Haute Couture. For many average Americans, this translates roughly into “Haughty Clothes”, i.e. stuff that celebrities with waaaay too much money, and way too little sense, buy. But what is it, exactly? It’s a French phrase that actually translates to “High Sewing”. It means the utmost care was put into the design and construction of a garment – the finest materials were used, and the finest seamstresses (and seamsters?) made sure every button hole looked divine. While true Haute Couture is only the clothing that is made individually to a client’s measurements, the term “couture” has become a catch-all phrase referring to all the stuff that comes down the runway during fashion weeks around the world, whether it be the true Haute, or “Pret-a-Porter” (Ready-to-Wear).
While there are certainly fashion junkies all over who love to keep up on the trends, most people see Couture as something that has little-to-no relevance to them. It is strictly for movie stars, super-models, and the otherwise rich, powerful, and famous. It’s a sign of their wealth, dominance, and vanity.
While in some respects this may be true (i.e. if you are wealthy and powerful, you can afford to buy couture) I am here to argue that that’s not all it is. Only the wealthy and powerful can afford to own a Van Gogh, but that doesn’t mean it’s a vain status symbol by its very nature. Couture is art. It’s sewn beauty, presented publicly (at least through the internets) for anyone to contemplate and enjoy.
Pierre Balmain (pictured above), who was trained as an architect before becoming a designer, called couture the ”architecture of movement”. While I think this is true, it’s certainly not a full definition. I think Paul Poiret gets more to the heart of the matter when he says of the harem pants he created for women, that they show”the harmony of her form and all the freedom of her native suppleness.” Clothing should be beautiful in motion and still, because the human body is free sometimes to be in motion, sometimes to be still. Couture is the art of adorning the human body in all it’s complexity. Few things are more worthy of artistic depiction and celebration than the human figure. Ask any painter worth his salt. Beautiful clothing puts into fabric some of the mystery and dignity of a being that can’t always be put into words.
But perhaps it’s the more passing and ephemeral nature of the fashion industry that gets people all muddled – it’s tied up in demand and sales, and everything’s gotta be new, fresh, yadda yadda yadda. Certainly marketing casts a shadow over the art of clothing. And certainly some designers give way to market demand, or the desire to be noticed at any expense. But these failures are departures from the art, not failures of the art. And yes, some designers create things that are ultimately unsuccessful. For instance, sometimes a designer create sillhouettes that may be attractive or interesting as shapes, but are too cumbersome to actually wear: the “hobble skirt” was a style that maybe looked elegant enough, but severely hindered the woman’s full range of motion.
Or, in the spirit of adventure, they come up with something that’s just a little too weird to be exactly beautiful:
But that’s the way with all art. You dream, you create, you fail…but when you succeed, the world gains a little piece of beauty: