Fashion For Real Women

Couture versus Ready-to-Wear

"What's the difference between couture and ready-to-wear?"

It's a question that hits my inbox from women all over the world. They may have been reading high fashion magazines like "W" or "Vogue" or are thinking about upgrading their wardrobes, and are wondering what, exactly, the difference is between these designer categories.

Basically, it boils down to fit - and money.

Haute Couture

* COUTOUR (koo TOOR) is the French word for "sewing." Couture clothes are those that are fitted and sewn specifically for a client, often requiring several fittings for an exacting fit. The clothes may be specifically designed for the client, such as a one-of-a-kind wedding dress or a one-of-a-kind red carpet ensemble, or they may be part of a designer's couture collection, which are the pieces the designer shows that are available for custom fit.

Typically, couture pieces are made of fine fabrics or feature extensive hand work (like beading or embroidery) that drive up the price to thousands or even tens of thousands PER PIECE. Because of the cost, couture clothing, which once had 35,000 regular customers during its heyday after World War II, has an ever-shrinking regular buying base of about 1,200 people worldwide today.

Couture is also known as made-to-measure or bespoke (British).

* HAUTE COUTURE (oht koo TOOR) means "high sewing," and is the term reserved exclusively by those European fashion houses that offer made-to-measure apparel in or around Paris and belong to the Fédération Française de la Couture (which began as the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1868 by Charles Frederick Worth). Following strict guidelines regarding number of pieces shown per collection and number of collections shown per year, current members include venerable fashion houses like Balenciaga, Chanel, Hermès, and Valentino.

You can learn more about the Fédération Française de la Couture at:

* READY-TO-WEAR, or prêt-à-porter (prêt a poor TAY) is designer apparel that's made ready-to-wear in standard sizes and sold through boutiques, better department stores, mail order, and online. While consumers can have pieces tailored to fit after purchase, customization is not included in the cost of ready-to-wear apparel. Many brand-name designers, like Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera, only show ready-to-wear collections, but still create a handful of couture pieces upon request for influential clients.

So when you read in a fashion magazine or hear on television that designers are showing their ready-to-wear collections, you know that those are the pieces that you'll find in their boutiques or in department stores come the new fashion season. Couture collections are those shown to high-paying clients who either go to the fashion house directly to be fitted, or who order from the designer's "look book" and have pieces made up from the measurements the designer has on file from the client's previous fittings.

If you like to read the society pages to see who's wearing what, you'll notice that socialites who can afford to buy couture often say so. The caption under a photo might read, "Jane Doe in Versace, Susan Smith in Donna Karan, and Tiffany Jones in Givenchy couture." Translation? Jane and Susan bought their gowns ready-to-wear, while Tiffany had hers custom made.

So should YOU indulge in designer labels as your income allows?

It depends.

Yes, designer labels have a certain cachet and are associated with an elevated income, and yes, you can look like you have a lot more money than you do by buying your favorite labels at discount designer websites or at overstock retailers like TJ Maxx and Marshall's.

But you have to be careful of the message you're sending.

If you're a receptionist dressing like a jet setter, it will raise eyebrows - particularly your employer's. Your boss may wonder how you're funding your clothing obsession. Are you living in a dive and driving a junk heap? Maxing out your credit cards? Skimming a little off the company coffers (which is how one fashionable thief was caught, showing up to work every day in designer apparel)? Whatever the reason, unless you're very vocal about how you cleverly come by your high-end finds, your luxury image may have your higher-ups questioning your ability to handle money - and stall your career in its tracks.

Similarly, if you have a job with a typically high income (doctor, lawyer, stock broker) but are running around in discount apparel, you'll have people wondering just how bad you are at your job that you're not able to afford nicer things. True, illness, school loans, job losses and other financial hardships happen, even to people with high incomes. But if you're dressing discount in a designer environment, people will begin to question your ability - and your income will suffer. Call it human nature.

So how can you dress appropriately for your income WITHOUT raising eyebrows? By keeping the number of labels you wear in line with the amount of your paycheck. If you have a lower income, one or two pieces by your favorite designer (like a jacket or pair of jeans) would not be out of line - provided you buy them second hand (like on eBay) or at an overstock outlet like Loehmann's or TJ Maxx.

Have a higher income? A status handbag, watch, or pair of shoes will instantly telegraph your position. Even if you don't care about such things, your status-y clients will, and since people talk, you may be surprised by how your business grows by adding a few of these pieces to your wardrobe.

And who knows? If you play the game right and meet your goals, you may someday find yourself seriously contemplating whether you should buy a special piece ready-to-wear, or have your favorite designer whip it up just for you from his couture collection...


Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of "Business Wear Magic," an ebook that shows women how to increase their income by dressing appropriately for their line of work. Visit her online at  .

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