I’ve worked for two companies’ that made clothing
described and marketed as couture garments. In this post I’m going to describe the similarities and the differences in the two shops – how they were organized, how they cut and sewed, what they produced. Then I will define the word couture.
The first shop was Anne Pakerdooni’s Main Line boutique, titled Joie de Vive, where I apprenticed with skilled European designers. Similar shops are found in Paris. The sewing done at this shop is probably what most people are referring to when they use the word couture. We were making high-end clothing that was custom ordered by wealthy individual customers. Customers were custom fitted. A shop specialty was evening gowns made from Indian silk sarees. We sewed in a room behind the store. The patterns had no seam allowances. We laid the patterns on the fabric, chalked marked the seam lines, then sewed the garments together, cutting the seam allowances back after the seams were sewn. The sewing methods used were very similar to those used by home sewers. When orders were slow we made size 10 clothing to fit the dress form. The clothing was then put out in the shop for sale. I didn’t stay long because the pay was dismal – not just for me, but for the two European designers as well. For that reason I decided to work in industry.
While at Joie de Vive I made one dress for the shop. The fabric was bought in the basement of Woolworth’s Five & Ten on Market Street. It was a rose printed cotton challis. I cut it to match, cutting around the flaws. The garment sold for $750. That was back in the late 1960s. Allowing for inflation, the dress would now cost at least $2000. Even though Joie de Vive’s clothing was expensive, overhead was probably high. I’m guessing that the shop was not making much money.
In the industry there is often someone in the designing department who makes garments using this type of method, usually under a designer’s directions. Once a garment is approved, its pattern, referred to as the first pattern, is then moved to the company’s patternmaker who adjusts the pattern: correcting sewing lines, making sure all seams that sew to corresponding seams are the same length, adjusting the pattern to the company’s grade-rule measurements so that it can be graded to fit the company’s customers. A sample is then cut from the corrected pattern to make sure the style has been maintained and that the pattern’s fit is correct. The corrections are often minor, but even so, considered to be very important.
The second company was Alfred Angelos where I worked as an assistant designer in the couture department. I assisted the German-trained head designer/patternmaker, cutting, directing the other workers, pinning lace on the gowns, hand sewing. The head designer combined her European training with the industrial skills she had learned here in the USA. She designed the wedding gowns we made that were purchased by Berdorf Goodman’s and Sax in NYC for their preferred customers. The gowns sold for $10,000 up. It’s hard to believe that anyone would pay $10,000 for a wedding gown unless you were to see them. They were so beautiful, it seemed as though human hands had never touched them. We also made Miss America gowns and specialty items for TV shows. All of the sample and customers’ gowns were made in the designing department.
At Alfred Angelos I was learning how the industry designs and manufactures clothing. It was a totally different world than Joie de Vive. There were two seasons, summer and winter. We worked six months ahead, making summer gowns when the streets were full of snow. For three months we designed, cut, and sewed a variety of sample garments for potential sale to the department stores’ buyers.
The second three months, after the sample garments had been sold to buyers in NYC, we would first grade the patterns for the styles that sold to Sax and Berdorf’s, then fill their customers’ orders. Precision was of utmost importance. Layouts utilized the fabric and avoided waste. Grading had to be accurate to 1/32 inch. All sewing was on gauge, seam allowances varied.
Patterns were slightly altered for some customers, but most purchased a graded size. All sewing was done in the designing department. Gowns were hand cut. During production, six of us would be working non-stop to fill the orders. Two sample makers sewed the garments and pressed them; two women did the beading – adding hand beading to lace that had previously been machine beaded;, the head designer and I hand cut the gowns, hand made the head pieces, and oversaw the work. All sewing had to be accurate to 1/16 of an inch.
Here are three definitions, found on Google, that explain what people may mean when they use the word couture. Only one is correct. Can you guess which one?
1. At https://www.dictionary.com/browse/couture I found this definition:
[koo-too r; French koo-tyr]
the occupation of a couturier; dressmaking and designing.
fashion designers or couturiers collectively.
the clothes and related articles designed by such designers.
the business establishments of such designers, especially where clothes are made to order.
created or produced by a fashion designer:couture clothes.
being, having, or suggesting the style, quality, etc., of a fashion designer; very fashionable:the couture look.
2. At https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Couture were two definitions:
High end fashion. Not talkin “The Gap” here, people. Also called “haute couture”
I can’t wait to watch the Oscars so I can watch all that fab’ couture.
by Amy Stevens December 22, 2004
From the french phrase “haute couture.” Unfortunately the “haute” part means “high” and the “couture” part means having to do with fashion or sewing. Ignorant Americans mixed this up and now they use “couture” to refer to high end or luxury things. So next time you walk past a bakery offering “bagel couture” feel free to call them idiots, unless they actually sew their bagels.
Those juicy couture sweatpants are high fashion. (correct)
Oh look, a store advertising bagel couture. (incorrect)
by NoahBalboa June 10, 2007
If you guessed the last definition, you are correct. When one says couture sewing, one says sewing sewing. ;-))
After I left Alfred Angelos I was trained extensively in industrial grading at Corner House where I also worked as a fit model. Corner House was a sportswear company with 12 or so shops. Now owned by a different company, we designed and manufactured clothing for young professional women. Although these garments were far less expensive than those made at the previous companies, the same precision and accuracy with pattern work, cutting, and sewing was required. Patterns had to be accurate to 1/32 inch, sewing to 1/16 of an inch. Seam allowances were tested with a transparent ruler. Sample garments were hand cut and sewn in the designing department. Later I took a job as a patternmaker, where I did the patternmaking, layouts, cutting, and grading. At every job in the industry I was bared by the union from sewing on the machines because I was management, Even so, I made sure to also learn how the sewing was done,
The training I received in the industry was invaluable. At each company I learned something I could NEVER have learned anywhere else: fantastic designing at Joie de Vive and Alfred Angelos, industrial precision from both the German trained head designer at Alfred Angelos and from Carolyn who taught me grading at Corner House. and the sample making I learned from the Alfred Angelos and Corner House sample makers.
As I worked in industry I gradually switched from home sewing to industrial sample making. I have found sample making easier to use and far more reliable. It can be depended on to produce beautiful clothing that fits.
The very best sewing I have ever seen I saw in industry. This was totally unexpected. I entered industry because I needed to make more money. I expected the sewing in the industry to be appalling. Not the case!
But of course I thought that. I had started sewing because my budget was limited. The manufactured clothing I could afford was cheap and didn’t last long. I thought that if I learned to sew I would have better clothing. But it wasn’t until I learned how the industry sewed that I realized that dream.
In the fashion industry, as with everywhere else, it’s the bottom line that determines quality. Until I worked in industry I had no idea just how beautiful the clothing industry makes can be.
© Laurel Hoffmann, 2019.