Wenda Parkinson in Christian Dior’s 1949 hussar-style velvet-and-wool tailleur and black-fox muff, in Paris; at the Dior atelier on Paris’s Rue François 1er, model Caroline Trentini poses in the “Gisele Inspired by Irving Penn” look from the fall/winter couture collection of 2007–8 by John Galliano. By Norman Parkinson/Condé Nast Archives; photograph by Patrick Demarchelier.
Editor's Note: I randomly came across this article while researching an item for the shop and loved it so much I thought it worth a re-post, despite that fact that it is from back in 2009. I am endlessly fascinated with the subject of Haute Couture and how very little real information there is out there on the subject. The word couture is used so often these days, for almost everything, that it has become almost meaningless. There has been many a time I have rued the decision to include it into my shop name even way back when I first started. In my defense, the word was a little more sacred back then and I thought it a nod to the fact that I really was trying to find the best of the best in the land of vintage for my clients. Whenever I do stumble across some real solid information on true Haute Couture I love to read it and to share it. I have written about it before here and I also try very, very hard to make sure that the pieces in my shop's category under the name "Haute Couture" are actually from designers that were designated as such. It is a personal pet peeve as a vintage dealer to see other dealers designating items as being Haute Couture when the label is not one that was ever given that official status. Sure there are the occasional exception but I try to slate those into my "Demi-Couture" section to keep the lines clear. But that's just me. Regardless I hope the following gives you a delicious glimpse into this amazing and rarefied world where clothing is created, and treated, like rare pieces of art. xxx Cherie
‘Every 10 years,” The New York Times declared in 1965, as the youthquake shook the planet, “the doctors assemble at the bedside of French haute couture and announce that death is imminent.” There was reason to call the undertaker; sex kitten Brigitte Bardot had rebuffed the venerable Coco Chanel’s proposal to transform her into an “elegant woman” (“Haute couture is for grannies,” the starlet said), and space-ager André Courrèges had just hung up his couturier’s scissors to mass-produce his “moon-maiden” go-go boots and minis.
Earlier, in 1945, Diana Vreeland had implored an assistant to bring back a fabric rose from Paris, as post-diluvian proof that couture had survived World War II. And again in 1973, when Vreeland mounted her elegiac Balenciaga retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, *Time’*s diagnosticians determined that haute couture, a moribund institution, was “breathing very hard.” Now, with the revered maison of Lacroix having filed for bankruptcy protection, the death knell is being sounded once again. “Personally,” says Hubert de Givenchy, “I do not see a future for haute couture as I knew it. Haute couture means for me perfection.”
But perhaps the reports of haute couture’s demise are once again greatly exaggerated. At the end of January, reversing the direction of the plummeting stock market, the two grandest fashion houses in Paris, Chanel and Dior, were posting sales increases of 20 and 35 percent, respectively. Even as a mass was held to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Yves Saint Laurent’s passing (the official end of fashion, according to his partner, Pierre Bergé), a new name, Alexandre Matthieu, burst onto the lineup for the fall-winter haute couture shows. “Haute couture is still the best way for a designer to get noticed,” argues a Paris insider. “If you show during ready-to-wear, you’re one among a hundred, crowded into a nine-day week. During the couture shows, you are one among only 20, spread over just three days.”
What is this Persephone-like phenomenon called haute couture, which cyclically dies only to be reborn? According to the bylaws of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a division of the French Ministry of Industry, an haute couturier is a designer who presides over the creation of hand-finished made-to-order clothing, in a “laboratory” that employs at least 20 workers in Paris. The haute couturier must present a minimum of 25 ensembles twice a year, in January and July, and construct a garment over the course of several fittings, directly on a client’s body or on a dress form replicating her physique. (Hubert de Givenchy, for example, had a dummy built for Audrey Hepburn, whose 31½-22-31½ shape never varied.) From a peak of 200 before World War II, only 11 authentic haute couturiers remain; additionally, there are four correspondent members. (Giorgio Armani joined as one in 2004.) Just two Americans have ever been classified as haute couturiers—Mainbocher (retired 1971) and Ralph Rucci, who was accepted as a guest member in 2002. (After five years and 10 collections, a guest may advance to full membership.) “If someone is simply a couturier,” explains a Parisian expert, “all that means is that you are sewing.” And, the Parisian adds, if a dressmaker uses the term “haute couturier” without the Chambre Syndicale’s sanction, “he can be arrested.”
