Haute Couture – a century old

Maybe I completely missed it, but I never heard of any celebrations or mention of the 100th anniversary of haute couture. I know… all the costume history books say that ‘couture’ was invented by Charles Worth in 1868 when he founded the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture et de la Confection pour Dames et Fillettes, but that’s not quite correct.┬áThis first organization was a trade association of bespoke dressmakers, tailors, and makers of ‘ready-made’ women’s fashions (which in 1868 consisted mostly of makers of mantles (capes) and underwear.)

Problems arose over the years amongst its members, the worst being design piracy. So, in 1911, Paris’ top dressmakers reorganized themselves into a smaller association called the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. This syndicate of design houses guarded the interests of the best dressmakers in Paris by negotiating with labour unions, standardizing wages, settling member disputes, and setting standards of excellence for production and quality of original design. ┬áMembers had to produce a minimum number of original designs twice a year and debut those fashions at shows set by the organization. They also had to maintain a certain amount of profit from their products, and they could not buy sketches from freelance designers.

Members of this elite group were called haute couturiers (top dressmakers) and in 1911 the leading haute couturiers included: Worth, Paquin, Doucet, Callot Soeurs, Redfern, Madelaine Cheruit, George Doeuillet, Bechoff-David, Martial & Armand, and Georgette. A publication done at the time of this reorganization was called ‘Les Createurs de la Mode’, by Roger Miles. I wish someone would do a reprint because it is now out of copyright and finding a copy of this book is impossible (only 175 were ever printed.) Fortunately, someone copied many of the images and posted them into a very nice Youtube film, and you can read the entire book online here. This is a great resource for the look of fashion for fall 1910/spring 1911 as well as the interiors of the salons and their workrooms.

4 thoughts on “Haute Couture – a century old

  1. In Colette’s novel Gigi, the heroine’s Aunt Alicia (appalled by her niece’s wardrobe) gives her an introduction to the head vendeuse at Bechoff-David, so she may get a few new frocks. The novel was published in 1945 but the setting is much earlier.

  2. I hadn’t heard of them either – I thought perhaps they were fictional, though I should have known better – Colette is painstakingly detail-oriented and she is keen on clothes. Herewith, the description of Gigi’s dress from Bechoff-David:

    “She paraded in front of Gaston in a blue-and-white dress reaching almost to the ground. ‘A full seven and a half yards round, Tonton, my skirt measures!’ She was more than proud of her slender waist, held in by a grosgrain sash with a silver buckle; but she tried every dodge to free her lovely strong neck from its whale-bone collar of ‘imitation Venetian point’ which matched the tucks of her bodice. The full sleeves and wide-flounced skirt of blue-and-white striped silk rustled deliciously, and Gilberte delighted in pecking at her sleeves to puff them out just below the shoulder.”

    It’s been years since I saw the movie, but I seem to recall Leslie Caron appearing at the end in a blue-and-white dress that echoes the one described … but I couldn’t find any pictures during a quick web search. However I did learn that the movie won the Oscar for best costume, and the designer was Cecil Beaton.

  3. Thanks for the reference (between you and me – I hated the musical Gigi – I need a healthy dose of tongue in cheek when it comes to musicals!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.