Fashion For Real Women

The History of Haute Couture

Have you ever wondered about fashion history? Like when runway shows came about, why designer clothes are so popular, or even how Paris became the epicenter of fashion instead of, say, London or Madrid?

While people have been interested in fashion for thousands of years, the industry we know today did not begin to take shape until around 1850. After hundreds of years of opulent fashions, two things happened concurrently to birth the industry we know as haute couture: the invention of the continuous stitch sewing machine, by Isaac Singer, and the instant popularity of a dressmaker named Charles Frederick Worth.

Charles Frederick Worth
Charles Frederick Worth
The "Father" of Haute Couture

Prior to 1850, 70% percent of all clothes were hand stitched by the people who wore them. Clothes were a commodity item, and their excellence dependent upon the skill of the person who made them.

The average housewife styled her clothes after what was acceptable for her climate, her country, and her community standing, so that everyone from the same region pretty much dressed alike. Cut off from outside influence, clothing styles could-and did-remain the same for generations. Today these distinct garbs are often known as a region's "national costume."

Because trade routes between cities usually consisted of bad roads lined with thieves, people stayed put and used what materials were available to them locally. Since everyone had access to the same goods, wealth was usually distinguished by jewelry. When kings and nobles became stronger and better able to protect their domains in the mid to late eleventh century, trade routes began to emerge and new and finer materials became available to those who could afford them. From then on, dress denoted stature and wealth-much as it does today.

The 30% of clothes that weren't made at home were stitched by designers/dressmakers, usually for wealthy patrons. By the 1500's, the busiest dressmakers had struck upon an effective, economic way of showing their wares: they would make up miniature samples of their work and put them on dolls. One half to one third the size of humans, these dolls showed every minute detail. Clients could look through the dolls and pick the styles they wanted. The clothes were then custom-made to the client's exact measurements.

The dress dolls soon found their way into other countries and became one of the most popular ways of spreading fashion. Monarchs and courtiers in particular liked receiving them as gifts, and kept their dressmakers busy copying the latest styles from abroad.

In fact, the nobility has always been conspicuous consumers of fashion. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have had more than 1,000 gowns, many of them received as gifts. Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire (and a Spencer, like Diana, Princess of Wales), was such a trendsetter in 1770's London that anything she wore became an instant fashion. But it was the flamboyant Louis XIV of France, "the sun king," who began to draw attention to France and establish Paris as the epicenter of fashion in the late-17th century.

Did You Know?

Ever heard of the "fashion police?" Today that term is used tongue-in-cheek to describe someone who critiques the way others dress.

But the term came about in the late Middle Ages after sumptuary laws (laws restricting or regulating extravagance in dress on religious or moral grounds) were passed by nobles to ensure that certain fabrics and styles were reserved for those who had the right to wear them. Fashion police patrolled the streets, fining or imprisoning dress code violators.


Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of "Wardrobe Magic," an ebook that shows women how to transform their unruly closets into workable, wearable wardrobes. Visit her online at  .

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