There are three things in which I take special delight in-the glow of a married couple who are happy together, people who get along with each other or neighbors who are friends, and things that are beautiful or luxurious to behold, like the resplendent creations on display during Paris Haute Couture Fashion week. But unless you have lived in the continent of Africa, you’ll never understand why Haute Couture remains a puzzle to me. Haute Couture means the making of “unequivocally beautiful garments made with supreme technical mastery,” (1) or simply stated, the creation of exclusive, elegant custom-fitted clothing constructed by hand.
Early this month, I stood in awe when runway after runway during the Paris Haute Couture Week displayed beautiful pieces with rich fabrics that are truly worthy of praises. However, as an African woman, a Nigerian woman to be precise, it is not uncommon to see garments made with the choicest fabrics, all beautiful apart, but sewn together, in a meaningful tune by seamstress with proficient and rare perfecting skills like these couturists that also ought to be praised. For the African woman, dressing is a real art. In fact, travel to Nigeria, or Senegal, or Ethiopia or South Africa, and you will see women wearing exclusive, custom-fitted clothing that are so beautiful to behold. So therein lies the enigma. There are 7 billion people in the world, 7 billion and about 1 billion in Africa. Nigeria alone, has at least over 170 million people. Yet a select few congregate in Paris, season after season, year after year, to define what society should laud as dressmaking at its finest.
Now my intent is not to bring down the Paris high fashion system. No, instead I applaud its zeal as the authority on exquisite custom women’s clothing since the 19th century. I am also impressed with the work of its regulating commission and how they determine which fashion houses are eligible to be true Haute Couture fashion houses. For many years these fashion houses have been catalyst for many of fashion’s innovations. I marvel at their ability, season after season, to produce new fashion, some with lavish trimmings, others with ornate designs, but almost all with new colors, splendid fabrics, intricately pieced together in ways that make their exclusive clientele (and even African women like myself) craze with excitement.
The first true couturier Charles Frederick Worth, courageously promoted hand-made dresses made with beautiful fabrics and supreme craftsmanship. Modern day couturists like Raf Simmons at Christian Dior or Elie Saab continue to make these one-of-a-kind dresses that are exquisite to behold. I also love how Haute Couture remains cognizant of its ideal clients. Truly and I must agree with Martin and Koda,( 1) that Haute Couture persists because “it provides us with a paragon of the most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned” (1) and to echo the words of Jean Worth,(2) “not for the moment only are they beautiful, but for all time.”
Coco Chanel one of the most renowned couturist took great delight “in the process and practice of the haute couture,” 1 with its distinct attention to detail and elegance. She also desired to make every woman look well dressed, and her statement “fashion fades, but only style remains,” is eternal. Even her impression of society, with statements like “luxury…is the opposite of vulgarity” are part of what makes Coco Chanel an enigma. She was not a slave to fashion and she admonished those in love with style to choose to be different so that they remain irreplaceable. In the Principles of the Correct Dress, Jean Worth, the son of Charles Worth, suggests that the reason “the Frenchwoman is so well dressed is because she is so immensely critical.”( 2) She is also consistent and will not spend all her money on a dress or a hat, and carelessly forget to purchase the gloves, neckwear, belt, and shoes needed to complete her ensemble.(1)
So herein lies my criticism of today’s Haute Couture and I will start by asking the following: have you seen an African woman lately, a Nigerian woman in all her glory on her wedding day or even at the burial of a close relative? She is as consistent as the French woman described by Worth. She is not a slave to fashion as Coco Chanel insists, and anyone present at a wedding ceremony, especially a Nigerian one, will be charmed by the novelty of her style, with its attention to detail, the use of color and exquisite fabrics that most completely enhances her figure. The art of dressmaking with its custom-fitting is akin to the way of life of the African woman and she is always different, time after time. Fashion truly fades, even Haute Couture may fade at times, but the art and style of the Africa woman persists.
I read the reviews of magazines and fashion show attendees from last week’s Paris Haute Couture Fashion week, and everything seemed trite and boring to say the least. A simple google of Paris Haute Couture News clearly illustrates why people are choosing the route of remaining slaves to fashion. We are truly in an era of fast fashion, where the art of dressmaking, or the supreme attention to detail are now being replaced with pedestrian report after report from reputable news outlet and fashion bloggers alike of celebrity after celebrity arriving in dazzling fashion. There were very few references to whether or not Haute Couture still mattered or a thorough critique of the clothes on display or even a praise report on the extensive labor associated with making dresses by hand. Instead, we are left with stale adjectives eloquently composed together in ways that do not take the novelty of Haute Couture into consideration. Russian socialites who dress to attract attention for street style photos are praised more than the painstaking work of skillful couturists. Honestly, my disdain are not with these reports. No, it’s with the fact that African women who are rightfully suited for Haute Couture, women who constantly defy fashion and will place their own, expensive and exquisite fabric in the hands of a skillful couturist for a custom-fitted gown, are almost never considered as attendees or best yet, critiques of these collections. In fact, Haute Couture and African Woman are never used in the same sentence. let alone an entire post.
So to lovers of Haute Couture, do you really want my opinion, or do you want me to merely describe last week’s collection as resplendent? Truthfully, they were. However, a beautiful gown should be a joy to wear, something marvelous to behold. The African Woman in all her glory, especially her beautiful gowns, is a joy to behold. Yet, Haute Couture and her, never go together. But soon, I am certain that the industry will recognize that the old way of doing business are obsolete, and that Russian socialites or celebrities are like, are not the only ones with buying power or discerning eye. The African woman has firsthand knowledge of Haute Couture that is immaculate. She has money too. Talk to her and she just might ask you to make her very own, unequivocally beautiful custom fitted gown that would be magnificent to behold.
Martin, R. H., & Koda, H. (1995). Haute couture. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Winterburn, F. H., Worth, J. P., & Poiret, P. (1914). Principles of correct dress. Harper & brothers.
Images: Vlisco Nouvelle Histoire