Embroidery and Couture

Because of its decorative potential as well as its ability to connote status, hand embroidery was from the beginning included in the battery of haute couture's specialized techniques. The lavishly time-intensive, specialized nature of the art, and the costliness of the materials, made it the ultimate signifier of luxury. Embroidery houses, employing highly talented designers and technicians, became an integral part of the couture industry. The most famous of these was the House of Lesage.

It is fitting that Charles Frederick Worth, designer of the Empress Eugenie's court clothing, was a master in the incorporation of embroidery as a status confirming (or conferring) accoutrement. An early design that won a medal at the 1855 Exposition Universelle was of bead-embroidered moire. Jeanne Lanvin typically eschewed patterned fabrics for embroidery. She was one of the first designers to exploit the use of machine embroidery, incorporating parallel line machine stitching as a decorative motif.

Designers such as Mary McFadden and Zandra Rhodes have adopted embroidery, with a particular interest in the manipulation of textiles for artistic effect. When combined with other techniques such as stenciling, batik, quilting, or handpainting, embroidery draws attention to the textile as a rich surface, rather like a canvas. In other cases designers use embroidery to float over the surface fabric. Dior was a master of this illusionary approach to embroidery, which ignores seamlines and construction, creating its own field of vision.

Ethnic embroidery inspirations have long infused couture, from Lanvin's designs of the 1920s to Yves Saint Laurent's "peasant" blouses and skirts. Other designers have mined long-established associations between embroidery and femininity; the sensuous aesthetic of Nina Ricci and Chloe is often heightened by delicate embroidery.

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