondent and guest members.
Failure to meet requirements means the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode can withdraw the title, as seen with what happened to Balenciaga, Balmain, Mugler and Yves Saint Laurent, among 40 others.
While no one can be sure when the craft really started, one of the earliest instances of haute couture can be traced back to the 17th century, when Rose Bertin, the designer for Queen Marie Antoinette, introduced this form of custom clothing to French society. The art form can be later traced to Charles Frederick Worth, who established the first haute couture house in Paris in 1858. Recognizing the lucrative potential of catering to the wealthy with custom clothing, Worth laid the foundation for exclusive luxury fashion for the upper-class woman and became known as the “father” of haute couture.
What began as a designer’s orchestration to cater to its most exclusive clientele has transformed into a celebration of fashion in its highest form.
Haute couture enjoys a strong presence on the red carpet, with celebrities donning exquisite creations at events such as the Met Gala and other awards ceremonies. The media highlights these unforgettable moments — take, for example, Ariana Grande’s poofy, gray dress — bringing haute couture into pop culture consciousness.
In what used to be a craft admired and appreciated by only the ultra-rich (think high society galas) and celebrities that value privacy and exclusivity, the digital age of the 21st century has also transformed how haute couture is distilled into the everyday world. From Emma Chamberlain, a relatable YouTuber turned internet sweetheart, to socialite Heart Evangelista, individuals who both recognize the value in documenting their lives, even if they are by no means relatable, viewers now have a way to glimpse into their lives, crocodile and alligator Hermès and all.
Although haute couture will likely not be worn by the average person, its impact extends beyond its limited clientele. Garments created by haute couture designers often serve as inspiration for the broader fashion industry. Many everyday clothes we wear are influenced by haute couture designs and are translated and transformed by fast fashion brands, making them affordable and wearable for the masses.
So, the next time you get dressed in the morning, remember that even a lumpy blue sweater can have a rich history.