Haute Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evening dress, ca. 1887
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Silk, glass, metallic thread
Gift of Mr. Orme Wilson and Mr. R. Thornton Wilson in memory of their mother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949 (C.I.49.3.28a,b)

Evening dress, 1892
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, crystal, metallic threads
Gift of Mr. Orme Wilson and Mr. R. Thornton Wilson in memory of their mother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949 (C.I.49.3.25a,b)

Both of these evening dresses provide examples of the quality of dressmaking for which Charles Frederick Worth and the House of Worth were renowned among society women worldwide by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Both feature lavish textiles and pieces designed to become specific parts of the dress, such as a center front skirt panel. Significant design details, such as the beaded stars at the hemline of the dress on the left (C.I.49.3.28a,b) and the asymmetry of the skirt drapery, differentiate Worth gowns from the countless imitators of the period.

Coat, ca. 1919
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Black silk and wool blend with white leather appliqués and white fur trim
Gift of Mrs. David J. Colton, 1961 (C.I.61.40.4)

In the 1910s, Poiret introduced an avant-garde sensibility into couture. His penchant for opulent gestures, lush fabrics, fur, and feathers was part of his grandiose Gesamtkunstwerk, inspired by stage and Orientalist extravaganza. He was also capable of more subdued garments. In the case of this day coat, the leather of the appliqués is cut into delicate filigree and couched by hand onto the wool to create a graphic lattice of white over black. The cylindrical silhouette and standing collar suggest inspiration from Chinese or Near Eastern robes and coats.

Robe de style, 1924–25
Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946)
Ivory and black silk taffeta trimmed with pink and black silk velvet rosettes
Gift of Mrs. W. R. Grace, 1956 (C.I.56.49.1)

Robe de style, 1924–25
Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946)
Ivory and black silk taffeta trimmed with pink and black silk velvet rosettes
Gift of Mrs. William B. Given Jr., 1979 (1979.122.1)

High art as well as haute couture have often been erroneously associated with the sovereign disposition. But haute couture has also been conditioned on the relationship between couture ideas and the will of the client. A client seeking a demure profile might ask for a particular décolletage treatment, while another might demand an alternative. A designer would allow variation only in modules, but a couture garment often becomes a synergy of client and couturier.

Day suit, ca. 1937
Jean Patou (French, 1887–1936)
Black wool gabardine with silk grosgrain inserts
Gift of Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen, 1978 (1978.165.20a,b)

Patou constructed a tailored suit as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. Formed as a gabardine suit with all the pattern pieces wholly constructed, the silk grosgrain diamonds were inserted replacing gabardine squares. Each diamond is composed of four mitered elements. By this analytical technique, the suit is integrally conceived, and the front of the suit reveals the wool ground as a full surround.

Day suit, ca. 1937
Jean Patou (French, 1887–1936)
Black wool gabardine with silk grosgrain inserts
Gift of Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen, 1978 (1978.165.20a,b)

Patou constructed a tailored suit as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. Formed as a gabardine suit with all the pattern pieces wholly constructed, the silk grosgrain diamonds were inserted replacing gabardine squares. Each diamond is composed of four mitered elements. By this analytical technique, the suit is integrally conceived, and the front of the suit reveals the wool ground as a full surround.

Evening gown, 1939
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Pale pink lamé and black silk lace appliquéd with black silk velvet
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, 1952 (C.I.52.24.2a,b)

A bias lamé underdress is visible through the veil of a lace overdress with velvet. Seeking the unity of the garment and the integrity of the cloth, Vionnet found simplification even in lace, adding only a small panel at the waist to the one-piece bodice. Thus, even in the sheerest and inherently particled garment, Vionnet insisted on the largest possible element.

