What Is Couture?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term "couture" is often used generically to refer to high fashion, but it has a very specific meaning in France. Within France, the term is used to refer to the custom making of garments by high-end design companies for their clients, using workshops and staff members based in Paris. Outside of France, the term is used to refer to any sort of extremely expensive fashionable garment, no matter whether the garment has been custom fitted. With the rise of very high quality ready-to-wear fashion, couture is not quite as popular among the wealthy class as it once was, but the tradition has endured among people — particularly celebrities, like Gwyneth Paltrow, below — who want to look unique and stunning at public events.

Couture is generically defined as "high fashion," however, in France it refers to the making of custom garments.
Couture is generically defined as "high fashion," however, in France it refers to the making of custom garments.


The word is part of haute couture, a French phrase that means "high dressmaking" but has come to be used to refer to the custom-made garments themselves. This fashion tradition dates to the mid-1800s, and to be considered haute couture in French, a garment must have been produced by one of the members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a fashion trade association that is part of the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. This fashion term typically refers specifically to womenswear, although some designers produce menswear lines as well.

A specialty clothing boutique may offer couture clothing.
A specialty clothing boutique may offer couture clothing.

A couture garment must be fitted to a specific client, with at least one personal fitting to ensure that the garment looks correct. Furthermore, the company itself must maintain a workshop in Paris with French staff members and present a collection during both of the annual fashion weeks in January and July. As of 2011, official members of the Chambre syndicale included Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel, and Givenchy, among other designers.

Fashion designers often sketch out an idea before creating it.
Fashion designers often sketch out an idea before creating it.


The reason couture fashion can command such a high price is because of the long tradition of high fashion in France, as well as the materials and work that goes into each item. Pieces are made to fit the specific client, or as part of a collection to be worn by models in a fashion show. Such garments are designed to look absolutely stunning on clients, with fits customized to the client's body, way of movement, and personal style.

Moreover, the price of these garments is also determined in part by the quality of the materials used to make them. With such clothing, there is no limit on the types of fabrics that may be used: silks, furs, leathers, and cashmere are just a few possibilities. The detailing on these garments, such as beading and embroidery, is always done by hand and might take hours or even months of labor. Colors and patterns may be unique, designed for a specific dress or client.

Couture vs. Ready-to-Wear

Many companies that produce couture garments also produce ready-to-wear or prêt-à-porter styles. The distinction between the two, therefore, has become blurred in the eyes of many consumers. In part, this is because of a conscious decision by fashion houses that want to tap into the market that exists among people who seek the symbolism that wearing a high fashion brand might provide but who cannot afford expensive, one-of-a-kind items.

Many designers make more money on ready-to-wear fashions than they do on clothing that is custom made. In addition to producing prêt-à-porter lines that can be purchased in department stores and boutiques, many of these companies continue to offer traditional haute couture to clients who are willing to travel to Paris and pay high prices. A few design houses, however, have stopped making bespoke or custom-made garments altogether because they are not profitable.


Couture designers usually have a distinct look that differentiates them from other fashion houses. Chanel, for example, is known for it's understated, tailored style and luxuriant fabrics — in addition to the classic little black dress — while Christian Dior is associated with avant-garde, theatrical designs. Maurizio Galante, Stephane Rolland, Valentino, and Christian Lacroix also produce couture lines.

Couture Fashion Shows

Despite their exclusivity, many fashion houses show haute couture collections during industry events, such as fashion weeks in Milan, New York, Paris, and London. In many ways, these shows act as an advertisement for the brand itself, beyond just the specific pieces being worn on the catwalk. When celebrities and other well-known people wear couture fashions, it can create interest in the brand from all levels of consumer. In addition, elements that are featured in the show may be echoed in the ready-to-wear line, although in modified or less expensive ways.

Videos showing couture collections are usually readily available, and can provide a glimspe of different designers' styles.

In France, couture refers specifically to custom-made clothes made by designers of high-end fashion.
In France, couture refers specifically to custom-made clothes made by designers of high-end fashion.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


In India, our grandmother and maternal grandmother were the masters in Haute couture and couture. They perfectly collected the different types of pieces of cloth (waste after cutting a shirt or trousers) and would stitch them and give them a perfect rectangular shape to make baby wear or to make a quilt base.

In this modern age celebrities are wearing this kind of material. It can also be seen in tribal area in India where people collect waste cut pieces of cloth from tailoring shops and make this type of clothes to wear or use as bed sheets.


indeed i agree with the explanations of No. 3.

Sadly a lot of people and in the fashion business do not know it (e.g the daughter of anna wintour editor of vogue participated in 2005 in an event claiming to be haute couture when 50 percent of the dresses were preaporter).

many thanks for expertly clarifying all these issues.


the ultimate real explanation is understood by the following three distinctive terms:

1. Haute couture (custom made) garments by a designer that is an accepted haute couture member of the chambre de commerce in paris and abides with their rules and fees.

2. Custom made garments by any designer who has the workshop to custom fit and complete garments. The designer is not necessarily a member of the paris chamber.

3. Pretaporter or ready-to-wear mass produced clothing that is made in various sizes and retailed to whomever can fit them.


@anon40120 - Many people make that misconception when it comes to the differences between couture and haute couture, so it can easily be understood. Many people, unless they are in the fashion industry, don't understand the difference and can easily misunderstand the use of both words. However, you are correct that Couture is the process in which clothes are made and haute couture are the fashions produced from this process.


Couture is not short for "haute couture". Couture is the process by which the clothes are made (the designing, sewing, etc) and haute couture refers to the specifically designed garments themselves.

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