The art of Couture

As the Haute-Couture shows – or Couture, as they are nowadays merely called – have started in Paris, it is relevant to question a long-standing matter in the fashion industry, which I am particularly interested in, to the extent that I am currently writing a Master’s degree dissertation related to it.

Is Fashion art? Is Couture art?

If some might argue that due to its obvious commercial interest, fashion cannot have the status of art – which is, I believe hypocrisy: the art world can be very money-focused too, especially in contemporary art, and not only is art meant to be sold, but also very reliant of huge sums of money  – then this is not the case of Couture.

The actual survival of Couture itself is threatened by the lack of commercial interest. Indeed his week’s show might as well be the last one for genius couturier Christian Lacroix – following many iconic houses which stopped their Couture activities in the past years, from Lanvin to Yves Saint Laurent, from Balmain to Versace. And the houses which are still part of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture can be counted on one’s fingers, not to mention those which, this year, will not show for various economic reasons.

I find this quite sad: skills which have been transmitted throughout generations of craftsmen who create the most beautiful embroidery – such as Maison Lesage – handmade lace or pleating details, might vanish for the domination of the cheap clones of fast-fashion.

When fashion is made for the sake of beauty, creativity, displaying extraordinary talent and skills, with unique pieces that might even not be sold, or if so, to special clients and with a very high price tag… isn’t it the definition of art?

One cannot consider one second that art could disappear, because it is part of society, of culture, and there will always be sponsors and patrons to help artists. So why, in our capitalist, and fashion-obsessed society, is there no one to save Couture, the soul of fashion, the art of fashion?


Paintings found in the fantastic book “Fashion in Art”, by Marie Simon. Left: Two Young Girls on a Balcony, by Constantin Guys, 1855. Right: Portrait of Madame Charles Max, by Giovanni Boldini, 1896.

13 Responses to “The art of Couture”

  1. The Boldini’s painting is gorgeous. Kisses.

  2. Hi Alize,

    It’s a thorny question. My own opinion is that haute couture is art by proxy – just as advertising can be creative even if it’s designed to sell. Haute couture will continue to exist as long as it creates an image that nourishes a supporting structure of ready-to-wear, bags, shoes, sunglasses, cosmetics and perfume. Unfortunately for Lacroix, he did not have that supporting structure. And since only about 300 women in the world actually buy haute couture, his business was doomed.

    Haute couture cannot exist in isolation: unlike art, it is created not by individuals but by hundreds of “petit mains”, the workers who stitch and embroider and presumably need to be paid. Then there’s the cost of fabric, of flying models from godforsaken Russian towns and of staging the theatrical show itself.

    Didier Grumbach, the chairman of the Chambre Syndicale, has no illusions about this matter. He said to me: “Are we in art, or are we in la fripe (the rag trade)? The answer is quite clear: we are in la fripe.”

    At the Madeleine Vionnet exhibition in Paris, I found this quote from the lady herself: “We are not couturiers in the abstract… Couturiers dress human beings, not dreams.”

    Today that is not the case. Haute couture only exists when it dresses dreams…which are are then sold as luxury accessories. At Chanel’s haute couture show yesterday, the models emerged from giant perfume flacons. The message was pretty clear.

    I’m sure further debate will follow. Keep up the good work,

    Mark x

  3. I shall always have a romantic vision of Couture. For me, it is pure art. It is raw expression and beauty, that quite frankly, ready-to-wear and everyday fashion could never beat. It is sad to compare the dwindling number of Couture shows today to the fabulous ’50s, or to be honest, a mere two decades ago.

    I get quite annoyed when people do not consider Couture as art purely because it has a different primary function and can be sold. A building is made to be sold or rented, and is made to be lived in not just admired, but that doesn’t detract from the beauty of architecture. Couture is similar to the most splendid of architecture, because it is crafted to be amazingly beautiful, yet also happens to have that functionality of being clothing.

    Couture is the raw idea, and that is then filtered down and adapted. Even those lucky enough to buy Couture do not wear it straight from the catwalk. They have it altered, cut, and essentially, made less dramatic in the obvious sense to make it more wearable. The fact that they have to make those changes, supports the idea that the original serves as art, and art that inspires fashion.

    I really do hope support can be drummed up for the couturiers to continue their artwork and expression, because without them, both the fashion and art world would not be the same. Not to mention that the techniques and skills that would be lost and forgotten. The collections employ the best of the best, and do so to present the greatest of all fashions, so without them I am not sure fashion in general could continue at its best level.

  4. Beautiful piece, darling Alize!

    You do know my take on fashion – and couture is no different. I believe it epitomizes art in the fashion world – hand stitched, hand beaded, etc. The toils and love of an artist poured into something so extravagant, from the sketches, to the material, to the execution of the piece!

    And couture collections hold the most culture & history, I believe – every couture collection is a melange of that artist’s/location’s/etc. history. It’s truly beautiful!

    La C.

  5. Oh and in response to your comment: Oh mon Dieu that sounds unbelievably amazing, so much that I am incredibly jealous! It sounds so beautiful, darling! Alize. Of course I approve – your style sounds impeccable!

    And I just spent an hour or so re-reading your archives ❤

    La C.

