The term can refer to:
The fashion houses or fashion designers that create exclusive and often trend-setting fashions the fashions created In France, the label "haute couture" is a protected appellation. A certain number of formal criteria (number of employees, participation in fashion shows...) must be met for a fashion house to use the label; a list of eligible houses is made official every year by the French Ministry of Industry. The haute couture houses belong to the professional union the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
The French term for ready-to-wear (not custom fitted) fashion is prêt-à-porter. Every haute couture house also markets prêt-à-porter collections, which typically deliver a higher return on investment than their custom clothing. Failing revenues have forced a few couture houses to abandon their less profitable couture division and concentrate solely on the less prestigious prêt-à-porter. These houses are no longer haute couture.
French leadership in European fashion may perhaps be dated from the 18th century, when the art, architecture, music, and fashions of the French court at Versailles were imitated across Europe. Visitors to Paris brought back clothing that was then copied by local dressmakers. Stylish women also ordered fashion dolls from Paris -- dolls dressed in the latest Parisian fashions, to serve as models.
As railroads and steamships made European travel easier, it was increasingly common for wealthy women to travel to Paris to shop for clothing and accessories. French fitters and seamstresses were commonly thought to be the best in Europe, and real Parisian garments were considered better than local imitations. The first couturier to establish international dominance was Charles Frederick Worth (1826-1895.) Even New York socialites crossed the Atlantic Ocean to order clothes from Worth.
Following in Worth's footsteps were: Patou, Poiret, Vionnet, Fortuny, Lanvin, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, and Dior. Some of these fashion houses still exist today, under the leadership of modern designers.
In the 1960s a group of young designers who had trained under men like Dior and Balenciaga left these established couture houses and opened their own establishments. The most successful of these young men were Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges, and Emmanuel Ungaro.
Lacroix is perhaps the most successful of the fashion houses to have been started in the last decade. For all these fashion houses, custom clothing is no longer the main source of income; it only adds the aura of fashion to the ready-to-wear, shoes and perfumes, and licensing ventures that make the real money. A house must be careful, however, not to push the profit-making too far. Cardin, for example, licensed with abandon in the 1980s and his name lost most of its fashionable cachet when anyone could buy Cardin luggage at a discount store.
The 1960s also featured a revolt against established fashion standards by mods, rockers, and hippies, as well as an increasing internationalization of the fashion scene. Jet travel had spawned a jet set that partied -- and shopped -- just as happily in New York as in Paris. Rich women no longer felt that a Paris dress was necessarily better than one sewn elsewhere. While Paris is still pre-eminent in the fashion world, it is no longer the sole arbiter of fashion.