I find myself at times thinking about the nature of fashion, from an anthropological standpoint. Why is it that so many artists and artisans have dedicated their livelihood to the creation of garments? Why is it that a piece of fashion can evoke the same kind of neurological responses in some of us that the Mona Lisa evokes in others? The answer, I believe, lies in one concept, epitomized for instance in last week’s Paris haute couture shows: the idea of beauty.
As a subscriber of the “fashion as art” mindset, I find that I often engage in conversations and reflections about fashion as commerce versus fashion as an art form. While some maintain that anything sold commercially forfeits its artistic possibilities, others argue that art is subjective, a variant of the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” adage. While I still debate this tension at times, I know one thing for sure: haute couture still has a place within the cultural conversation, a persistent piece of evidence that the world still produces the kinds of artists that labor manually in order to achieve beauty through a perfectly designed piece of clothing.
Historically speaking, haute couture can be dated back to the early 1700s as a part of French culture, as it was influenced by current trends in art, architecture, music, and fashions of the French royalty. More recently, the work of British-born designer Charles Frederick Worth, a perennial bastion of Parisian fashion, simultaneously gave birth to the democratization of the term haute couture and helped expand the international possibilities of the fashion industry.
In essence, Worth revolutionized dressmaking (his legacy still lives on, in fact, through the House of Worth brand). This revolution came as a result of the care that went into customization. In essence, the human body acted as a worthy companion to the garment, singularized and special. One garment, one model, specific colors, fabrics, and embellishments. This was the genesis of individualized tailoring, or, what we now commonly refer to as “tailor-made”.
Even today, haute couture show garments are not meant to be commercialized. Instead the focus is on “image promotion.” In essence, it is the fashion world’s own version of the art show. The term itself literally means “high fashion,” custom-fitted clothing that is created by hand. Every last stitch is sewn exquisitely, and every last detail is accounted for. No expense is spared. In this way, the sky is the limit, and an art form is perpetuated, even in the age of “Instafashion.” Instead, these haute couture pieces have no price tag.
Thus, in an effort to honor the artists of today, these brave pioneers of fashion, I’ve chosen both Chanel and Giambattista Valli, as the two standout representatives of haute couture ideals. Both used the color white. Both contained whispers elegance and beauty in their designs and details. Yet neither amalgamated into the other. While Chanel used white embellished for royalty, with nuances of gold and silver as an homage to the best of European aristocracy, Giambattista Valli used white sheer fabrics, the hints of floral embroidery in appliqué designs a nod to the Americas, and, more specifically, the sweet charm of the American South.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to report that haute couture is alive and well, as evidenced by these brilliant designers. The art form lives on, despite globalization and the lingering effects and pressures of unadulterated capitalism. Art still exists in the fashion world, due to an unquenchable thirst for more, the souls and instincts of artists who never stop seeking something new, something beautiful.