Costume Society Study Day: Deconstructing Couture

The strong audience turn out bright and early Saturday morning for the Deconstructing Couture study day was an indicator of good things to come, and I am pleased to say that the day did not disappoint. Hosted by The Costume Society, the day proved to be not only informative but enjoyable, and was a wonderful opportunity for the lucky MA students of LCF who were able to attend free of charge. An intimate display of couture garments brought by the Leicestershire Museum enabled the audience to view them in detail, with one garment, a 1965 Dior day dress, displayed inside out giving a clear demonstration of the craftsmanship involved.

LCF students inspect the interior of a 1965 Dior day dress.

Haute couture reached its height in the 1950’s, showering post-war Europe with fashion that was unashamedly extravagant and dripping in glamour, an era that has since been dubbed ‘the golden age of couture’. More recent decades, however, have seen the seeming decline of this industry; where once there were hundreds of couture houses, there are now only a few. The six speakers of the day addressed a broad spectrum of topics relating to the world of haute couture, from its 19th century pioneer Charles Fredrick Worth, to the role of couture within the modern fashion brand.

Timothy Long (Curator, Chicago History Museum) started the day with his well received talk, ‘Charles James: Genius Deconstructed’, during which he discussed the jaw-dropping work of the couturier and the up and coming exhibition (of the same name) at the Chicago History Museum. The exhibition will include deconstructed replicas of some of James’ most incredible creations, which have been painstakingly re-created to be displayed next to the originals, so that visitors gain an understanding of exactly how the couturier achieved such dramatic silhouettes, and also an appreciation of the skill and hidden engineering behind such designs.

Timothy Long: ‘Charles James: Genius Deconstructed’

Veronica Isaac (Catalogue & Curatorial Assistant, V&A) presented the early history of couture by detailing the relationship between the couturier and the stage, highlighting the work of Worth and the creations he made for many of the leading actresses of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The success he gained through dressing the famous is an early example of the designer/celebrity relationship.

Insight into how present day couturiers control their work once it has left the atelier was given by Helen Ritchie (Curatorial Intern, Royal Collection), who noted how celebrity relationships are becoming increasingly important in establishing their work. She also emphasised the growing expectation of historicism, with young designers starting their archives with their graduate show collection, and fashion houses recognising (and promoting) the importance of their design heritage through creating their own gallery space and hosting retrospectives. Nathaniel Beard (PHD Candidate, RCA) offered further analysis of the development of the modern couture house, through highlighting how the ‘performance of couture’ is now a significant factor in ensuring its survival, with elaborate and theatrical runway shows contributing to the construction of the overall brand image.

Laura McLaws Helms (PHD candidate, LCF) presented a case study of Thea Porter Couture, giving excellent insight into the practicalities of a design business. Porter was ahead of her time during the late 1960s and the 1970s, taking advantage of international trading through her importation of largely Middle Eastern fabrics, at a time when ‘globalisation’ was yet to become the force it is today.

Beatrice Behlen (Senior Curator, Museum of London) brought to life the work of British couturier Victor Steibel with her talk, ‘The Bride wore…Victor Steibel’s wedding dresses’, and raised the issue of a designer’s legacy; whilst Steibel was a leading British couturier and his designs remain as inspiring as they were at their conception, sadly his name is not one that has stood the test of time within the consciousness of those outside of the fashion world, unlike some of his contemporaries.

LCF students view garments from the Leicestershire collection.

Brigitte Stepputtis (Head of Couture, Vivienne Westwood) provided the audience with an insightful talk on the operations of the Gold Label at Vivienne Westwood, illustrating how it provides the highest standard of service within the company, and whilst the couture designs created are strictly evening wear and for a very select clientele, the influence of those designs trickles down to all tiers of the company. Like the handful of remaining ateliers, Westwood couture remains driven by creativity, and whilst this may no longer generate money, the work produced provides an image that ultimately does.

When asked during the final question & answer session of the day about the future of haute couture, Brigitte Stepputtis answered: ‘The future of couture is always criticised, but as with every craft it will always be the aim [of the ateliers] to create the very best in their field…’, and subsequently to continue to uphold the standards of craftsmanship within the industry.

Despite murmurings of the ‘end of couture’, as the modern fashion industry continues to  embrace the fast and the disposable, one can only hope that the inspiring and extravagant world of haute couture will continue to remain the pinnacle of innovation in design and creative expression.

[Photos courtesy of The Costume Society]

Lucy Bishop

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