Bar” suit and jacket, spring/summer 1947
Christian Dior (French, 1905–1957); Christian Dior Haute Couture (French, founded 1947)
Silk shantung

Gift of Mrs. John Chambers Hughes, 1958 (C.I.58.34.30)

Skirt, executed in 1969 from a 1947 design
Reproduction of a skirt designed by Christian Dior (French, 1905–1957); reproduction of a skirt designed for Christian Dior Haute Couture (French, founded 1947)
Wool

Gift of Christian Dior, 1969 (C.I.69.40)

Christian Dior’s “Bar” suit is the iconic New Look ensemble, featuring as it does the sloped shoulders, articulated bust, nipped waist, and padded hips. This silhouette required myriad underpinnings, which in the case of Dior’s designs were built in rather than purchased separately. A repudiation of the styles of the 1920s and ’30s, it was also clearly indebted to the styles and body-shapers of the late nineteenth century. Although it would seem that the heavily structured silhouette of the 1950s would allow for some relaxation of the management of the body underneath, fashion magazines dictated strict diet and control. In 1949, Vogue introduced “Diet X,” a 750-calorie-a-day regime to be followed for ten days, and published several versions of it in the 1950s. A 1953 editorial in Harper’s Bazaar noted that people who failed to maintain a good figure “don’t have a good enough opinion of themselves to want to look their best.” This emphasis on internal control may be the reason that the nineteenth-century carapace of undergarments was not revived along with its silhouette. The waist cinchers that were introduced as an underpinning in the 1950s were barely four inches wide. The Merry Widow corset of the 1950s simply did not impose the force of its nineteenth-century ancestor. Much of the sportswear of the 1950s followed Dior’s line without the benefit of any understructure other than brassieres and elastic girdles.

In 1947, Christian Dior presented a collection of wasp-waisted and hip-padded designs. The American press immediately dubbed it the “New Look.” The “Bar” suit was considered the most iconic model in the collection, manifesting all the attributes of Dior’s dramatic atavism. Although Dior created many notched collars, he was a fervent advocate of shawl collars and curved necklines. Arguably, the shawl collar plays effectively with the curvaceous forms Dior articulated at the shoulders and hips. The full pleated calf-length skirt, of black wool, is a replica of the original skirt of the suit. Marc Bohan ordered it made up in the Dior workroom to complete the suit for The Costume Institute Collections.

Ball gown, ca. 1951
Jacques Fath (French, 1912–1954)
Black silk velvet with ivory silk satin, white mink, and gold metal trim
Gift of Mrs. Giorgio Uzielli, 1984 (1984.606.3a,b)

Known for flattering dinner dresses that set off the head and shoulders with an audacious décolletage, Fath created a cantilevered outer bodice with a modest

satin underbodice. The extended plane of the outer bodice is like the soaring shapes of Saarinen’s buildings, establishing an artifice within the canon of modernist restraint. Fath played with contrast—of matte and shiny, of ivory and black, of white fur and gold bullion—as a rich textural perimeter for the dress.

Evening gown, 1958
Madame Grès (Alix Barton) (French, 1903–1993)
White silk jersey

Gift of Mrs. Leon L. Roos, 1973 (1973.104.2)

Grès, working earlier as Alix, created dresses in shafts of fabric, the diverse fluting of which served on the body like the entasis of a classical column. Seaming together fabric vertically so as to be continuous from hem to neckline, Grès pleated and tucked the materials into a shaping suitable to the body: the same fabric is buoyant and fluid when release-pleated from the waist down. She simulated a waist seam by tight tucking that continues through the bodice, and crowned the dress with volutes and twists. This tour-de-force of material, rendered in diverse ways, accounts for the tempered ergonomics of such dresses. Their wearers have testified that they felt secure and not immodest in these dresses, so organic was their creation. In this example, only one piece of fabric was added to the column: a small triangle was inserted under the arm to complete the structure, but otherwise the entire dress is conceived as one cylinder.

