The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Are you Worthy?

I have recently been reading--OK, studying, it doesn't take that long for me to only read a book--Secrets of the Couturiers, by Frances Kennet. It's basically a brief history book, though at the end of each chapter it gives ideas of how to incorporate the featured designer's ideas. In reality, those pages are have little to do with the book, I think. Especially since they were adapting these ideas to 80's styles (the book was published in 1984), which, as everyone knows, are not worth repeating.

This book is, as I said, brief, but still more in-depth than anything I have gotten my hands on yet. (I know there are books out there on individual couturiers, and I do hope to get my hands on them at some point, but I am a little bit leery of finding them to be nothing but the telling of the scandalous tales of their lives in juicy detail.) As such, I know this book only shows a window into the world--how can you really sum up the entire work of a man in a few short pages and a picture or two? With further reading, I'm sure I'll revise my opinions, at least somewhat. But this post is based off of what I have here and now.

Why do I have such an obsession with couture? Well, to be perfectly honest, just because I named my blog by playing off of couture tradition, and I don't want to loose my joke. The rest of the 'couture' world worries about fashion and luxery, and here am I, working with cheap fabrics and making layman's clothes, and yet--still striving for extremely high standards and lots of handsewing. I know perfectly well that the very thing that keeps a language from becoming "dead" is it's ability to change. There are few words that haven't changed, at least some what, in meaning. But I cling to my understanding of the word couture--that is, sewing with extremely high standards and lots (or completely) hand sewing--because that is my joke.

But as I research the word 'couture', I discover no one knows what it means--or rather, everyone knows what it means to them, and to each their own meaning. What people mostly know is that 'couture' is a word with good standing and reputation, and exclusivity--which of course means everyone wants to claim it to themselves. One wants to claim to be the pinnacle of fashion, and so slaps the name 'couture' on velour tracksuits. Others wish to claim the prestige of 'couture', and claim that it implies nothing more than custom work indvidually fitted. They slap the word 'couture' to their work, too. And so, with much pomp and ritual (as all things couture must be), I follow suit.


Couture is high standards and much handsewing. Therefore, I am couture.

Don't give me a hard time about claiming couture. I just defined it, and I can assure you I can meet that standard. I mean, I'm currently in the process of spending many hours thread tracing by hand--a task so time consuming that even Susan Kahlje of Bridal Couture often does by machine instead--all my markings (including grainlines) into $1/yard muslin. It's going to wind up being the interlining to a cheap (perhaps $4/yd) cotton print, and turned into a summer dress I intended to fully live in, including sweat in and get dirty in. Le Maison de Tatterdemalion, c'est moi. Or something like that. Yes, I am crazy. Or at least absurd. But I like it that way.


So one of the things that I found interesting to do while reading this book is to see how the author handled the word "couture", and the things that would get the most emphasis on each of the couturiers. What, exactly, defines couture? Interestingly, even every individual couturier gave a different answer to this unspoken question. Even couturiers do not all agree on what it means to be a couturier. And the author is also herself inconsistent.

In the introduction, 'couture' means something akin to 'art by medium of cloth and able to be put on a person'. On page 9, she says that "The most interesting discovery to come out of any research into couture clothes is how variable the standard of workmanship, or of finish, can be, not just from one designer to another, but from one garment to another." That would seem to blow my definition out of the water, but she roundly contradicts herself on that point throughout the book, speaking of high workmanship of a couturier. As an example, when speaking of St. Laurent on p. 111, on St. Laurent's prediction of haute couture having only five more years left to live, she says "Perhaps his recent successes point the way toward a future where excellent quality and extremely high standards of workmanship will again rule the day." So I yet have grounds to cling to my smirking name.

But what, exactly, does garner the most praise as a successful couturier? Well, for the most part, he-who-has-the-most-money-wins. What did you expect? The traits of being an excellent "business man" or woman, and most especially being able to interpret the mood of the moment to the best sales, were the most defining parts of being a couturier. Claire McCardell got to be included, even though she didn't match Le Chambre Syndical's definition of couture, simply for her astronomical ability to make clothes people wanted to buy.

But, by far, the funniest story is about Charles Fredick Worth, the Father of Couture (as he is nearly always called). You see, as near as I can tell, Mr. Worth was almost as much the Father of Ready-to-Wear as he was the Father of Couture! Worth's major accomplishment, besides decorating dresses with passamentrie much like one might decorate a cookie with icing, was to commercialize the Paris fashion industry. On page 19, it is written "Parisian fashion has always been a subject of admiration and envy all over the world--Worth understood its appeal, objectively, and had the energy and showmanship to turn style into a major business." And again, she says "It is interesting, and at the same time a sad social comment, that Parisian couture had to fall into the hands of a man in order to become an industry, world-renowned."

Although Worth designed for the haut monde, the high world, the upper crust, his shop put out an absurd amount of clothes. The upper crust, besides being good for, and interested in, not much else besides wearing fancy clothing, were apparently in need of a new dress everytime they sneezed. Or more often, if the mood struck them.

"And besides," she writes on p. 21, "the volume of work his ateliers were required to turn out called for some simplification in cutting and sewing; on one occasion in 1866. . .Worth produced no fewer than 1000 ballgowns, each to be made within a week." And simplify he did.

"A description of his work, given in a catalogue from the Brooklyn Museum in 1962, explains:

Each pattern must have done yeoman work at the House of worth. An oblong skirt drapery introduced in the late 1860s continues basically unchanged into the late eighties. It may be trimmed with fringes, bands or fluting, or finished with rosettes, but the pattern remains the same. The gracefully pointed edge of an 1870 skirt is used again and again in the 1880s and 1890s until it disappears under the skirt to trim a turn-of-the-century petticoat. . .His gowns were made of many standard interchangeable parts--one sleeve could fit a variety of bodices.

Reminiscent of factory interchangeable parts, yes? So much for one-of-a-kind cuts. Not only that, but his workmanship wasn't always the hottest, either. On p. 22 she mentions "It is interesting that many of the original Worth gowns, particularly the evening wear, display a strange mixture of perfection and lack of finish. Quite often the edges of dresses made in satin or brocade are not hemmed at all, but have elaborate, heavily jeweled edging hand basted over the raw edge, or ribbons casually gathered and festooned down the side of an unfinished overskirt opening."

So much for quality work!

But, for all of my mocking, I don't deny that he was good at what he did. From the work of his that I have seen (and I would like to see more), it was carefully balanced. He managed to make things look opulent without making things look cluttered. He certainly had an eye for detail and proportion. And, of course, he very popular among the rich and famous, and most of all, he made lots and lots of money.

His son, Gaston, went on to organize the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Francaise, the great grand ol' bureaucratic organization that is currently dictating who, exactly, is legally able to use the words haute couture on their work. According to the Wikipedia, the rules are simple: to be designated as haute couture a minimum of fifteen people must be employed at the workshops and must present to the press in Paris each season (spring/summer and autumn/winter) a collection of at least thirty-five runs comprising outfits for daytime wear and evening wear. I cannot seem to locate the rules in the Chambre's own words, but Claire Shaeffer (in Couture Sewing Techniques) goes so far as to say they insist that the workrooms themselves be in Paris.

And do you want to know what the crowning joke for all of this is? Charles Fredrick Worth, the Father of Couture, the leader of French fashion. . .was an English man!!

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home