A Concise History of Couture from FIT MUSEUM Director VALERIE STEELE

Last week’s Paris couture shows were as jaw-droppingly beautiful as ever, but as we perused the gorgeous images, we continually found ourselves wondering, “What’s the deal with couture, anyway?”

To dispel the mystery, we called upon fashion scholar and FIT Museum Director and Chief Curator Valerie Steele. A veritable font of fashion knowledge, Ms. Steele talked us through the evolution of couture, from its birth in 19th century Paris to its larger-than-life presence today.


The Birth of Couture

Couture, as we know it today, started in the second half of the 19th century, particularly with the designer Charles Frederick Worth, an English couturier who established a house in Paris. It’s easy to laugh at Worth because he wore a beret and dressed himself up to look like Rembrandt, but he was a very canny businessman who was instrumental in transforming the couture from being a small-scale artisanal craft into something that was closer to big business and high art.

In 1900 at the international exhibition, there was an amazing display where all the major couture houses showed some of their finest dresses. There were beautiful wax mannequins at the exhibit which were shown getting ready for the ball, with dresses from the House of Worth and the House of Paquin, etc.

Madame Grès Evening Dress (Ivory silk jersey), 1950-1952, France. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Solange Landau.

The Beginning of 20th Century Couture

The next big figure was Paul Poiret, who was a great fantasist and orientalist designer. In reaction to his look and that of the new Dior, you had a period where women really dominated the haute couture—especially Chanel and Schiaparelli, but also Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès (who was still known as Alix Barton), Augusta Bernard, Louise Boulanger. There were amazing female talents.

Couture and WWII

After Paris fell to the Nazis, and the couturiers were cut off from all their allied clients. After the Liberation of Paris, the couturiers made a push to remind everybody that Paris couture was really the highpoint of world fashion, and they sent around the world this beautiful little Théâtre de la Mode (“theater of fashion”), where they had tiny dolls dressed up in beautiful miniature facsimiles of the latest Paris couture.

Mid-Century Style

Dior dominated from 1947-1957, but also very important was Cristobal Balenciaga, who was kind of a connoisseur’s designer. He did very sophisticated clothes that moved away from just the lush femininity of Dior towards something more abstract. And then there was also Jacques Fath, the “young Prince” of Paris couture, who did amazingly theatrical, sexy clothes in the early ‘50s. He also did a notorious interview where he said, “Fashion is art and men are the artists.” A lot of people reacted by saying, “Hello, did you forget about Chanel and Vionnet and all of these other women?”

Cristobal Balenciaga Dress Black, white silk gazar 1968, France The Museum at FIT.

The Return of Chanel and the Rise of YSL

And then Chanel came back from retirement and launched her career again. She denied that fashion was art. She said fashion was part of life, a way of living, a craft, but definitely not art. Yves Saint Laurent was the next major figure to come along in couture. He was like Picasso, who launched not only one important look, but many looks over the years. Possibly the most spectacular was his 1976 Ballet Russe collection, which was the first collection in the couture ever featured on the front page of the New York Times.

Old Houses, New Talents

As we moved into the ’80s, we saw the rise of a new couture house with Christian Lacroix, and the revival of Chanel couture under Karl Lagerfeld in ’83. Lagerfeld brought the moribund house back to life by taking the classic Chanel DNA and giving it shock treatment, turning it into something ultra-modern. And then Galliano came to Dior in ’97 and was very important in reviving the glamour of that house. McQueen appeared at Givenchy and did amazing things before moving out to focus on his own house. And of course, I shouldn’t forget the famous bad boy of French fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier, who produced amazing couture shows that drew on all the technical artistry and creativity that he’d been mining in his RTW for years.

Chanel (Karl Lagerfeld) Dress. Black silk crepe, trompe-l’oeil embroidery by Lesage (Paris) 1983, France. The Museum at FIT.

The Threat of Fast Fashion?

There’s a real cultural need to have something which is truly beautiful, the best, the most exquisite. “Fast fashion,” of course, serves a function, but it’s a double-edged sword. We need more people who are thinking about creativity and beauty. You have someone like Azzedine Alaia, who makes clothes which are demi-couture. Or the girls at Rodarte, Haider Ackermann, Rick Owens. Whether it’s within the realm of couture, or very rarefied demi-couture, you have a host of creators who are looking to make fashion something special, which is really at the heart of what fashion is about.

Survival of the Chicest

People have kept saying for years that couture is dying or becoming irrelevant, but over and over again, it reemerges. It’s too simplistic to say it’s the laboratory for fashion, because a lot of new fashions come from the street, but the couture is an area that enables designers to explore: “What is the ultimate that you can do with fashion?” So the most extreme, high-quality, amazing fantasy clothes can be created for the haute couture. And then, of course, ideas from those can be translated into ready-to-wear. But the couture still has a special role to play in the world of fashion.

- Interview by Tory Hoen

Click through the gallery below to see works of couture through the ages.

All images courtesy of the Museum at FIT