The haute couture (French for “high fashion”) was founded in 1910 by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. In 1945, the Chambre added specifications for designers to be included in the group, including requirements regarding the incorporation and mastery of handwork. These requirements were made official by French ministers as a means to measure the national economy and industrial production as well as to differentiate haute couture design from other methods of creating clothing, which relied more heavily on machine-making techniques. In 1973, this group became known as the Federation Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, which it continues to be called today.
The founding of the Chambre in 1910 has special significance in regard to the theme of our Spring 2016 Costume Institute exhibition, Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, which examines the synergy between man and machine in the world of fashion design. The sewing machine was invented by Barthelemy Thimonnier in 1829, and perfected by Isaac Singer in 1851. From that date, the sewing machine was used on an industrial level to create clothing for the masses while also allowing faster development of haute couture. In the sixty-year period from Singer’s invention to the coining of the term “haute couture,” the line was blurred between haute couture and ready-to-wear production techniques, with garments incorporating a range of production techniques.
In sharp contrast, a signature aspect of haute couture designs is that they are fitted to a single model: the final owner and wearer of the garment (or a mannequin created to their exact measurements), whereas ready-to-wear is produced in standardized sizes. The addition of standards of finishing and in particular embellishment by the Chambre in 1945 further distinguished the two methods of fashion design and production.
These techniques were first named and defined as “métiers” in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raissoné de sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts), which was published from 1751 to 1772. Within the volume, the dressmaking trades were discussed with equal regard to the arts and sciences, and as such the publication was considered incendiary and banned for many years after 1772.
Below, we explain a few of the chief métiers examined in Manus x Machina and as celebrated in our exhibition store. To learn more about the métiers and see further examples, shop our exhibition catalogue, authored by Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton.
“Plissage” or pleating and folding dates back to early dynastic period Egypt (3100 – 2649 B.C.). The technique was revolutionized in the 1760s by fan maker Martin Petit, who designed the first paper molds to form pleats. The forms featured two interlocking layers in between which fabric was laid and exposed to heat and moisture and left to dry to create a long-lasting pleat. This method was later replaced by the rotary pleating machine in the nineteenth century. Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo developed his own secret hand-pleating method that remains mysterious today and was imitated by American designer Mary McFadden in 1975, who patented her own permanent pleating technique called “Marii” after the designer. Designer Issey Miyake established his “Pleats Please” line in 1993, using a technique of creating garments at multiple times the final size and folding, ironing, and lacing garments through a heat press to create permanent pleats, which he continues to evolve today.
“Dentellerie” or lacework was first introduced during the 15th century and became more widely popular in the following century. Historically, various artisans collaborated on the final piece, each specializing in one stage of production required in the final product. The first machine lace was created in 1809 by John Heathcoat’s patented Bobbinet machine, which created a netted ground on which hand-embroidered embellishment could be added. This was furthered by John Leavers’ 1813 invention, which could produce complete lace with a pattern. By the mid-twentieth century, commercial knitting and embroidery machines rose to popularity, allowing for the fast and inexpensive production of lace and other embellishments previously only possible by hand.
“Parurier Floral” or artificial flowers continue to be a key embellishment for haute couture design. Typically, artificial flower creation begins with preparing the base material with flour or gelatin to create a moldable surface. This is then formed and cut into individual petals, which are anchored together using glue or are sewn to create a finished bloom. This process has changed little over time, other than the development of machines to stamp out the petal shapes and the introduction of more sophisticated dying techniques.