Evening gown, 1963
Hubert de Givenchy (French, born 1927)
Coral cotton lace reembroidered with coral–colored beads and coral pieces
Gift of Mrs. John Hay Whitney, 1974 (1974.184.2)

Coral with matching glass beads is applied in high relief on the armature of a minimalist Givenchy silhouette. A princess-seam dress skimming the torso, but flaring to the hem, is almost severe, but it is rendered rococo and ornate by the surface treatment. Givenchy’s special trait was to find an equilibrium between excess and the reductive. An austere form supports a heavily encrusted embroidery, making a gown that works both as an extravagance and as a spartan design.

Evening gown, ca. 1968
Hubert de Givenchy (French, born 1927)
Salmon–colored silk with feathers
Gift of Mrs. Claus Von Bülow, 1971 (1971.79.4)

The feathers of this dress are stripped down to the tip to create an artificial profile. Indicative of couture in seeking an improvement even on nature, these contrived feathers elaborate on the feather’s natural shaping to create a self-conscious artifice. The shorter feathers have been anchored into a scallop pattern that overlaps to imitate an animal’s scales or covering in nature, but there is no element left to chance or to nature’s carelessness. The longer plumes are affixed at the stem to be tremblant and animated on the dress.

“Mondrian” day dress, autumn 1965
Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936)
Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow

Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23)

As the sack dress evolved in the 1960s into the modified form of the shift, Saint Laurent realized that the planarity of the dress was an ideal field for color blocks. Knowing the flat planes of the 1960s canvases achieved by contemporary artists in the lineage of Mondrian, Saint Laurent made the historical case for the artistic sensibility of his time. Yet he also demonstrated a feat of dressmaking, setting in each block of jersey, piecing in order to create the semblance of the Mondrian order and to accommodate the body imperceptibly by hiding all the shaping in the grid of seams.

Ensemble, 1967
Emanuel Ungaro (French, born 1933)
White elasticized net with allover appliqués of white braid trefoils
Gift of Mrs. Leonard Holzer, 1970 (1970.89.1a–c)

In an evaluation of the Paris lines of 1960, Vogue fashion reporter Jessica Daves noted that they were “designed for very young women who are intensely concentrated on fashion, who expect to ‘change the line’ with frequency and rapidity, and who are possessed of superb legs and slim, young goddess figures.” Although she was speaking specifically of Yves Saint Laurent’s work for the House of Dior, her appraisal would prove increasingly cogent to the dominance of the body itself in defining the fashionable silhouette of the 1960s. With the introduction of the miniskirt, the leg was revealed to above the knee. A short shift was the dominant form mid-decade, and hung only on the frame of the body. As fashion’s last absolute decree entered its concluding phase, skirts became shorter and shorter until they atrophied into short shorts, or, in the phrase of the day, hot pants.

The body-conscious silhouette is expressed here by Emanuel Ungaro, a haute couture designer who proved quite skilled at adapting streetwear to high fashion. This playsuit with matching leggings is made with elastic fabric that has been hand-appliquéd with white braid. The base fabric provides not a foundation but a revelation of the ideal body, which is in turn the ideal silhouette.

During the 1960s, as skirts became shorter and shorter, they atrophied into short shorts, or, in the phrase of the day, hot pants. In this couture playsuit with matching leggings, the elastic fabric has been hand-appliquéd with white braid. In the youth-impassioned tumult of the time, there was an equivocation between Warhol superstar and couture client. As self-consciously insurrectionist as the political gesture is, the craft of the garment is, like Chanel’s “little black dress,” traditional.

Evening gown, 1987
Patou by Christian Lacroix (French, born 1951)
Raspberry silk taffeta
Gift of Comtesse Thierry de Ganay, 1994 (1994.278)

Most famous for his eighteenth-century-inspired pouf dress, Lacroix made the most inflated version of the dress only when he was the designer for Patou. There and at his own house, Lacroix combined luxury and insouciance, enamored as he is of all the artisanal trades, fringe, bead, embroidery, etcetera. The opulence of Lacroix’s designs is attained by his strong sense of vibrant color and pattern mix exacerbated by his willingness to summon all the possibilities of couture technique.

