What is the meaning of haute couture?

I often run seminars and one of my favourite subjects is the meaning of Haute Couture. Literally translated, haute couture means 'High Seam'. It is generally thought as high fashion.

"So what would you expect a Couture garment to be?" I ask the audience. Expensive, individually made, unique style, handmade, are all the answers I would expect to hear, and they are all true. But let’s talk through the process from beginning to end, remembering that I am usually talking to people from the sewing trade or wedding industry.

By really understanding the word couture, along with the terms bespoke, manufacturing and handmade you can feel confident knowing what it is you are actually offering and of course its value. That way you can decide which service or combination of services you can offer, and charge accordingly.

The Couture Service


The couture service is seen as the very top end of the scale – it is time consuming and costly, and you need to be extremely experienced to offer this service. You would expect to use the most expensive of fabrics, the most labour-intensive construction techniques and the finest of hand finishing.

Whatever you can dream up as a design can be implemented when it comes to couture - you just have to figure out how. It’s like building a house – you need an infrastructure, and you can turn your cloth into any creation. Fabric becomes like wallpaper, but you need to be able to construct the walls first!

Although there are traditional techniques associated with couture, there is no right or wrong in its way of thinking – you step outside of the box. Simply look at your idea and make it happen. Starting at the foundations, work your way out to the vision of the final design that we, the voyeur get to see!

If you are creating a garment for a client, this is how it will work:

1 You will arrange an initial consultation with the client, at which you will have a general discussion where you can both talk through your ideas - sketches, fabric swatches, colours, embellishments. Anything and everything is possible at this stage. You need to be aware of the occasion, the time of year, suitability to client’s likes and dislikes; figure shape, age, style. All the information you can collect will be invaluable and enable you to succeed.

2 After your first consultation you should have enough information to put a collection of ideas down in the form of a moodboard – something a bit more focused. Attach fabric choices and a collection of swatches that demonstrate the finished design making it easier for the client to understand your vision and vice versa.

Take measurements for your records - that is, of course, you have decided on a style and you are ready to start.

3 You will now construct a paper pattern to fit those personal measurements - a ‘one off’ pattern.

Cut this out in suitable weight calico and make a wearable pattern, which is known as a toile. Now you are ready for your first fitting.

Try on the toile. This is the first time the client has really seen the reality of your design. 

You are now looking to achieve three things:
* A good fit. By pinning in and around the contours of the body you can see where to fit. Be mindful of movement and comfort. It stands to reason that the client needs to be wearing the correct underwear and shoes that are nearest to the heel height and shape.

* Take a look at the design. Be prepared for this to evolve. Now your client can see the reality of this design in the mirror. They are more than likely want to add, detract or change some areas.

* Finally the style lines. Is the cut of the pattern right for this individual? Are the style lines in the most flattering position? Is the design well balanced? Are you showing the best parts of the body. Could you do better?

Write all over the toile, make notes. Your toile is your reference - it’s your map on where to go next.

5 Unpick your toile. Make your amendments. It’s quite possible you need to make a new one depending on the amount of work needed, so be prepared to do so. It’s actually easier to work with than a complicated fix on an old one with scraps of fabric everywhere and certainly less confusing when you come to fit again. Transfer all the alterations to the paper pattern.

6 You will now need to fit the calico again to fine tune your toile. You should be almost there. But if not, you will have to do whatever it takes to get you there. Remember once again to transfer your alterations to the paper pattern.

7 In the meantime you will be finalising your choice of fabrics, linings and interlining. You should be ready to cut these out. 

After preparing all the pattern pieces sew all the parts you are confident with together and tack together those areas you would like to check over first, especially the side seams and setting-in sleeves, because these can easily be adjusted.

You are ready for your first fitting in fabric.

8 Check everything over – be mindful of the balance of the garment. Keep your visual balance lines in place like the bust, waist, hips, centre front, centre back , armhole position, the sleeve length and hem length. If your eye is working towards this now you are bound to be one step nearer to perfection by the time you are close to the end.

9 Take away, stitch what you can and fit again.

10 You really should just be perfecting now - pinning up hems and and making minor adjustments, all ready to finalise before adding the lining.

Take off, adjust and fit again.

You can see there is a lot of work to perform and the more ‘out there’ in the design therefore the unknown. It stands to reason the more backwards and forwards the garment will have to go.


So you can see Couture needs the investment of time and it is very apparent why it is so expensive.

But this is the interesting point - a manufactured garment is exactly the same process – you still need to know all the above. But this time we have a pretend client, usually an in-house model of a standard size or just a basic mannequin. But the unknown, choosing the correct fabrics, the fit, the visual, all need the same amount of attention to see the final design is perfected. Once you have the thumbs up and the design team say YES! it goes into production and the cost of that one prototype gets watered down by hundreds if not thousands.

Bespoke is an adaptation of couture too. Once again you have the prototype which take all of the time and cost. From that initial sample you then sell ‘one offs’ although you will be repeating almost the same design because you know it works. However you will be offering fabric choices, some small amount of design changes and made to measure.

Then finally there is handmade. Handmade has come to mean that someone has made it by themselves rather than each stitch being made by hand, so some machining may be needed, and really you are back to describing couture!

But again here is an interesting point. Most of us who make for others and have a small business are in the best position because you can take a little from each category to create your own formula and adapt it when needs be. It enables you to be spontaneous. You can have the mind set of a couturier. You can work out anything logically and find a way to make it happen but apply shortcuts if it gets you the same results. You can work with cheaper fabrics and still construct incredible one-off designs.

Your secret weapon is to take on the knowledge of every conceivable way to construct and be creative, then add this to your arsenal! Now you can flit between whatever works for you at the time and this doesn’t mean to give up on quality, but deliver the best you can for the client and what they can afford. You give them options. You can explain what is achievable for their budget. And if the budget is an issue ask which shortcut would they like to choose... cheaper fabric, less fabric? Simple choices.

But one real piece of advice from me is if the design is an unknown you NEVER miss out on making the toile. The toile is your product. It is the magical ingredient that will pull this whole event together so use it wisely. Make it your friend, not the enemy. And never throw it away until after the finished design has been worn.

Trust me I have learnt the hard way!

I hope this blog has been of interest to you and in some way it helps you on your sewing journey.

Please remember to follow me on Facebook and Instagram #terryfoxspiritofcouture and give me a thumbs up and share whenever you can. This will help me to write even more stories to share with you.

Have lots of fun. Buy more fabric and a big X from me.

Terry Fox