The birth of haute couture: a brief history

From Gabrielle Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga to Maria Grazia Chiuri and Demna Gvasgalia, a timeline of fashion's most illustrious moments

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Haute couture is, at its heart, a celebration of excellence. It sits at the very pinnacle of fashion, ensuring that age-old skills and generational knowledge are not only kept alive, but continue to evolve and remain relevant in a contemporary context.

Only a select number of fashion houses can produce haute couture, in adherence with strict guidelines set out by Paris’s Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. It is reserved for a discerning few, but the industry employs hundreds of people, preserving dressmaking techniques that have been passed down through the ages.

The history of haute couture (and its Italian equivalent, alta moda, spearheaded by Dolce & Gabbana) is littered with colourful characters and revolutionary concepts, from Gabrielle Chanel attempting to free women from the restrictive fashions of the day, to Cristobal Balenciaga inventing new ways to drape fabric over the female form and Elsa Schiaparelli bridging the worlds of fashion and art.

Today, a new generation of trailblazers continue to push the ideals of haute couture ever forward, from the discreet, reductionist approach displayed by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior’s spring/summer 2022 collection, to Pierpaolo Piccioli’s most recent offering for Valentino, Anatomy of Couture, which saw the designer eschew standard-sized mannequins and instead craft his couture creations around real bodies of varying shapes, sizes and ages.

“Creativity, as life itself, is possible only in a non-homogenous environment, where beauty can manifest itself, free and fierce,” he wrote in his show notes, displaying once again how in tune he is with the nuances of our times.


While it is now synonymous with France, the earliest concept of couture can be credited to a now largely forgotten Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth, who opens his boutique, The House of Worth, in Paris in 1858. In an early precursor to the industry we know today, he sews labels with his name on them into the gowns he creates, a move that earns him the moniker “father of haute couture".


The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, des Confectionneurs et des Tailleurs pour Dame is set up in Paris, setting guidelines that dressmakers must follow. Since 2017, it has been known as the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode.


Jeanne Paquin becomes one of the first female couturiers. She dresses actresses in her gowns and sends her collections on tour to the US to capitalise on new American wealth. She is a trendsetter who paves the way for Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel a few years later. She is selected to head the first showing of couture at the Paris Expo in 1900 and is elected president of Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1917.


Having worked for Doucet and Worth, Paul Poiret opens his own salon, as well as a perfume shop and a decorative arts space, creating the first “total lifestyle’’ brand. Eager to liberate women from petticoats and corsets, in 1906 he incorporates the fluid lines of kimonos and kaftans into Western dress.


Chanel opens a millinery studio in Paris and in 1913 begins offering chic, comfortable, masculine-inspired clothing that frees women from the restrictive fashions of the time.


Madeleine Vionnet begins experimenting with a new way of cutting that does away with cumbersome clothes. Cut on the diagonal, or bias, the resulting slip dresses will inspire the dress codes of the 1930s and, many years later, the work of John Galliano.


Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga opens his atelier in San Sebastian in Spain, and begins experimenting with silhouettes. Oscar de la Renta, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro will all work in his atelier over the coming decades.


Elsa Schiaparelli opens her atelier, encouraged by Poiret. Combining fashion with surrealism, via friends such as Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali and Man Ray, Schiap, as she is popularly known, injects sharp modernism into women’s clothing.


Chanel retires and closes her couture house after the outbreak of the Second World War. She will return in 1954, to counterbalance the restrictive clothing championed at Dior.


Christian Dior unveils his Corelle collection, which includes a tightly tailored jacket teamed with a full skirt, worn over copious petticoats. Dubbed the “New Look” by Carmel Snow at Harper's Bazaar, it marks a return to opulence and femininity after wartime rationing.


French aristocrat Hubert de Givenchy opens his couture house. He will meet his muse, the actress Audrey Hepburn, two years later and will dress her for the remainder of her life.


Following the untimely death of Christian Dior, his protege, Yves Saint Laurent, who is 21 at the time, is named as his successor. He opens his own atelier in 1962.


Givenchy dresses Audrey Hepburn in the famous black column dress for the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.


Balenciaga retires, shuttering his couture house.


Balenciaga dies and industry journal WWD declares: “The king is dead.” He has previously been described by Chanel as “the only couturier in the truest sense of the word. The others are simply fashion designers.”


An 18-year-old Elie Saab opens his couture atelier in Beirut, joining the ranks of haute couture in 2000.


Karl Lagerfeld joins Chanel, making his debut with haute couture.


John Galliano is appointed as creative director of Christian Dior, and will bring his flamboyant flair to haute couture. The same year, Alexander McQueen takes over at Givenchy, mixing sculptural forms with the brand's DNA.


To collect her Oscar for Erin Brockovich, actress Julia Roberts dons a vintage Valentino couture gown.


Yves Saint Laurent retires, closing his haute couture atelier.


Giorgio Armani launches his couture line, Armani Prive.


Dolce & Gabbana launches its answer to haute couture, Alta Moda for women and Alta Sartoria for men.


Ralph & Russo is invited to join Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, making it the first true British couture house in more than a century. Christian Dior becomes the first house to stage a show in Shanghai, China.


Under creative director Hedi Slimane, the Saint Laurent couture atelier is relaunched.


Creative director Demna Gvasalia resurrects couture at Balenciaga, after a gap of 53 years.

Updated: January 28, 2022, 8:58 AM