Evening dress, fall/winter 1991–92
Gianni Versace (Italian, 1946–1997)
Pink quilted silk satin, silk georgette, lace
Gift of Gianni Versace, 1993 (1993.52.1)

Evening dress, fall/winter 1991–92
Gianni Versace (Italian, 1946–1997)
Pale blue quilted silk satin, silk georgette, lace
Gift of Gianni Versace, 1993 (1993.52.2)

Setting the most complex and concentrated tasks for the expertise of the couture ateliers, Versace here brought satin in trapunto into immediate conjunction with pleated lace. Although lace with its elasticity and suppleness is customarily worked as a flat panel, Versace creased it into narrow pleats and delighted in applying a second unexpected effect upon one technical privilege of the couture. Always inclined, even in his ready-to-wear, to challenge the possibilities of the medium, Versace’s couture work summoned its own tests of technique.

Haute Couture

For more than a century, couture has been emblematic of the triumph of costume and fashion. It represents the fusion of fashion—the modern entity that combines novelty and synergy with personal and social needs—and costume—the arts of dressmaking, tailoring, and crafts constituent to apparel and accessories. Founded in the crucible of modernism’s invention in the middle years of the nineteenth century in Paris, with the expanded patronage cultivated by the House of Worth, but still dependent upon the considerable support of Empress Eugénie, couture has long stood as the modern equilibrium between the garment as exquisite aggregate and the burgeoning notions of fashion as a system.

Couture has long stood as the modern equilibrium between the garment as exquisite aggregate and the burgeoning notions of fashion as a system.

The persistence of the haute couture is as roundly questioned and doubted and debated as the survival of painting or the supposed death of Broadway. Some may have doubted that the couture would survive its founder, the entrepreneurial Charles Frederick Worth. In the early years of the twentieth century, Paul Poiret took couture into an admittedly dangerous path of change, responding to Orientalist and social sirens, but even more to the beckoning of commerce and the use of the couture as a generating engine for fashion and fragrance broadly disseminated. Ironically, the couture flourished in the postwar period, beginning with the immense popular appeal of Christian Dior’s “New Look” in 1947. This supposed fashion novelty was so successful in part because it knew acutely its history and reconvened the finest skills to the couture.

The couture house is customarily composed of two parts, one devoted to dressmaking (flou), the other devoted to tailoring (tailleur) of suits and coats. Skilled workers in each area practice the arts apposite to the area. Embellishments and accessories are added incrementally as applied decoration, often from sources outside the couture house. However, with regard to the unembellished garment, the modern couture house is a completely autonomous workroom of dedicated ateliers. In fact, surprisingly, in view of the elegant locations of most couture houses, the creation of the garments occurs in the maisons particulières of the house, thus under the daily surveillance of the designer as well as in intimate connection with the vendeuses. Depending upon the designer, the design process might begin either with sketches or with a muslin or toile, draped and cut. Fit, both in its tailored form and in its dressmaking variant, is inevitably part of the value of the couture. A designer or trusted fitter will conduct the client through a series of fittings to determine the minute adjustments of the garment to the individual’s size and sense of comfort.

The couture’s offering of distinction in design and technique remains a compelling force, one even more potent when much other quality has atrophied. It remains a discipline of ultimate imagination, unaccountable to cost, with the paradox of being the fashion most cognizant of its ideal clients. It is, as it began, a dream of quality in an era of industry and its succession. The haute couture persists in providing us with a paragon of the most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned and made in any time.

Koda, Harold, and Richard Martin. “Haute Couture”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/haut/hd_haut.htm (October 2004)

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About jackikellum

Jacki Kellum is a Fine Artist, a Designer, and also a writer. For one of her graduate programs, she wrote her thesis on William Blake. Like Blake, much of Kellum's work is about childhood and lost innocence. Also like Blake, Kellum strives to both write and illustrate her work. .
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