So Haute Then
Costumes of All Nations (French), Albert Kretschmer, 1882
From Lapham’s Quarterly:
As the story is usually now told, Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895), often described as a French couturier of British origin, created the institution of haute couture. This take on fashion history defines the most respected sector of the fashion world—the sector where the economic stakes are highest—as having always been what it largely is today: a male preserve.
It’s true that, despite such notable exceptions as Coco Chanel, beginning with the founding of the Maison Worth in 1858, the great fashion houses have been run by men. From today’s vantage point, it seems as if it’s always been the same scenario: men designing women’s clothing and dictating not only color and skirt length but the ideal shape for the female body—even the types of undergarments to be used to achieve perfect proportions.
But the history of haute couture is more than an all too predictable chronicle of famous tailors. At a crucial origin of the modern fashion industry, at the moment when individuals first became willing to travel long distances to have their clothing made by a designer with an international reputation, couture was neither exclusively nor even primarily a man’s game. It could be argued that fashion became an industry in large part because female designers decided it was time to take a leading role in the production of high-fashion garments. At that founding moment, couturières rather than couturiers dictated the rules of fashion.