Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Couture, and Couture

    The past, the present, and the future.  What was the couture? What is it now? What will it be in time?  In the 1800s with Charles Frederick Worth, or some might say in the 1700s under the aegis of Madame Rose Bertin, the concept of the couture as an elevated form of apparel design and construction came into being. For well over a century and a half Couture has reigned as the axiom to which all others aspire.  And that appellation is closely held by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris.
    What did it mean in 1890?  What did it mean in 1960?  What does it mean now?
    In 1890 the word of the Couture was law.  It was the ultimate to which all others reached but could not grasp.  Dressmakers and manufacturers cried themselves to sleep because they could not achieve the levels of detail and finish the couture required. Ladies knew on sight who wore what and who wore whom.  The clothes quite literally spoke for themselves in their materials, details, and fit.  Couture was a significant mechanism for maintaining the social status quo. A lady of means knew in an instant whether the woman she spoke to was on her level, above her, or a parvenu.
    By implementing dozens of ill paid workers, wealthy women could parade themselves in, honestly, quite insanely lavish clothing that was utterly unsuitable for any activity beyond smiling and eating dinner.  But what it did do was relate in inescapable terms the wealth and connections of the wearer.  A woman wearing clothing that required multiple persons to wash and iron, even to fold and put away, was evidently a person of greater significance than someone else, regardless of her reality.  It was the difference between reality and surface that was ultimate, even as it is now.
    By 1960, something has shifted. The young of the society had taken the reins of economic power.  So those who assayed Couture were instantly outside of the cool and chic.  They were relegated, to a person, to the also rans. Did this stop couturiers from doing what they did?  Not a bit of it!  What they did was try desperately to court the young. The real problem was that the really young couldn't afford the massive prices of the Couture, nor were they willing to endure multiple fittings and endless fuss.  So suddenly the Couture found itself in a quandry, and teetering on the edge of utter collapse.  Young women were no longer interested in the sort of effete and rarefied world the Couture supplied.  So an answer had to be found.
    In the 1980s, for a short while, an answer was found in the return of women to the Couture as an ultimate label of social and economic status during that period when cash and it's physical manifestations seemed to be king.  Suddenly during this "me" generation Couture houses were booming, and all the associated ateliers that supported them were too. Sadly for the Couture, this was a short lived experience.  By the 1990s that "me first, give me everything" mindset had been put aside.  It became all about bucking the status quo and reveling in one's individuality. Suddenly designers like Rei Kawabuko,  Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen , and Yohji Yamamoto took the lead and the couture experienced a surge, if not in real time profits through sales of clothes, then real time profits through sales of accessories.
     That led the way to where we are now.  Does the fashion that comes down the runways of Paris, Milan, or London truly define what will be worn? Nope. Not any more.  What they still do is reign supreme over accessories purchase.  A man or a woman may not be able to afford a pret a porter or Couture Dior outfit, but they can manage to scrape the money together for the bag, the belt, the shoes, or the wallet.
    Sadly, that is what the Couture has come to.  It is largely no longer something that ends up on racks in stores.  It is a methodology for moving accessories in massive numbers.  Fewer than a couple tens of thousands of people on earth can actually afford to purchase, and do purchase couture clothes.  Only a tenth of that number are men.  So if the Couture is to survive at all it must reach out, as it has done, to other markets that can afford what they supply.
    So, 2016.  What does the Couture industry do now?  Is it an experimental lab where ideas get a chance to burgeon? Yes. Is it a place where the ultimate of design and construction can come together? Yes.  Is it a place where art for art's sake is still done? Yes.  The really big question is how much relevance it has to the rest of our growing population of people.  It was one thing when the couture served a significant section of the upper part of society.  It was one thing when it was something other, away, and somehow not connected to us.  But social media and changes in how we live have shifted the power center away from Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aries, London, and Rome.
    Society and technology are moving us away from this concept of ultimate design.  If we cannot afford it, there are others whose work we can afford that are similarly innovative and interesting, though not as superlatively rendered.  And in our disposable, "now and more is better" culture, perhaps the best, isn't actually good enough any more.

And I must ask, what does that say about us as a culture?


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