Haute Couture Anyone?
Tu est belle
We love to appropriate words that make us sound smart, especially French words, even if we don’t really know how to use it properly. You have risqué, a la mode, corsage, and au naturel to name a few. The misuse may irritate those in the know, but one word that some people frequently use wrong can actually get them in legal trouble, and that is “couture.”
How is the word misused, exactly? Let us count the ways. Many celebrities take it to mean fashionable, so when they put their name on a garment or such, they think their celebrity is enough to make it worthy of the word “couture.” You have Pamela Anderson Couture Collection (referring to $40 thigh high stockings obviously meant to cash in on her provocative reputation). You also have “Alexis Couture” referring to the line of clothing suitable for any streetwalker designed by “The Real Housewives of Orange County” member Alexis Bellina. The fact is, “couture” cannot be attached to any line of clothing (or jewelry and accessories for that matter) unless it is conferred by Chambre syndicale de la haute couture.
Michael Cinco and his wonderful creation
The term “couture” is actually a contraction of “haute couture,” which does mean “high fashion,” but it also refers to customized clothing made of high quality materials by expert dressmakers. The law protects the conferment of the term, and the Paris Chamber of Commerce has very strict guidelines regarding it. In fact, you have to be a member to even be considered at all. A designer aspiring to earn the right to use the term must:
- Create customized clothing for their clients, complete with fittings
- Run a Paris atelier (workshop) with 15 or more full-time staff and 20 full-time technical workers
- Annually present a minimum of 50 original designs for day and evening clothing during the fashion seasons in January and July
There are only a handful of “haute couture” designers, and it is understandable if they take offense when the term is carelessly bandied about. It is obviously distinct from ready-to-wear (prêt-a-porter) clothing lines, no matter how popular or expensive, because it has to be made-to-order. It also happens to be expensive and sought after, but that is more of a consequence rather than a requirement.
However, you do not have to be French to earn the right to use the term haute couture. In fact, the first person to whom it was associated with was not French, but an Englishman named Charles Frederick Worth, who designed beautiful and meticulously crafted clothing made from unusual fabrics for the nobility and royalty of Paris in the 1850s. Foreign designers may be invited to become members and thus pave the way for international recognition as a house of haute couture.
Haute couture serves to inspire budding fashion designers to strive for excellence in design and execution. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to be among the stars of Paris fashion. However, you cannot use of the term couture in labeling and marketing clothing unless it has satisfied the established criteria. It is not only inappropriate, it is illegal.