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What does Couture mean, anyway?

That’s the title of an article that ran recently (Tuesday, April 26, 2007, Personal Journal) in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve talked about this subject before; this article, written by Christina Binkley, basically said the same thing I did, in it’s own words.

We Americans have bitten off yet another tasty French concept, and chewed it into submission, thereby revealing the extent of our naivete. “For you it means ‘expensive,'” Pamela Golbin, curator of the Louvre museum’s costume collection, told me a few months ago, with a smile.

In the most technical, literal meaning, “haute” means “high”, and “couture” means sewing. Which means it’s really funny when the article points out that there is now “couture” paper, and “couture” paint, showing just how obviously (and to what extent) people are chewing up the word “couture” to mean whatever they want it to mean.

The French government has the phrase “haute couture” regulated to death, and so most people just say “couture” and give the word it’s own meaning. For myself, the meaning I’ve always given to “couture” is about the highest level of sewing, custom made to a particular person. It’s the parallel to, say, fine wood-working. The craftsmanship the highest of it’s kind. While this definition doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the official meaning of the phrase “haute couture”, it does say a lot about me, and what I’m looking for.

Likewise, the meaning that the majority of Americans have attached to the word might not have much to do with the official meaning, but it does have a lot to say about Americans. While I focus on the concrete aspects—workmanship, and actually having something to do with sewing—most people focus abstract aspects—the prestige, the exclusiveness. As the article notes,

. . .the term couture has been stretched beyond accuracy for years. But lately, as America’s love affair with luxury goods reaches a fevered pitch, the word has become ubiquitous in the U.S. The only term that may be even more abused is “luxury” itself.

This desire of Americans to have all that is exclusive was further highlighted by two other recent WSJ articles. One, from the May 2, 2007 Marketplace, was titled “Liz Claiborne’s Unexpected Stumble”. (Liz, by the way, recently bought Juicy Couture.)

. . .middle-market retailers like J.C.Penney Co. and Kohl’s Corp. are demanding exclusive brands that can’t be found elsewhere.

“This is a big-picture conversation. There is a major change in channel dynamics,” Liz Claiborne Chief Executive William McComb, who joined he company in November from Johnson & Johnson, said in an interview. “Neiman’s doesn’t want to carry what Bloomingdale’s carries. Penney’s and Kohl’s are in a bitter battle. They all think they can press the vendor world for exclusives.”

That’s putting huge pressure on Liz Claiborne and its rivals to rethink the way they do business.

Does anyone see any issues with everyone being exclusive? Yeah. The other article is called “In Praise of Less Praise”, by Jeffrey Zaslow (May 3, 2007, Personal Journal). This article was a follow up to the author’s previous article on praise in today’s workplace. His last example in this article touched on this issue.

Readers wrote about soccer leagues that don’t keep score to avoid hurt feelings; so the kids keep score in their heads. And parents have to pay “trophy fees” before sports seasons even start. Kids know these trophies are bought and not earned.

Several readers sent me dialogue from the 2004 animated film “The Incredibles.” There’s a scene in which the superhero mom tells her son, “Everyone’s special!” The boy mutters: “Which is another way of saying no one is.”

Naturally, your average consumer doesn’t want to believe that everyone is special. They just want to believe that they are special, or exclusive, or whatever term you want to use. And if that will get more customers, than the companies want them to believe it. So the companies want everyone to believe that they are special, so everyone will by from them, so they pretend to be exclusive. (Got that?) Hence, the newfound popularity of the word “couture”, which is being used to basically mean, “you’re special person if you (can) buy this product.”

And how is the French-government-regulated haute couture doing? Well, not so hot. There are only 8 or so companies that still meet the strict rules, and the number declines every year. Binkley comments,

Perhaps because their profits aren’t threatened by rock-‘n’-roll T-shirts and cotton baby-wear, haute couture designers seem resigned to our culture of couture this-and-that.

Basically, in my words, Americans aren’t killing the meaning of the word, so much as that couture is already dead anyway.

Participants see themselves at the forefront of new design, without the tug of crass commerce. But they acknowledge that while their work is prestigious it is largely unprofitable.

I read: Since they assume themselves to be so high-class, they think they can make ugly gowns that no one wants, simply for art’s sake. I mean, would you pay $50,000 for this? Or this? No? Not even if the dorky metal-squished-grasshopper-headpiece was included? Oh, you have no appreciation for art. No one is sophisticated enough to appreciate couture any more. The tragedy, the tragedy.

You know, at the founding of couture, the Great and Famous Charles Worth himself made clothes that were meant to be worn. I know, I know, it seems like such a foreign idea to haute couture these days, but really, he did. As Secrets of the Couturiers (by Frances Kennett) says,

. . .one of his customers describes: ‘For a private fancy dress ball at the Tuileries last Monday, Worth made costumes to the tune of 200,000 dollars, and yet there were not 400 ladies invited’. Given the increasing competition among new couturiers in Paris (largely generated by his own efforts) it is unlikely that Worth made more than 100 of the 400 models. . . But there had to be short cuts or new techniques to cope with the volume of work.

If modern couturiers have artsied themselves out of an audience, they’ve only themselves to blame. There’s plenty of people willing to spend mind-blowing amounts of money on clothes—as the ubiquitous references to $700 jeans can attest—but you have to make clothes that people are willing to wear first, you know. This just ain’t gonna cut it. I mean, I might wear that if you paid me, but certainly not the other way around.

So people slap the word on things that people will wear. Like velour track-suits, and cotton t-shirts.

Hey. . .

I like cotton t-shirts!

And I know I’m special.

Just like everyone else.

(But I won’t pay $700 for a pair of jeans. Sorry.)