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When the economic chips are down, French couture outdoes itself

Throughout the centuries fashion has often reflected the times and political events. But in true controversial spirit it frequently does an about-face. When those proverbial chips are down French couture has come through with flying colors, even if they are figuratively tinged with a pale shade of pink this year.

During the occupation in World War II, Parisians created and wore the most outrageous millinery on record. The couture establishment continued to present biannual high-fashion collections even though fabric was as scare as dinosaur eggs and every scrap was strictly rationed. Hats, often towering a foot above the head, were concocted out of anything from wood shavings to old curtain tassels, and French women flaunted them with an air that has not been seen since.

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Fabulous fabrics -- the pure woolens, silks, and cashmere so beloved to every top designer -- may begin at prices well over $100 a yard these days, but Paris couture has always been preoccupied with opulence and is quite unwilling to settle for anything less. Each biannual collection by a ranking designer showing 100 models or more (Yves Saint Laurent's couture presentations usually include almost 200 different outfits) cots at least $300,000 to produce without the furs.

Monsieur Jacques Mouclier, director of the Paris High Fashion Syndicate, defends couture designs: "People may be wearing blue jeans in the Elysees Palace , but the world-famous designers give employment to thousands of skilled workers. The socialist government needs these couturiers as a figurehead for other luxury industries."

A couture house that is a registered member of the High Fashion Syndicate (there are 23 listed this season) will have a work sheet involving, typically, about 50,000 hours of labor. These seamstresses, skilled cutters and fitters, tailors, and embroiderers earn salaries far above the minimum wage in France. Many of the lavish evening gowns are sent out to specialized old embroidery firms where exquisite handwork is a lifelong vocation. Should there be no demand for this fast-dying art, hundreds of women who are almost irreplacable would be forced out of work and onto the dole or a pension.

As the late Gabrielle Chanel once stated, "Luxury is not the opposite of poverty. It is simply the opposite of bad taste." Today a custom-made Chanel suit costs about $8,000, but to many collectors over the years it has represented something akin to a lifetime investment like a Rolls-Royce automobile.

But in the few months since the French elections, certain changes have undeniably occurred. There were far fewer elaborate parties, balls, and weddings during the traditional "season" in June before socialites migrate abroad or to their country chateaux. Suddenly, a few private clients who still order haute couture gowns at very haute prices began to resemble those poor little rich girls all dressed up with no place to go or that fabled Englishman alone in the jungle who continues to dress for dinner every night.

What have not changed are the eating habits of the French. Expensive restaurants are as crowded as ever. Women may no longer be able to sneak costly couture gowns onto their husband's entertainment allowances, but expense account dining is still flourishing. Since Pierre Cardin bought Maxim's -- probably the world's most famous restaurant -- last May for a sum reputed to equal $23 million, it's still hard for protocol-minded gourmets to get a reservation less than a week ahead at one of the choice tables. As one close observer of the new regime marks, "The Socialists may not care much about dressing but they are enormously interested in food."

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