All were captured in 1937 by the French photographer Francois Kollar in their Paris ateliers at the height of both their and their couture’s success. Schiparelli’s hands are folding sheets of newspaper, Chanel’s are holding a slim paint brush and a cigarette burnt to the filter, while Bocher’s clutch half a dozen pencils.
I have always loved watching skilful hands at work. I remember my textile teacher’s pink-lacquered nails as she folded a hem on a skirt in class, securing it with pins with candy-coloured heads; my dad’s weatherworn hands tying knots from shop-fresh rope to secure the boats that we launched in summer; or the blackened mitts of the local cobbler reheeling shoes. All are making without thinking, producing temporary beauty, which will soon be undone.
But the hands on show in Paris Haute Couture are the Rolls Royce of hands. What came from the tips of their and their atelier workers' fingers were not just extraordinary objects of richness and beauty, but objects that helped shape the history of dress. Some of those outcomes are on on show in the second gallery of the exhibition, where around 50 garments dating from the late 19th century (a Worth tea gown in silk taffeta) to the present day (a Jean-Paul Gaultier frayed denim jacket) are on display.
It’s of course a ridiculously outdated practice: making with hands. Ever since the onset of the Industrial revolution and the invention of the spinning Jenny by James Hargreaves in 1764, the hand has been secondary to the machine; the hand’s previous skill with the yarn reduced to one simplified action which lead to the increased production of cotton. But in Haute Couture, the hand is irreplaceable. A machine could never carry out the craft of the atelier seamstress and the many hours of work required to produce a couture dress.
This is its unique selling point. Couture is all about the time it takes and all about the hands that make it, but the market is decreasing rapidly. In fact, this is the starting point for the exhibition, as the introduction states that between 1946 and 1967, the number of couture houses was reduced from 106 to 19. Today there are 12 Parisian couture houses left, although new names join the more established roster every few years. It is a well-guarded practice, as the status of being a “haute couturier” is defined and controlled by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. In its stipulations, this body states that in order to create haute couture, a designer must make the designs made-to-order for private clients, have a workshop in Paris that employs at least 20 full-time technical workers, and present one collection of at least 35 outfits, twice a year.
Naturally, the exercise is expensive and time consuming, and one which is at odds with a trend of several fashion brands that are currently moving its bulk of manufacturing overseas, for cheaper wages and bigger profits. It is also one which contradicts an increasing number of international fashion weeks and new fashion capitals of the world, as it stipulates and protects Paris as the only legitimate capital of couture.
But as the exhibition clearly states, by its opening focus on hands and its subsequent presentation of extraordinarily crafted garments, Haute Couture is not really a part and parcel of fashion, it is an artisenal practice. And although haute couture spawned the fashion industry as we now know it, its association with the quickly turning world of fashion isn’t doing couture any favours. To look upon a carefully rouched evening gown by Madame Grès, where the pink silk resembles the folds of a Greek marble sculpture of Nike, or studying the sculpted cut of a Balenciaga cape inspired by a painting of Goya’s, is a moving testament to the feats of the hand. It raises the hairs on my neck and make me feel sentimental for the efforts of my sewing teacher.