Wednesday, March 05, 2008

what couture? haute couture (and not couture)

Whilst I've taken a break this year from teaching in order to finish my thesis (this makes me a nearly middle-aged full-time student...), I'm giving one lecture to the second-year students this semester that I've given twice before, on haute couture. The subject is 'Couturier Techniques' and it's mostly very practice-oriented, with a series of six or seven lectures to support, beginning with mine today.

When I was first asked to do the lecture, the working title was 'What is couture?' I will give a very brief history and an overview of the organisational support for the industry in France, but mostly the lecture is about the clothes and their makers and wearers, and the relationships between them that are intrinsic to couture. I hope that by the end, the students will see how all those 'haute couture' shops along Parramatta Road (a grotty but important Sydney roadway) aren't. I also hope that by the end any misconceptions about the meaning of haute couture have been laid to rest. Understandably a common misunderstanding among past students has equated haute couture with eveningwear; evening certainly dominates the little media coverage couture now gets. My perhaps most important example to show the impact of the client on the garments produced is decidedly day: the famous 'Bar' suit from Dior's 1947 'New Look' collection. Or three rather different versions of it, to be precise.

I will also touch on the recurring pronouncements on the death of couture, and the reasons for couture's decline. In an era when some companies will have you believe that a trend lasts a month, who would be willing to wait three for a garment to be finished (presuming you can afford it)? I don't believe the claims nobody can any longer afford couture - there is arguably more uneven wealth in the world than ever before - rather, I think it's a cultural thing. Apparently to many shopping is a social activity full of pleasure, and being able to take something home straight away - we don't question that any more, do we?.

Many dismiss haute couture outright as an unnecessary frivolity (often without any insight into quality, workmanship, etc.). It's therefore a pleasure that Alison Gwilt, a colleague, has been focusing on haute couture for her PhD for some time. For the past two years, I've not really followed the various investigations into 'slow fashion' as intently as I should have, but surely there are links to be built to couture? Fletcher has included a 'slow fashion' section in her book but I've yet to read it. Anyway, some of the positive aspects of haute couture get little airing, such as the service aspect (a garment will be repaired and/or altered as needed in the future, usually free of charge), or that garments are produced to order only.

Tomorrow: Melbourne, and IFFTI 08. I seem to cause the weather to turn frosty every time I go down, regardless of season; Victorians, I apologise and advise you to rug up.

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