The changing culture of couture
How a staple item for the fashion-conscious became an unattainable dream piece for the very privileged. Colin McDowell reports from the front row of the Paris couture shows
High fashion thrives on the privileges of wealth and the ability of the very rich to pay for one bespoke garment; the equivalent in cost would be for that of a good quality sketch by an artist who is an established name - say from around €50,000 to well over twice that amount.
The difference, however, is that whereas a sketch will last, and possibly increase in value, many couture dresses are so delicate that after three or four wears the garment is probably already frayed, shredding and unable to be worn any longer in public. So, this level of fashion reaches the heights of the greatest of self-indulgences.
And yet, such purchases are made remarkably frequently - although often anonymously -as a very special, insiders' pleasure not to be openly shared. The pleasure to be gained from conspicuous consumption in clothing is much more open, as the couture system is not a hidden world; although details of customers are jealously guarded and details of price are treated coyly, the actual dress is meant to sing out loud and clear that it is from the atelier of a certain designer. But, beyond the mutability of the product, the old rules of couture were, like the old customers, very different animals from the ones who sit in the front rows in Paris today.
Up until the fifties the rich, well-bred and cultured woman always bought her clothes bespoke (i.e. handmade to fit her body perfectly). It was a ritual that needed no great fuss or celebration and it started with a small group of other customers - no more than fifty at the most - sitting on the proverbial gilt chairs watching the clothes in silence as a vendeuse (saleswoman) called out the name or number of the garments and the customer ticked in her programme the ones she was interested in looking at more closely. No supermodels, no audiences of up to a thousand, no music, no set, no celebrity guests, no razzamatazz, no paparazzi and virtually no journalists. These were not occasions for entertainment but moments for work as serious decisions about the season's look were made by women who understood fashion as well as the designer himself.
Now we live in a world of hyperbole where only excess attracts and holds our attention, and that is why fashion - including, at its most elevated, Paris couture; there is no other couture - must shout to be heard, just like any other pastime or diversion from boredom. Whether a garment is well made, which was once the holy grail of couture in the past, is of little interest to anyone. The only thing that matters is that the garment will be sufficiently striking to attract the attention of the fashion editors and will eventually photograph well. Few of the many beautiful creations that come down a couture runway are ever worn after the show and end up not on a loved and pampered back but in an air-controlled, darkened archive.
So, like the art that commands stupifying attention in the salerooms of the world, couture has become not an end but a beginning. In both cases, it is the cost that excites, and probably more than the object. Mr and Mrs Average looking in their daily paper note and remember the cost of a Monet that has just broken all records at auction but barely glance at the actual picture. Editors of newspapers always choose the most extravagant and unwearable garment to show as an example of couture because they know that high fashion is now no longer aimed at potential customers but at us all in order to attract our attention so that we buy cheaper items (make-up, tights, hairspray) bearing the same designer's name. Thus, we can all have our little corner of privilege, but the real deal in couture (the actual joy of wearing such perfectly beautiful clothes) must remain so expensive that it is unattainable by the majority or it loses its magic for everyone. As it is, women can dream knowing that for only a few will the dream come true. And that is surely enough in fairyland.
Colin McDowell is a fashion historian and author of many books on the subject, including Fashion Today