Couture and Bespoke – the most mis-used words in fashion?

Couture and Bespoke: What do those words mean to you?

Would you say they are indicative of a certain quality, attention to detail, and uniqueness? I guess you would assume the item was made specifically for one person – to their exact measurements, and with their own customisations (or a completely one-off design). Perhaps you would assume there were some rules governing what can and can’t be described as Couture or Bespoke. But that last point, I’m afraid, is where you’d be wrong.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of legal protection, and because Couture and Bespoke are indicative in the public’s mind of high quality, they are frequently mis-applied or wilfully mis-used to suggest a quality and craftmanship which are actually not present in every product so-labeled.

In France Haute Couture has a legal definition and strict rules. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is the ultimate arbiter of who is and isn’t Haute, and approve or reject according to criteria which were established in 1945 and updated in 1992. So, to call yourself a couture house and to use the term haute couture in advertising (and any other way) one must:

  • Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings.
  • Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time.
  • Must have 20 full-time technical people in at least one atelier or workshop.
  • Each season (i.e., twice a year), present a collection to the Paris press, comprising at least thirty-five runs/exits with outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.

Dior couture (2009)

The Savile Row Bespoke Association has tried to set a standard for Bespoke in similar fashion, by establishing minimum requirements for a garment to be allowed to use its SRBA trademark.

These standards  demand:

  • hand work to be used almost entirely on all garments, including the “individual cut of a paper pattern”;
  • personal service, such as qualified advice, a large selection of fabrics, or the keeping of all records for future orders;
  • involvement by participating houses in an approved training scheme.

The Association has also specified twenty-one points addressing specific parts of a suit, dictating details such as the length of inlays, or which seams must be hand stitched.

Sean Connery having a Bespoke suit made

Yet the Association has not successfully established Bespoke as a protected term, comparable to Haute Couture. And, in fact, it has been undermined in its attempt to set criteria to define Bespoke by the Advertising Standards Authority, who in 2008 ruled that an advertisement describing a suit “put into a ‘working-frame’ where it would be cut and sewn by machine” as a “bespoke suit uniquely made according to your personal measurements and specification” was not in breach of the Authority’s truthfulness rule.

I can’t help thinking that we are doing both consumer and creator a great disservice by not being clear and strict with definitions of Couture and Bespoke. The average shopper isn’t necessarily going to be informed about the distinctions between, for example, bespoke and made-to-measure, so we should help them out with a little consistency.

For what its worth, the Oxford English Dictionary definitions are

couture ~ noun the design and manufacture of fashionable clothes to a client’s specific requirements and measurements.

Origin: 1920s: French, ‘sewing, dressmaking’

bespokeadjective (of goods, especially clothing) made to order

However, there is far more to it than can be encapsulated in a dictionary definition. Couture and Bespoke have much in common. To my mind the two fundamentals of both are an individually cut pattern, made specifically for that one client (not adapted from an exsisting standard size), and a high proportion of handsewing, which allows greater precision and subtle shaping of the garment.

Although technically and legally not incorrect to call a gown couture if made largely by machine, as long as it has been custom ordered and at least partially tweeked to the client’s measurements and style requirements, it seems to me that the majority of the population probably associates Couture with the standards of Haute Couture, not realising the massive difference the addition of one little word makes.

As for Bespoke; if a suit is made largely by machine from a pattern adjusted from a standard size that’s Made-to-Measure not Bespoke. Its not snobbery – its all about knowing what you’re paying for.

So, what do you think? Am I being picky? Do I only care because I aspire to create clothes of  Haute Couture / Bespoke quality? Or does it deceive and confuse the customer that there is no regulation for the use of these terms? And doesn’tthe lack of legal protection allow less scrupulous traders to aquire a patina of glamour and quality, and therefore dupe their customers into paying a higher price than the goods deserve?

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