Haute couture is a French term that means "high sewing," "high dressmaking" or "high fashion." The term refers to the creation of custom clothing that is made to order for a specific client. Ready-made garments are practical, convenient and much less expensive than custom-fitted clothing. Many trend-setting designs fly "off the rack" or "off the peg." They disappear as quickly as they arrived. Haute couture demands patience and anticipation, and it never goes out of style.
According to one fashion maven and blogger, haute couture is "where dreams begin and bank accounts end." This is an apt description for many people. Custom-made garments are created from expensive, high-quality fabrics and sewn with attention to detail. Only the most experienced dressmaker can finish such a garment with delicate, time-consuming techniques that are often done by hand. Only a wealthy client can afford to wear such painstaking elegance.
Haute couture as a definition of fashion originated in nineteenth century Paris. It first referred to the work of Charles Frederick Worth, an English fashion designer known as "the father of haute couture." Worth worked at various London drapery shops before making his mark in French fashion. London and Paris galleries commemorate his life and work.
The term "haute couture" is protected by law in modern-day France, and only firms that meet specific standards can claim it for their fashion houses and clothing designs. A regulating commission of the Paris Chamber of Commerce determines which houses are true haute couture houses.
To earn the right to use the haute couture label, French fashion houses must follow a specific set of rules. They must create one-of-a-kind, made-to-order designs for private clients; employ a certain number of employees in a workshop or atelier; present seasonal collections to the Paris Press; and meet other criteria.
Outside of France, most people use the term loosely to describe high-fashion custom clothing wherever it is produced. While Paris is the undisputed fashion capital of the world, other cities are recognized for their high-style offerings. London, New York, Tokyo and Milan are four such high-fashion cities.
Since the late 1980s, many ready-made clothing brands have misused the term "haute couture." This has effectively blurred the concept with "prêt-a-porter," a French term for ready-to-wear clothing. Every couture house markets prêt-a-porter collections, but prêt-a-porter fashions are not haute couture designs.
"Off the rack" or "off the peg" fashions are necessary for most fashion designers, since these clothing lines deliver a higher return on investment than custom-designed and fitted clothes. Some fashion houses have abandoned their high-level fashions altogether so they can focus on their less prestigious but more profitable ready-to-wear designs.
The number of high-style couture houses has decreased considerably since the mid-1940s, from more than 100 houses to fewer than twenty. Around ten designers have remained during the last ten years, and this number fluctuates. France recognizes eleven haute couture houses in 2012: Adeline Andre, Chanel (Karl Lagerfeld), Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Atelier Gustavolins, Givenchy, Anne Valerie Hash, Christophe Josse, Stephane Rolland, Franck Sorbier and Giambattista Valli.
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