The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Couture, considered I: What does it mean?

This is the first of 4 parts that are sort of all inter-related. I have been frustrated in my writing of them because the only chances I get at writing is when my mind is least focused. I finally decided I just needed to get these thoughts out of my head, even if I couldn't write them as well as I wanted. For one thing, they address an issue the keeps cropping up, so I keep having very repetitive thoughts. I must drive them out! Nonetheless, let me know if you want something clarified. . .Or just general want to discuss the matters.

One of the things I (delightedly) got for Christmas was Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire Shaeffer. This was the first thing that every informed me there was such a thing as couture sewing, the book that got me interested in it, and as far as I'm currently concerned, the most authoritative book on the subject currently out there. First, of course, is my humble pie, as she does mention them using sewing machines at times. The worst part is, she mentioned it in passing, and if you hadn't happened to read that part, you would read through the rest of the book without realizing it. They do thoroughly hand baste it so that it is practically sewn before it ever gets under the machine so there is no chances of distortion or stretching.

Well, that isn't actually the worst part, the worst part is that I'm afraid I did that with Roberta car's Couture: The Art of Fine Sewing, slandering her needlessly. I remember I was very tired the day I read that book, and in hurry besides, because it was due the next day, and I could easily have missed the all important paragraph talking about thorough hand basting such that the machine couldn't eat all of your hours of hard work laying out your fabric perfectly on grain. In which case, I repent in ashes and sackcloth--except I don't know if they sell sackcloth anymore, so it might just have to be dust and burlap. (Oh, bothers, can't I just get away with skipping my shower and wearing a scratchy wool sweater?)

Anyway, since writing my posts on couture books, I have been seeing the word pop up in more and more different places. Of course, this is probably due more to an extra sensitivity, not to it actually popping up in more places, but it has gotten me thinking. That, and Roberta car's description of what couture is. (Speaking of "popping up" and "what couture is", I just saw an article in today's Wall Street Journal. It defined "Haute Couture" as "Clothes that are handsewn to order by fashion houses that use fine materials and meet other French government requirements. Ten designers now have the designation, including Chanel, down from 40 in the early 1960s." Actually the article was entitled "A Stir over 'Semi-Couture': New niche invokes high-end design, but critics call it a marketing ploy." Semi-Couture was defined as "some designers have begun using this term to describe clothes that are machine made but in limited quantities. . .sometimes using fine materials like those in haute couture clothes." But enough of this tangent, and back to our originally scheduled program. . .)

My hard-headedness in saying that a basic cornerstone of couture is sewing by hand is challenged in my own thinking. Certainly there is quite a bit of hand sewing done there, but is that a basic rule of couture sewing, or is it just a means to the end? When Charles Worth, the supposed Father of Haute Couture was opening his house, sewing machines were only just beginning to be invented. High quality sewing was in no way related to sewing machines. Hand sewing persists, but not as a rule--thou shalt only sew by hand--, but as a means to an end of highest quality in workmanship. There are yet things that must be done by hand to have the highest degree of workmanship, or even be done at all.

So what was a founding rule of the couture houses? If one remembers that couture means "sewing", and haute couture only means "high sewing", we are left with asking what the "high" refers to. I have always said it refers to workmanship, and put all of it's emphasis on that. However, a more honest appraisal might be that I want it to only refer to workmanship. The "high" sewing was sewing for "high" people--aristocrats and royalty. But of course they were opulent and extravagant--was this any less of a founding principle than workmanship? I want to say no; it doesn't matter what the style or thought, so long as the technique is of high quality. Tastes in fashion differ so much, it seems impossible to judge whether a garment has indeed a high enough level of style and opulence and extravagance to warrant being called "couture" (or "haute couture"). Nonetheless, an objective look at who the couture houses still market to, and how they are regulated, leads me to confess that yes, haute couture, high sewing, is as much about extravagance and "high" people as it is about sewing techniques. (Much to my great disappointment, and another score for Roberta Carr.)

So having felt out "haute couture" a bit more, I see that the word still does not refer to what I want to talk about. Is "couture" any better at encompassing what I mean? What does couture mean? Why, but that's irrelevant! It doesn't have to mean anything, it's just, you know, advertising.

I remember once reading a children's book, titled Frindle. Frindle?! What on earth is that supposed to mean? It means, in the book, some kid had a great grasp on the fact that a word doesn't have to mean, in and of itself, anything. It doesn't have to be related to other words, or languages, or anything. All that matters is how the word is used, and what people in general understand it to mean. In this book, the kid decided he was going to change the name of an ordinary household object, so that everyone called it by something other than what they had. He picked a ball point pen, and decided to call it a "frindle" instead. The first day he went into a drugstore and asked if he could buy a "frindle", and of course, the guy behind the counter thought the kid was nuts, but eventually sold him the pens--I mean, frindles. The kid got a bunch of his friends to do the same thing, and by the end of the week when someone asked to buy some frindles, the owner just asked "Black or blue ink?"

In the book, the word "frindle" came to mean "pen" throughout the nation. The kid picked a totally nonsensical word that meant nothing, and changed it to mean "pen". So it no longer mattered why it was called "frindle", it was simply accepted that those plastic thing-ys that you write with were frindles.

I feel like the same thing has been done with the word "couture". It no longer matters what the word is supposed to mean. It means what the common person thinks it to mean. And the first thing that pops into the common persons mind when they hear the word couture--do you really think it has anything to do with sewing, much less custom sewing? It has to do with class, with attitude, with velour track suits, with the implicit statement that it is cutting edge, hot, worthy of a high price. Here's a short-sleeved "hoody" sweater. It's made of a cotton/poly blend terry. Zip closure. Machine washable. Made in USA. Savvy. (Yes, that's part of the description.) And, of course, it has a $128 price tag. Because it's couture--Juicy Couture! Mass made, sold all over, and couture. Juicy Couture is the first hit if you Google "couture".

So regardless of what "couture" ever meant, it is no longer relevant to what I want to talk about. Even if it did mean what I mean at one point, it ceases to do so any longer. Couture is just an advertising buzz word, meant to draw the young things with lots of money to spend, and a desire to spend it on clothes.

So to me, I feel I can no longer use the word "couture", except in reference to books that have it in their titles. It's meaning has changed, if it ever held what I thought it held. I thought "couture" was a high compliment, a rare thing, and now it is a cheap splash of glitz, splashed all over products in hope of luring people in.

In fact, I can find no word that encompasses the things I want to talk about. Some people use the word "bespoke"--as in "bespoke tailoring"--, but I refuse to be part of the crowd stripping that word of all meaning. Bespoke tailoring, as I understand it, is a quite specific term and it refers to tailoring, to suits, not to any form of garment you happen to be making at the time.

I suppose, if I was clever, I'd come up with my own "frindle"--a word that means what I want it to mean, even if it just a nonsensical one. Then all I'd have to do is hold enough sway to convert everyone over to my word. But first I'd have to find people interested in even having a need for such a word--people who wanted to talk about it or practice it. And that, by itself, would be quite a trick.


Anonymous LV wallet said...

I was in between sizes on the chart and I ordered this size, but I am exchanging it for a size smaller. I would still say the dress is true to size- it was my error to order the next size up.

4:39 AM  

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