  6. Hello Alize,
    So happy you left such a lovely comment on my blog so that it lead me to yours, I love it! I haven’t made it very far into your posts but I’ll be sure to return to read more into it, this initial post has me very intrigued. I love the idea of returning to fashion on a personal level where things are made very specially (handmade lace!) and not mass produced (or being influenced by production schedules, making money). Also this post comes right in time for all the couture shows being reported back from Paris… what do you think of them so far? Will be back soon, thanks again for your comment. xo Bernadette (

  7. Pierre-Jean: I know, so airy and romantic, so soft and elegant and this drape! x
    Mark T: Thanks for your insightful contribution. I agree with you that Couture feeds the myth, the extravagance and the fearless creativity of designers and houses and supports the ‘trade’ by creating this image that make people dream. That made me dream of the wonderful world of fashion as a little girl (which I had yet to realise is not really wonderful). You are probably right: a house needs both to function. But for me, Couture is not ‘rag trade’ (I’m sorry M. Grumbach!). May I quote artist Octave Uzanne: ‘Dress for a woman is the first of the arts…’
    Dapper Kid: I have the same romantic vision as you, my dear. I completely agree that without Couture, not only would the skills be lost or the level of work lowered, but the creativity would probably not be pushed as much. Couture does provide that inspiration, regardless of what sells and what is ‘trendy’: it is FREE (almost). And I think the comparison with architecture is very relevant. Fashion is not art like fine art is. But it is an artistic, creative, visual discipline, with a commercial side to it, just like cinema, dance, architecture. It inspires other artistic disciplines. Thanks for feeding the discussion with such inspired thoughts.
    La C.: Agreed. Couture is inspired by everything, and so inspiring as a result. Thinking of all the references to artists in each Couture collection.. And I guess the now rarity of Couture collections makes them all the more unique and special. I just hope our generation is not the last one to witness this (fashionable) form of art.
    Bernadette: Thank you. I wrote this post especially because I thought of it as relevant since it is Couture week and because of the current situation for the house of Lacroix. Maybe because there were few, I found the collections particularly striking. Clues: love and endless admiration for Givenchy and Alexis Mabille. 😉

  8. Hey Alize,
    I loved Givenchy! Hands down my favorite. I did like Alexis Mabille too, though I have to admit I do not know much about him. I liked how casual the collection was for couture, simple. And those ribbons! Was curious to know your thoughts since you’re writing your dissertation on couture. Good luck with it! xo Bernadette

  9. Bernadette: Agreed. Apart from his gorgeous bows, I didn’t know Mabille’s work so much either. Actually, my dissertation is not exactly on Couture, it’s more on the relationship between fashion and the arts. I’ll come back to it anyway! x

  10. The question of art..
    This matter appears to have troubled many philosophers, raised your interest and traumatised many students (No, no, I am not making a reference out of my own case!)
    If you want to determine whether Couture is an Art or not, you need a sound definition of art.
    For once, I must say I partly disagree with you : Art is not only about the display of extraordinary talents, but also and above all else about the elevation of the minds, to allow more cultivated thinking. ( I am practically referring to Kant and his Critique of Judgment here)
    Now, does Couture allow us to do so? It might not do the job with me, but I am positive it does it with you Lily.
    This brings us to another question : does art need to be universally considered art to actually be Art?
    I am sorry, I hope this post is not as confused as I (now) am……:-/
    Interesting post anyways, leading once more to interesting thinking, Come sempre 😉

  11. It is impossible to get everyone agree on the meaning of Art. It is an expression, or a form of. Keeping this in mind, it would be impossible to suggest couture is not art, especially the great point you made about handmade – and not mass produced – pieces.

    Subjectivity is unavoidable in art, and always will be. Because creativity is just that; exploration, subjective, beautiful and ugly. However I also believe the success of art (earning money, gaining interest, creating word of mouth, not going bankrupt and in this case the falling of couture) can not be used to argue if art is art or not. Most argue the most famous artists are merely an artist :). Success of art (in this case couture) is dependent on the social culture; what we want NOW, what we NEED now and what we SEE now. Art is precious, but that won’t mean it will survive/must survive. Because art has many forms, and like with most things in life, it changes; It changes format, culture, people, and we evolve with each change.

    So we sometimes leave some art behind. Not the feeling of it, but the physicality of it.

  12. Olivier: I do love your philosophical take, it’s amazing how everyone’s knowledge is bringing to the conversation, I’m liking this. I also love the idea of: “does art need to be universally considered art to actually be Art?”. I think that’s the key matter, since the definition of art is subjective after all, and the idea of couture differs for many – and non-fashion-lovers might dismiss it particularly, often by lack of knowledge or differentiation with ready-to-wear.
    Nes: Wow, such an interesting insight, again. You are very right, it is all about how a discipline adapts to its times, ‘survival of the fittest’ style. There is the beauty of heritage (of a house, a couturier), of history and old craftsmanship, but eventually it’s what is done now that matters. Plus, I think the lesson is that no matter how good and creative art is, you always need a good accountant, sponsor, or financier to make sure the business side works too. It goes altogether.

  13. Hello Alize,

    I cannot claim to have half of the knowledge of Couture & fashion that the previous contributers clearly possess, but I feel just as compelled to comment now as when we met and told me about this article. I still find the thought of Couture no-longer existing heart breaking and I can’t comprehend how anybody can look at some of the amazing creations over history and describe them as anything other than art.

    My personal definition of art is; if that which is in question can trigger emotion (positive and negative are just as valid), and to play with your imagination by challenging what you thought was possible though any medium. Couture does this equally to anything I have ever experienced – poetry, architecture, painting, illustration, sculpture, music, story telling… (I could go on, but it is now 2am).

    For me Couture is the soul of fashion, and the body cannot live with out the soul. I am sure the support can be gathered to keep this industry(?)/ dream factory alive, provided it is given the right platform and/or exposure.

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