Sunday, October 24, 2010

Eye on Fashion: Pret a Porter vs. Haute Couture

When it comes to clothing and fashion, the ready-to-wear and the haute couture are at opposite ends of the spectrum. While nowadays, the ready-to-wear dominates, it wasn’t always this way. Who or what caused this switch of fashion dominance?

There was a time when today’s prêt-a-porter, which is French for ready-to-wear, was instead “off the peg” clothing. This is what the poor masses wore. The rich elite, on the other hand, instead wore haute couture, which is French for “high sewing.” Fashion vocabulary comes to us in French because fashion was born, if you will, in Paris, France. An Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth fathered the Haute couture art in 1858. Prior to him, the sewing artists remained anonymous. Mr. Worth, on the other hand, wanted to become a household name. The fashion show was borne out to display a designer’s works. The high-end consumer would attend placing orders of the designs they liked which would be created according with their fabric of choice to their measurements.

As the industrial revolution took place, a large difference in cost for the manufacture came about. The waves of immigrants, many Eastern European Jews that came to America provided a ripe opportunity for cheap labor. The Lower East Side in Manhattan is a historically significant area, as many of these immigrants were living and working here. During this time of the 1800’s, department stores were also becoming part of the landscape in the United States.

Perhaps, it is because of these technological changes. Perhaps, it is just a coincidence. However, this is the time that fashion shifted from Haute couture to the current default, prêt-a-porter. New York City, as a fashion center marked itself on the map. Another push to the ready-to-wear came in the 1940’s and 1950’s came as the middle class emerged. Many of these middle class women enjoyed freedoms, not previously enjoyed by women, as they spent hours wandering around department stores and shopping centers.

What was to become of the Haute couture? It still remains, as a driving force behind that more prevalent ready-to-wear. It distinguishes its designers and gives them an edge in their ready-to-wear collections. While many have forecasted the demise of couture, it seems that it will always have a place in fashion, even if it’s not such a large place, as they carry the lure of being for the elite. For those of us who would not even bother dreaming that we should have the sort of money for that, we are blessed that ready-to-wear affords us stylish knockoffs.


  1. I know that in formal terms, the two categories of prêt-a-porter and haute couture are very different from each other. But practically I think manufacturing technology has really pushed them much closer together than could have been previously imagined.

    A middle class shopper can buy fairly affordable clothing that bears many of the indicators of a haute couture cut, and even the insignia of a haute couture house, yet sells for an accessible price. In other words modern economics and technology have made near-haute couture clothing available to almost the majority of the population. This seems to represent a paradigm shift.

    And I agree that haute couture will occupy a critical niche b/c it always represents that elevated level of style, class and artistry that people can yet aspire to.

    Or maybe I'm just being a guy and am totally wrong on this fashion issue. :-p

  2. Haute couture will never compare with pret-a-porter. What distinguishes the two is that pret-a-porter is made in factories to pre-set sizes and graded patterns, while haute couture is made by hand to a pattern specifically created for the buyer.