The Function of Couture Clothing

As Alexandra Palmer, has so well explained, the basic function of the making of individual couture clothing is, and always was, to provide the etiquette-correct 'social uniform' for its private clients.3 The basic financial problem within couture is the inevitability that it will only ever be bought by the tiniest minority of women and that in times of economic trauma, they too balk at spending cash on luxury clothing. Thus this industrie de luxe can never run securely and smoothly. It never has. It is always subject to vicissitudes caused by international economic crisis and has only survived over the last 150 years because of its sensitive commercial flexibility.

Where the money is, couture clients will be found and then educated into the specific consumption etiquettes of the trade. Up to 1914, the focus was exclusively on the private European and US plutocratic rich. In 1900, the Syndicat de la Couture Parisienne with its elite twenty-one members, already exported 65 per cent of its products to the international elite circles of royalty and plutocratic rich all around the world.4 In truth, it was only in this 18901914 period, in the first thirty or so years of Syndicat's existence, that the industry of couture was relatively crisis free. Unrivalled, Paris had no challengers. It could produce and sell clothes at any price it chose to its eager, captive, international clientele. With astute business acumen even then, the couturiers were already selling to elegant department stores from New York to Berlin. The Syndicat launched itself into public view for first time at the Paris International Exhibition of 1900. The success of their pavilion was so huge that the police had to be called in to hold back the crowds pressing to see the staged scenes of wax dummies posed as if at grand soirees or at the races. By this time, according to Anny Latour, the top six or seven couture houses, such as Doucet, Worth, and Drecoll, were each employing 400-900 workers, at the Rue de la Paix or Place Vendome, with a turnover of 30 million francs.5 Wealthy clients were to be found, often royal and aristocratic, from St Petersburg, Stockholm, Madrid, London, Buenos Aires, Chicago and

3. A. Palmer, 'The Myth and Reality of Haute Couture, Consumption, Social Function and Taste in Toronto, 1945-1963', PhD thesis, University of Brighton, 1994, Vol. 1: Royal Ontario Museum no. 1986. p. 165.

4. Latour, A., Kings of Fashion, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1958, p. 164.

Tokyo and production of garments was high. The London couturier Lucile, showed a collection before leaving for the USA on a marketing trip in 1910 for example. A thousand guests packed her Hanover Square showroom in London. 'When the parade was ended the saleswomen found that they had booked orders for over 1000 gowns.'6

These clothes represented the social and economic power of the circles in which they were worn. Stuart Ewen recognizes that 'the relationship of style and social power is not a creation of twentieth-century consumer culture. This alliance has a long history.' Specifically the dress of the nobility provided 'excessive images [which] connoted a power over others: the employment of enormous forces of detailed labour for the purpose of body decoration; the enjoyment of waste and leisure in a context where most lives were spent in arduous squalor'.7

The wealthy had no sense of guilt in wearing their luxurious clothes. They saw this as their natural due and as the right of their social class. They firmly believed that it was also their social duty to look superbly and expensively dressed in order to uphold the visual public image of their rank. They were convinced that it was their duty, too, to provide employment for the workers who made the clothes in the luxury trades. When the vogue for heavyweight brocaded silks went out of fashion in the 1860s the specialist silk weavers in Lyons went hungry. Worth begged the French Empress, Eugenie, to wear evening gowns of heavy silk brocade, woven with complex jacquard patterns, a fabric which had been the mainstay of the town's industry. She much preferred the new fashion fabrics of plain, lightweight silk but agreed reluctantly. She hated the resulting dresses, calling them her 'robes politiques', but they did indeed get the looms working again.8

Overall the couture industry flourished in the 1880-1914 period. The consumer base widened. Paul Nystrom noted that Jeanne Lanvin was finding clients in Argentina through a successful branch outlet in Buenos Aires, whilst the house of Paquin was already selling 'to masses of wealthy women formerly not participating in the main currents . . . [through] developing sales outlets in a big way to department stores and to wholesalers for resale to dealers'. Illegal copying by private dressmaking salons was already a problem. Callot Soeurs took pirate companies to court, (they were usually private fashion houses till 1915) and then permitted buyers the right to reproduce, for a

6. Gordon, Lady Duff, Discretions and Indescretions, London: Jarrolds, 1932, p.70.

7. S. Ewen, 'Marketing Dreams - the Political Elements of Style', in Tomlinson, A., Consumption, Identity and Style, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 43-8.

8. Latour, A., Kings of Fashion, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1958, p. 85.

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