The origins of haute couture—an appellation contrôlée, or trademarked name, like “champagne,” and “equally a part of our DNA,” says one French fashion professional—date back to Louis XIV, whose finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert established France in the 1660s as the leading manufacturer of silk and other luxury items.
Even so, fashion evolved slowly at the court of Versailles until the clever confections of a fat, arrogant Rue St.-Honoré shopkeeper, Rose Bertin, caught the eye of the teenage Marie Antoinette just as she was ascending the throne, in 1774. In fact, Bertin’s costly caprices for Marie Antoinette probably damaged the queen’s reputation as much as the infamous Affair of the Diamond Necklace. For 12 years, Marie Antoinette conferred for two hours daily with her “minister of trinkets,” revising court trends and voraciously hoovering up merchandise. Bertin became such an international darling, says Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion, that her “business accounted for a significant chunk of the French luxury export market.” By the eve of the revolution, Bertin had accumulated unpaid invoices of more than two million livres ($50 million today), prompting a contemporary to declare, “This is the bankruptcy of a grande dame!”
The founding father of haute couture, however, was an Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth, who opened his shop in Paris on the Rue de la Paix in 1858. Among Worth’s innovations were the designer label and the presentation of seasonal collections, paraded on live models (selected in Worth’s case not for their beauty but for their resemblances to his best customers). Clients came to Worth, not vice versa, and in his plush salon, classes and genders mingled. Charles Dickens, in 1863, reported back in astonishment to his compatriots across the Channel that a bearded man with his “solid fingers” was allowed to take “the exact dimensions of the highest titled women in Paris—robe them, unrobe them, and make them turn backward and forward.”
With Empress Eugénie, Napoleon III’s wife, as his ultimate mannequin, Worth and his novelties—hoopskirts, bustles, leg-o’-mutton sleeves—penetrated deep into the New World. Americans, arriving by private steamship, were routinely charged higher prices. Respectable denizens of the Eastern Seaboard, such as Mrs. Baxter Pennilow in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, packed away their Worths for two years before wearing them, for fear of appearing too ostentatious.
Like a fairy-tale spell, the house of Worth lasted 100 years. But it was left to a former Worth employee, Paul Poiret, to bring clothing up to date with the avant-gardism of the pre–War World I era. “In painting there was Cubism, futurism, primitivism,” says art historian Kenneth Silver. “In fashion there was Poiret.” Pope Pius X condemned Poiret’s harem-slave pantaloons, censors confiscated a film of his ankle-exposing skirts, and at his fabled “1,002nd Night” costume party, staged in 1911, he released his corsetless wife and muse, Denise, from a gilded cage and chased her around with a whip. But the reign of “Poiret le Magnifique” did not outlast the Jazz Age. By the late 20s such forward-looking clients as Josephine Baker, Helena Rubinstein, Colette, and Peggy Guggenheim had already migrated to newer créateurs, among them Chanel.
A functionalist to Poiret’s fantasist, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel modernized women’s clothing partly by ransacking her lovers’ closets. Early on, as a milliner, she replaced heavy, ornate hats with severe straw boaters. (“How could a brain function normally under all that?” she wondered.) As the girlfriend of the polo-playing entrepreneur Boy Capel, she improvised streamlined sportswear separates. Paramour Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia inspired her to pile on vivid, overscale jewels. Instead of marrying the Duke of Westminster, she appropriated his salmon fisherman’s sweaters and tweeds. The band-trimmed, metal-buttoned, pocketed cardigan that is still the cornerstone of the Chanel empire was based on a Tyrolean jacket the photographer Horst brought her back from Austria.
Chanel’s edicts in time became absolutes—high, meticulously engineered armholes for maximum mobility, shoulder bags to free the hands, buttons only with buttonholes, short skirts for ease of walking, but never, ever, a mini. “She thought the knee was the ugliest part of the body,” says Lynn Wyatt, whose first couture purchases came from Chanel in the late 60s.
