modern haute couture more sustainable than ready to wear fashion?
wearing Nelly Liu demi-couture silk taffeta skirt / Organic by John Patrick oversize shirt / Matt & Nat vegan satchel / Olsen Haus vegan sandals
While knee-deep in wardrobe culling in order to rebuild a more sustainable fashion collection loosely inspired by the minimalist 5 piece French wardrobe as I mentioned in this post, I qualmishly considered the fact of average modern women completely disregarding the history of couture fashion and how it can be emphatically interwoven with the clothing consumption of today. As a fashion stylist in my heyday and now an eco-style editor, it goes without saying that my viewpoint on rising trends, designers, and world news (in context) is a bit more preeminent than the closeted consumer, or those that are decisively ignorant to the going ons of the clothes on their back. When everyone from opinionated bloggers to Cathy Horn of the NY Times are discussing the possible demise or needed appreciation of haute couture, I thought perhaps I might open this up for debatable consideration seeing as how on one hand couture has been allegedly dying since 2009 and on the other, most of us have no clue what it all really means, nor do we likely care. Could naive pedestrian consumers like you and me be to blame? Has the appeal of chains like H&M and Zara or even the infamous designer collaborations for Target made the sub-industry of haute couture so far-fetched for the non-Forbes 500 working 9-5 fashionistas? Who are these girls and women so determined to condemn this age old craft because they never see themselves as one of the elite upper crust, and why can't they just appreciate the medium for what it is? Well, if I was going to endeavor answering these questions I think a little history would be in order first.
The King, father, don (whatever you want to call someone who did it first) of haute couture was the Englishman, Charles Worth. Now this "originator" term shall be used loosely as the term "haute couture" wasn't penned yet, but nonetheless was very much a percolating business dating back to the 19th century that included notable couturiers such as Rose Bertin whose main and only client was Queen Marie Antoinette. Thus, we start here. As France has remained the high fashion capital of the world since the monarchical 1800's, women looked to royalty and aristocratic society to get their trend fix. Its plausible that here too began elitism and our modern day frustrations with inaccessible couture. So inaccessible of course, that country folk wore cast-offs (what we now know as knock offs) or simply sewed their own reinterpreted versions. The most elaborate of these versions would be passed down from generation to generation and came to be called "folk costumes". And those who feel justified in their distaste of inaccessible, unnecessary couture fashion are not alone, as the ravish extravagances of the royal courts outraged the lower class to the point of the French Revolution* (all things considered). Soon after, fashion then evolved from elaborately decorative to less expensive refined pieces of clothing.
When couturier Charles Worth came to Paris at age 20 in 1846, it was serendipitously the same year Elias Howe patented his sewing machine invention. As Marie Antoinette appointed Rose Bertin for court minister of fashion, Emperor Napoleon III enlisted Worth for his wife, Empress Eugenie. Fashion dolls were the means in which couture houses that followed Worth (Paquin, Callot, Jeanne Lanvin) sold their designs abroad. Clients would choose a style, mail it back, and have a custom fitted garment arrive at their door. When these little fashion dolls reached the US it was mostly for the purposes of copying, as Americans were one of the poorer countries at the time. However, this all changed when the Industrial Revolution brought about an explosion in advances for textile and ready-to-wear production. The introduction of separates, also known as sportswear, such as blouses and skirts, provided fashions any woman could wear comfortably albeit more affordably. Needless to say this put a major damper on the haute couture business as designer's primary source of revenue. With new houses popping up left and right at the turn of the 20th century like Dior, Balenciaga, Poiret, Chanel and YSL, couture became a means of advertising the houses' main bread and butter which included ready-to-wear, perfumes and licensing projects. Though Worth was the one to initiate using live models for his design presentations, it wasn't until the 1900's that it turned into a all out spectacle and a must see exhibition for the birth of trends to come. And so the cycle was born.
When expenses are of no concern, designers have the creative freedom to create what some might consider covetable objets d'art. And just like any other medium of art, only a few true couture client members are around today. Whether or not this is attributed to the fact that couture has depreciated in value to the fashion public or the world is actually made up of 90% lower class is a question unsolved. But the more pressing issue is how we've forgotten what couture fashion actually stood for during the prime of bustling ateliers producing custom clothing. So who are the women who are quick to disregard couture as any sort of fashion production relevance? Have they themselves never been to a tailor or seamstress at the dry cleaners seeking a custom fit solution? While Paris Fashion Week might see designs executed by the hands of many skilled artisans doing hundreds of hours of labor with the finest selected fabrics and treatments all to end up on a Hollywood debutante, it still doesn't negate the fact that custom fashion can be relevant for the average woman. It's as if to say none of us hail from a generation of women that sat behind a sewing machine one point in their life, or that sewing patterns, knitting circles, and seamstresses or tailors are not part of the cornerstone of society.
In an interview, one my old beloved style icons, Daphne Guiness, was quoted as saying, "People think ‘couture’ just means expensive, and that’s just completely wrong. Yes, if you’re buying something that’s beaded from head to foot of course it’s going to be expensive; but you’re not paying for the name. You’re paying for the artisan, the concentration of the work. And it shows! The more intention you put into something, the more you can see it. If somebody runs something off very, very quickly and just writes their name off, you can see it. And the more you concentrate on something, the more of yourself is invested in it. It just means so much more.” She also goes on to articulate how dressmaking represents jobs, a notion that led me to this post in light of the Bangladesh tragedy that turned an innumerable amount of conscious women off fast fashion. In the scope of all that custom-tailored fashion can be, is it not more favorable (although not replacing altogether) than the less transparent, shamefully unethical, and highly capitalistic nature of ready-to-wear? When an opportunity exists to work with a local fashion designer like Sharon did so admirably here on her blog to create a leather harness designed by her and produced by UK based Tamzin Lillywhite, or when ethical fashion designers like Nelly Liu who offer up locally produced limited edition collections (a term so fervently used for marketing but sometimes is realistically applied) that are based on pre-order basis for the sake of meeting a buyer's exact desires, do we not see it as something to aspire to, to include in our wardrobe building, and to protect as a sustainable more meaningful means of exploring fashion?
What do you think? Does incorporating custom dressmaking (couture) into your wardrobe seem like an accessible and sustainable option?