Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“The end of haute couture's symbolic preeminence has as its corollary the loss of its clientele.” In the October edition of Vogue there is an article on haute couture in conjunction with the exhibition currently showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is much discussion surrounding the loss of handmade, fit to client garments as common. The emphasis is turned away from the growth of industrialised, ready to wear garments that have allowed all people to dress well in interesting, exciting clothing and although that's usually my focus I find the mourning of couture as a large industry easy to understand. It is right to mourn the loss of couture but foolish to forget the benefit that led to it becoming less common and unfortunately to couture becoming more expensive. Writers like Gilles Lipovetsky, who wrote the sentence quoted above for The Empire of Fashion do not forget such things. Beauty should be available to all people, not just the rich or the famous who wear such dresses to film premieres and award ceremonies. Haute couture will never be accessible to the majority of us.

I am watching The Secret World of Haute Couture on BBC4 and it opens with women discussing the wonder of wearing a dress that fits like a second skin. Those types of dresses are complete outfits, you wear no underwear because it is built into the dress. They are often boned and it takes many fittings to truly build a costume for a woman. Only lucky women with huge amounts of money can afford such luxury, internationally there are only around 2000 clients.. It costs approximately $100,000 to purchase a dress. Haute couture has to be made in Paris and it is rare.

Karl Lagerfeld talks about his experience of falling in love with a Christian Dior outfit as a child. He sketches clothing designs with ease, talks about the dreams that give him his best ideas. The women and men in the atelier have the most astounding abilities in their hands that are so precise and skilled. They are artists, creating unique, wonderful pieces. Coco Chanel criticised haute couture in a 1953 issue of Vogue: “I am no longer interested n dressing a few hundred women, private clients; I shall dress thousands of women. But... a widely repeated fashion, seen everywhere, cheaply produced must start from luxury.” It is interesting then that Chanel with Lagerfeld as its Artistic Director is buying up ateliers in order to ensure their survival and the continued presence of haute couture. I do not think it is a mistake to preserve an artform but I understand why Coco Chanel wanted to broaden her influence, ensure that thousands dressed well and importantly she backed up her statements and ignored the copying of her couture items by others. While designers like Paul Poiret tried to stop copies, Chanel appeared to do nothing in this area.

While I am tremendously jealous of the women who can afford these items and a part of me disapproves of this inequality of dress, the fact that very, very few people can afford to purchase haute couture clothing, I do not want this artform to die. My feeling is the same where other arts are concerned, I don't think painting should die because prints are available yet I cannot afford to purchase paintings. Mass production remains a current innovation in the span of history, it allows us to own interesting things yet couture should not die in the face of that, even if it is limited for good reason these days.

At the end of The Secret World of Haute Couture I watch as the journalist who has been interviewing women who buy these unique, original garments finally tries on a coat. Her stance changes, her shoulders go back, she feels beautiful and that is lovely to see. The power that clothes have to bring out all the best things about us into our physicality at times feels unmatched. I hope that one day I will have the same opportunity and will feel that second skin.

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