Couture techniques

Nicolas de Larmessin (c.1710) Habit de Tailleur. Paris: Chez Chiquet, Rue St. Jacq. Diktats
Nicolas de Larmessin (c.1710) Habit de Tailleur. Paris: Chez Chiquet, Rue St. Jacq. Diktats

Happy New Year! After a much deserved break, we are back. To start 2019 with the right foot, Caroline, Alistair and I just crashed a BA Fashion Womenswear class to hear tutor Heather Sproat talk about couture (tailoring) techniques, based on her time working at Dior around 20 years ago. Needless to say, Heather’s class was fascinating, filled with interesting parallels to our project. Here are 5 points we took back with us:

1. Haute couture is about accuracy, perfection.

Perfection indeed. Here are two excerpts from Vionnet, in which she describes her creative process:

‘The couturière who creates, who dresses for the needs of everyday life, proceeds as follows: she ahas her head dressmakers, her colleagues, around her, along with a quantity of muslin (a fabric that can be cut and recut for any new idea; there are several types of fabric sizings depending on whether you want to make a fluid dress model or, on the contrary, a fur coat) … The couturière uses technical terms to describe to her dressmakers the dresses she sees in her imagination; or, even better, she cuts and pins the muslin herself, either on a small scale or life size. The dressmaker completes the muslin, and the model is once again examined, reworked, and discussed until the day color and fabric are selected. The dressmaker will have it made by her seamstresses, but how many times will it be tried, undone, resewn; how many times will it return to the tribunal for judgment before it is finished and accepted!’ (Madeleine Vionnet in Golbin, 2009: 16).

‘Out of fifty models, ten are perfect, which I greet with a certain triumphal cry; it’s the dream come true, the idea that has taken form.’ (ibid.)

2. The most important secret in haute couture is the grain of the fabric.

Learning how to work with the grain allows you to manipulate the fabric any way wanted.

Madeleine Vionnet with her colleagues, ca. 1923. © Centre de documentation Mode et Textile, fonds Union Française des Arts du Costume.
Madeleine Vionnet with her colleagues, ca. 1923. © Centre de documentation Mode et Textile, fonds Union Française des Arts du Costume.

Vionnet of course sprang to mind. Her deep understanding of the fabrics’ properties enabled her to explore the bias-cut in a completely innovative way. ‘I took my muslin, I arranged it perfectly on the bias, then I would make notches along the bias line so as not to lose it, and what directed me was the fabric bias. It guided me to make the dresses’ (Madeleine Vionnet in Golbin, 2009: 16).

And just like Heather’s advice to her students, Vionnet once stated:

‘Above all else, learn the trade of dressmaking. Study fabrics – the way to assemble them depending on the direction, to use them according to a particular context, to learn the unique way they ‘fall.’ Then, and without even realising it, all the technical skills will come together to support your personal ideas and quite naturally provide the means to express them.’ (ibid: 20)

3. The pattern is a guide.

You thrive to get the perfect pattern, but that is only the starting point. The perfect fit will be achieve during fittings with the client.

Balenciaga by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1968. © Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos
Balenciaga by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1968. © Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos

At Balenciaga, there were 3 fittings for each garment, led by a premier (fitter), chosen according to the type of garment and client’s personality. Some of the main premiers included Salvador, who ‘worked very quickly and gave great chic to his clothes’; Denis, ‘a bit flat’ but ‘so grand that he was nicknamed the Emperor and was often mistaken for M. Balenciaga when he swanned in his white smock through the fitting rooms’; Suzanne, ‘quick and perfect’; Claude (Mme. Claude from our chosen dress), who ‘was very sensible, she had less style, which was better for some clients’; and Lucia, ‘a perfectionist to the point of keeping clients on their feet forever, so I had to find clients who didn’t mind standing for an hour looking at themselves in the mirror. It’s surprising how many there were’ (Blume, 2013: 104-106).

When the house closed, in 1968, his American client Claudia Heard de Osborne remarked ‘with Balenciaga finished, I’ve no work here, as I am usually fitted almost daily’ (Irvine, 2016).

4. Most houses have bespoke mannequins for each client.

Mannequins are a big obsession for us and we will reflect further on them as the project progresses. But as an initial thought, we should mention Charles James, who in 1949 started developing his own mannequins named Jennies.

Charles James with his 'flexible sculpture'. Photo by Bill Cunningham, ca. 1970. © Bill Cunningham
Charles James with his ‘flexible sculpture’. Photo by Bill Cunningham, ca. 1970. © Bill Cunningham

Combining the measurements of some of his clients, Jennie (Jenny?) ‘strikes a good anatomic average of a woman. Its actual dimensions are the same as an ordinary dummy, but they are differently allocated, with a more realistic relationship between width and depth’ (Charles James in Sheppard, 1950: 17).

James continued to develop his Jennies, as he realised women’s postures changed over time and cultures. Using his mannequin as a basis, in 1955 he created a ‘flexible sculpture’ to study how different postures affect the fit of a garment (Koda & Reeder, 2014: 54-7).

5. Iron is your best friend when using natural fibres.

Natural fibres respond to heating and moistening. Throughout the toiling and sewing processes, fabrics are constantly being steamed and ironed (on the reverse!) so as to mould them into the desired shapes.

Detail of Charles James toile during fitting, August 2018. Image by Liam Leslie for Exploding Fashion.
Detail of Charles James toile during fitting, August 2018. Image by Liam Leslie for Exploding Fashion.

We have first hand experience with the wonders of the iron. When first toiling the Charles James dress, our pattern cutters were struggling to get the two front folds of the skirt right. It was only during the pressing that everything felt into place.

Isabella Coraça

Bibliography

Blume, M. (2013) The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Koda, H. & Reeder, J.G. (2014) Charles James: Beyond Fashion. [Exhibition catalogue]. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York.

Sheppard, E. (1950) ‘Charles James Advocates New Lines in Styles.’ New York Herald Tribune, January 2, p.17.

Golbin, P. (ed.) (2009) Madeleine Vionnet. [Exhibition catalogue]. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

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