Madeleine Vionnet, the subject of a comprehensive exhibition now at the Louvre, was a Euclidean purist, a celebrator rather than a disguiser of flesh. Devoid of hooks, zippers, and adornment, Vionnet’s silk-crêpe gowns, cut on the bias (a technique she perfected), clung so liquidly to the anatomy it was impossible for a woman to wear undergarments. “She redefined the way the body is looked at,” says Pamela Golbin, curator in chief of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. “She believed the body had no side seams, so neither should clothes.” Beneath their slinky sheaths, the ladies powdered their pubic hair to preserve a smooth line, but nipple exposure was acceptable. At her peak, Vionnet employed 1,200 workers in a six-story Avenue Montaigne factory, equipped with an in-house dentist, nursery, and podiatrist. But the vast Vionnet ateliers were infested with spies. Contraband patterns, dresses, even labels, were routinely smuggled out to counterfeiting rings. “The biggest copyists were the Americans,” says Golbin. “They were the Chinese of their day.” The shadow business of haute couture knockoffs was so huge that, between 1925 and 1928, The New York Times estimated, exports of original dresses from Paris dropped from half a billion francs to 10 million francs.
To stem these losses, a legitimate system known as patronage (patrons papier), commonplace until the 70s, was instituted. Foreign department stores and manufacturers could buy (at exorbitant rates) entrance to haute couture shows, and the price of admission was then deducted from their purchase of dress patterns or, for still more money, of the actual finished samples. Some big department stores, such as Ohrbach’s and Neiman Marcus, would buy up an entire collection’s worth of samples. Certain couturiers, such as Balenciaga, would not sell their patterns at any price. If a copyist had a tighter budget, he could acquire the more modest right of première vision—or “sneak peak.” As late as the mid-60s, 60 percent of the $20-million-per-annum turnover of Paris couture houses came from the sale of these reproduction rights—a rough precursor of present-day licensing. In 1949 an American model caught red-handed with bootleg Dior and Fath dress patterns by the French secret police was freed upon payment of a $9,000 fine to the Chambre Syndicale.
Vionnet closed in 1939, just before the German occupation, never to reopen. Elsa Schiaparelli, Chanel’s arch-rival, fled to America, where she toured, lecturing the nation’s women on their lack of elegance. Chanel, after presenting a patriotic tricolor-theme collection in 1939, shuttered her couture house, took up with a Nazi lover, and grandiosely conceived with him an espionage operation to help forge a separate peace between England and Germany. In his capacity as head of the Chambre Syndicale, master couturier Lucien Lelong established the membership regulations still more or less in place, and negotiated with the Nazis to allow the haute couture to remain in Paris. Hitler’s megalomaniacal plan had been to relocate Paris fashion lock, stock, and barrel to Berlin or Vienna. By thwarting this transfer, Lelong succeeded in keeping open 60 houses, and preserving the jobs of 12,000 workers. Among his own were the young Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, and Hubert de Givenchy.
More than Diana Vreeland’s single fabric rose, what blossomed from the ruins of the Second World War was an entire hothouse of “women-flowers,” wrote Christian Dior, who founded his own firm in 1946, at 30 Avenue Montaigne. “Soft shoulders, full busts, fine waists like vines and wide skirts like petals.” Carmel Snow, the high priestess of Harper’s Bazaar, christened Dior’s curving, floriated, feminine creations the “New Look,” and until his death, a decade later, Dior could “lower forty million hems by lowering his pencil,” an American journalist wrote. Backed by the textile magnate Marcel Boussac, Dior could lavish on one pleated day dress a profligate 20 yards of fabric—a shock after wartime rationing. And the fortunes poured into Dior’s coffers exceeded even the extravagance of his clothing. One American customer confided to her saleswoman, “This year, as my husband is bankrupt, I shall order only ten dresses”—at an estimated cost of $10,000 each. “People knew Dior’s dresses by name, like horses,” says Reinaldo Herrera, whose mother, Mimi, was a client. “I was at a dinner one night, and I told a woman, ‘You’re wearing Byzance.’ She asked, ‘How do you know?’ And I answered, ‘Because my mother has the same one.’” Countess Jacqueline de Ribes arrived at the Duchess of Windsor’s for New Year’s Eve in a sumptuous, densely embroidered red number called “Opium”—only to find her hostess identically attired. Noticing that the Duchess was shod in the matching Roger Vivier for Dior pumps, de Ribes saved the day “by telling her I had not been able to afford the shoes too.... One did have a budget!”
