Haute Couture represents the highest echelon of clothes making in the Western tradition. As it has once been explained, haute means “high” or “superior” and couture means “clothes” or sometimes regarded as “sewing,” and so the term simply refers to the best of the craft. As an enterprise it was formalized in Paris in 1868 by Charles Fredrick Worth and until the mid-1960’s it not only represented the highest levels of technical ability but also conceptual. Until the 1960s haute couture dictated the trends and shifts in Western women’s fashion, it was solely responsible for determining how women dressed until youth culture and a prevalent and widely observed street culture usurped its eminence and influence and fashion leadership shifted towards the domain of ready-to-wear.
Today couture faces an ongoing struggle to maintain its vitality. As a business it has dwindled due to increased labor and material costs making turning a profit an aloof goal. Modern lifestyles have outmoded what was essentially a glorified client/dressmaker relationship of the days of yore and the customer base of not only those who can afford it but care to buy it has shrunk exponentially over the last few decades. It exists in our hearts and minds as a memetic abstract derived from our outdated memories of what it once was. From the golden age of Dior and Balenciaga to its last significant revival in the ‘80s, the decade of excess when Lacroix and Ungaro reigned supreme, it has become synonymous with larger than life gowns, wedding dresses for heiresses, and red carpet looks for Hollywood’s elite. In our enthusiasm for its hyperbolic glamour we have lost sight that Cristobal Balenciaga did his business with navy day suits or that Coco Chanel revolutionized the trade with modest jersey dresses.
There are only a handful of couture houses that function at a capacity anywhere close to where the industry was just less than a century ago when a single house among dozens would employ a workroom of hundreds. Perhaps the most prestigious and high functioning couture house, after Chanel, is Christian Dior who’s creative director Raf Simons just showed his third haute couture collection for the house on Monday.
The collection is said to have been inspired by various global perspectives from four continents and the idea of interpreting Dior through their different lenses. His was a more abstract and possibly intellectualized take on an exercise that his predecessor had practically invented. In fact John Galliano’s debut for the house in 1997 was a spirited and wondrous homage to the Masai, the African tribe known for their vibrant and detailed personal ornamentation and textiles that Simons also made reference to in this recent globetrotting adventure. All around the world Simons applied an idea of Dior that he has cultivated over the last several seasons; mixing it and juxtaposing it with various ethnic costumes, as if to find some kind of synergy between them all – a poetic if not artful statement about a famously French house flanked by a shrinking global culture. The result was, as far as one could observe online, a pastiche of color, fabric, texture, form and symbols. The ethnic references were far less on the nose than anything Galliano did which, though seemingly more ideal for the current mood and climate, muddled his intentions given the vast amounts of information in the collection. The sequence of looks, each with little connection to the other beyond a great taste for turbid color schemes and embellishment, could leave one confounded. And at the collection’s most ethnic moments, perhaps in a deconstructed peekaboo dress or in a kimono sleeved coat, it seemed to rely more on recent innovations in contemporary fashion rather than an earnest investigation of how the dress and costume in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas could actually inform. And this is in spite of a precedence for this manner of research that has long been established by designers like Issey Miyake and Bonnie Cashin who appropriated ideas like layering, wrapping and the kimono cut and championed them for their innate universal appeal rather than the mere suggestion of worldliness they might offer after pasted onto a couture carapace.
Simons has received praise with this collection for modernizing couture; this has also been said of his last two collections. But what does modern couture mean? Is this referring to modernizing the craft aesthetically or contextually? Certainly Simons has brought a sea change to how couture garments are viewed and what is expected of them visually. The idea that a proper couture dress must be an oversized ball gown has gone out the window, and thankfully so. Simons has embraced minimalism, wardrobe essentials, and clothes that are far more real in their circumstance than a dress that requires two assistants to hoist onto a runway. It speaks back to when couture was a vital industry that actually dressed people for life and not for photo ops and red carpet credits (though Jennifer Lawrence’s unfortunate fall on her way to accept her Oscar award seems to invalidate this appeal). And then again, Lagerfeld at Chanel has always been sure to avoid the traps of pageantry in favor of offering his clients a full and functional wardrobe, which they always seem to buy. And there is of course Adeline Andre who has injected minimalism into couture years before the idea would come to fruition in the ‘90s. Dior’s new modern couture is a refreshing revelation for the house but it is only a personal one.
But then you wonder if Simons is modernizing couture via craft and technique. In an industry based on workmanship this would be an exciting prospect yet it is when considering craft that this collection faces its greatest challenges. Not long after hi-resolution photos of the show hit the internet did a blogger who goes by Mari J do a frank and up close study of the collection. The zoom-in shots of seams, details, and hems are revealing. Highlighted are what appears to be copious amounts of seam pucker, fabric buckling around the body, and on the inside lining of the dress that closed the show, a dressmaker’s chalk line left there for the world to see. This is startling when you consider that couture is prized on the fact that the inside is as beautiful as the outside. Seam pucker is a typical issue in construction and is usually due to the tension of the stitch being greater than the fabric causing the seam, once sewn, to scrunch up. It’s a sure sign of rushed sewing. Many of the finishings Mari J highlights, which we can assume are all done by hand, are inadequate in controlling the fabric and shaping it to the specifications of the design. The fabric is resisting the way it’s been cut and sewn and so it buckles around the body causing the contortions and in many parts, especially in the sleeves, a bad fit. In Mari J’s highlights this can be observed in everything from the hems to the darts to the shoulders seams. In garments that Mari J does not focus on there are just as many issues and what is observed is an overall lack of knowledge of fabrics and garment construction, the two most important skillsets of the couturier. These issues force the question of how valid any of Simons ideas are when they are not being executed with the standards that define the genre he is working in. If haute couture truly is “superior sewing” then what is this collection? And can one truly modernize couture if they are not earnestly designing it?