Haute Couture (high dressmaking) is a high-end fashion created by leading fashion houses that is exclusive and custom-fitted for a specific individual. Outfits are often made from expensive and unusual fabrics that are sewn together by hand. Originally, only pieces created in Paris fashion houses could be called Haute Couture. However, the term now applies to custom-fitted fashion created in any major fashion capitals such as New York, London, or Rome.
Currently, Haute Couture outfits are designed and created for show or publicity rather than for purchase. Most fashion houses - Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Prada to name a few - that create Haute Couture outfits make most of their profit from ready-to-wear clothing and related luxury products such as shoes and perfumes.
Throughout the history of filmmaking in Hollywood, costume designers have taken inspiration or used Haute Couture pieces and other outfits from French fashion houses to add to the style and aesthetic of the film. There have also been many films that portray the fashion industry and the process of making couture fashion. This article is going to examine popular Hollywood films that feature Haute Couture pieces or high-end fashion from French fashion houses.
Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window is a thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock released in 1954. Arguably one of Hitchcock’s greatest thrillers, the film stars James Stewart and Grace Kelly as they try to solve a possible murder from their apartment window. While the focus of the film may not be fashion, Grace Kelly’s wardrobe has managed to make a lasting impact. In particular, her first outfit which she refers to as being ‘fresh from the Paris plane’ was designed by Edith Head and is the most famous look of the film.
The dress is a ‘Y’ silhouette with a fitted black bodice that has a deep V cut down the bust and rear. This silhouette was made popular in Christian Dior’s 1955 ‘Ligne Corolle’ collection (also known as The New Look). The outfit also features a shoulder wrap which was common with Haute Couture gowns that were either off the shoulder or strapless. The overall look emulates the style of the ’50s high-end fashion for women which was described as “ultra-feminized and chic”.
Funny Face (1957)
Funny Face is a movie musical directed by Stanley Donen released in 1957. The film stars Audrey Hepburn as a bookstore clerk who becomes a model, getting swept away to Paris when she’s discovered by a fashion photographer played by Fred Astaire. The film features several scenes of Hepburn being photographed at famous landmarks in France while wearing French couture pieces.
The Paris outfits were designed by Hubert de Givenchy, a famous French fashion designer. Givenchy’s style has been described as “casual chic, aristocratic elegance and feminine”, a common style upon the film’s release. One of the most iconic outfits in the film that captures Givenchy’s style is a bridal gown with a full ballerina-length skirt and a slim-fitting drop-waisted bodice. The bridal gown also has a bateau neckline, which originated in sailors’ clothes but came into fashion in the 1920s when Coco Chanel, another French designer, incorporated the style into her runways. The neckline was later picked up and incorporated into the Beatnik style during the 1950s. Beatniks also play a prominent role in the film, and Hepburn wears a classic Beatnik outfit of a black turtleneck and tight black pants.
Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn had a partnership that lasted four decades and is often thought of as the basis for many celebrities being the “face” of a specific fashion designer or brand. However, this relationship was about more than a surface level appearance. Hepburn famously described Givenchy’s designs as, “The only ones I feel myself in. He is more than a designer; he is a creator of personality.” Hepburn had a public image of being graceful and elegant, so when she wore Givenchy’s designs his fashion became associated with the same public image. For example, while other designers previously had their own versions of the little black dress, when Audrey Hepburn wore one designed by Givenchy in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it took the idea to new elegant heights.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
The Devil Wears Prada is a comedy/drama film directed by David Frankel released in 2006. The film stars Anne Hathaway as a newly hired assistant to the biggest fashion magazine editor in New York, played by Meryl Streep. The film takes a close look at the fashion industry in both New York and Paris. Since fashion plays a huge role in the film, costume designer Patricia Field worked with a variety of famous designers. Hathaway’s character in particular was dressed mostly in pieces by Chanel. Chanel is a French fashion house that has focused on high fashion since its creation in 1910.
During the film’s production, the fashion house was eager to showcase their designs on a younger woman to gain more interest from a younger generation. Some of Chanel’s foundational style beliefs included simplicity, monochromatic outfits that were either black or white and accessories, especially large pearl necklaces. Chanel also is credited as being the creator of the little black dress back in 1926. During the film, you can see the outfits Hathaway wears specifically follow these trends. This also demonstrated that the foundation style created by Coco Chanel is still popular nearly a century later.
Yves Saint Laurent (2014)
Yves Saint Laurent is a biographical drama directed by Jalil Lespert released in 2014. The film stars Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent when he becomes the head of design at La Maison Dior, following the creation of his 1958 spring collection that saved the house from financial ruin and renewed interest in couture fashion.
During production, 77 costumes used in the film were original pieces from the Yves Saint Laurent archives along with up to 60 costumes created from lost sketches by the designer. Since this film takes place just as his career launches, audiences are given a clear idea of the designer’s style upon which his fashion house was built upon. The key feature of his first collection featured in the film is the Trapeze line. This silhouette flairs out to form a fitted shoulder, creating a fluid shape. This was a major shift from the cinched waist, made popular by Dior.
Phantom Thread (2017)
Phantom Thread is a historical drama directed by Paul Thomas Anderson released in 2017. The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a Haute Couture dressmaker that finds a young waitress, played by Vicky Krieps who becomes his muse. The film takes place in England during 1954 a post-war era and after the birth of Christian Dior’s ultra feminine New Look.
At the time the U.K. had ended its clothing rationing and couture once again became popular. Phantom Thread allows viewers a close look at the creative process for creating contour outfits, as the film pulls inspiration from the work of many designers including Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Charles James. The film also touches on the ever-evolving nature of fashion and how designers must continue to adapt their style to meet ever-changing demands.
Haute Couture Events
While many celebrities can often be seen wearing Haute Couture and high fashion outfits for award shows, the real crème de la crème can be seen at the Met Gala. The Met Gala is an annual fund-raising event to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Every year, the event has a theme based on that year's Costume Institute exhibition where designers dress celebrities to match.
Today, the Met Gala draws celebrities from all across culture, including film, art, politics, sports, and music. Many Haute Couture designers such as Chanel, Dior, Stéphane Rolland, and Jean-Paul Gaultier showcase their creations during this annual event. The purpose of the Met Gala is to feature the creative process of design and showcase the connection between fashion and art, which is the foundation of Haute Couture.