An average Dior dress could take 135 hours to produce, and the interior could be as intricately wrought as a Gothic cathedral. “A dress could stand up on its own,” remembers my mother, who attended the fall 1951 showings. A woman needed assistance from a maid, or at least a nimble lover, to help her in and out of the myriad layers, a process that might take hours. When Chanel traveled back to Paris from Switzerland, where she had been in “exile” as a collaborator, she fumed, “Look at how ridiculous these women are, wearing clothes by a man who doesn’t know women, never had one, and dreams of being one!”
The house of Dior, like all the others of the 50s golden age—Fath, Dessès, Heim, Balmain, Griffe, Rochas—was structured as rigidly as the dresses. Perched at the top of the hierarchy was the directrice, or manageress—in Dior’s case, Suzanne Luling, who, Nancy Mitford recounted, turned away two English duchesses for being too dowdy. Luling’s even more formidable counterpart at Balenciaga, Mlle. Renée, would advise a prospective customer to try again in a few months. The return trip would be worth it: “When a woman wearing a Balenciaga entered a room,” Diana Vreeland gushed, “no other woman existed.”
The workrooms were divided into cells: one for the flou (soft dresses and blouses) and one for the tailleur (suits). A première and a seconde presided over each workroom’s petites mains, or little hand-sewers—machine-stitching restricted. A garment would be produced in stages, first in muslin (toile), so that no precious fabric would be wasted. The final embellishments—beading, feathers, stones, belts, buttons, flowers, shoes—might be produced by artisans at firms outside of the house, such as Lemarié (a plumassier, feather specialist) or Lesage (a brodeur, embroiderer). The saleswomen, or vendeuses, were confidantes and minor celebrities in their own right. “My mother’s at Dior was called Agnès,” Reinaldo Herrera remembers. Sometimes they were vendeuses mondaines, titled ladies (often White Russian émigrés) with important social connections who worked for wardrobe and expenses, plus commissions. Finally, there was the cabine, the in-house stable of models, numbering six or more and distinctly different at each house. At Dior they were a languid breed with “Egyptian shoulders,” said the mannequin Victoire, one of the few to break out into fashion magazines. At Balenciaga, to offset the mysterious, majestic clothes, they were exotic, aloof creatures. “A woman has no need to be … beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do all that for her,” Balenciaga maintained. At Chanel, the cabine was small-bosomed and well-born, and “every man was in love with every one of them,” recalled former model Betty Catroux. But “the ones at Balmain were ravishing too,” says Herrera, who used to watch the défilés with his father in order to inspect the girls, among them the willowy Greek beauty Marina Logaridis.
Like clockwork every January and July, the collections were shown in the houses, on the girls of the cabine, on whom the finery also had been fitted. “No music, and the models were carrying a number,” a longtime American client recalls. “It was reverential instead of rock.” And with up to 150 passages (looks) the parade of fashion could last for nearly two hours. The designer never appeared after the show, says Jacqueline de Ribes, “but we would go backstage to kiss him.” Only the top-tier press—Diana Vreeland, Carmel Snow, John Fairchild—and the very rare, glamorous client, a pet of the house, were asked to attend. “No flashes in your face,” de Ribes says, “and you were just a meter away from the clothes.”
So great was the fear of piracy that photography was banned, and there was an embargo on all publicity for one month. Photo shoots for the upcoming editions of the major fashion glossies often took place under the cover of midnight—“and then there’d be a rush come February to buy the big collections issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar,” de Ribes says. “There was no advertising for haute couture, only beautiful magazine pictures, or word-of-mouth.” Society beauties—such as Maxime de la Falaise for Schiaparelli—were conscripted to act as viral marketers. “As soon as I married,” Jacqueline de Ribes says, “Jean Dessès asked me to become his mondaine mannequin. But I refused. I wanted to be free to buy whatever I wanted.”
Christian Dior with house model Lucky, 1952; Coco Chanel watching a 1938 show in her salon. By Bellini/courtesy of Christian Dior; by Roger Schall/courtesy of Condé Nast Archives.