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The Function of Couture Clothing

As Alexandra Palmer, has so well explained, the basic function of the making of individual couture clothing is, and always was, to provide the etiquettecorrect ‘social uniform’ for its private clients.3 The basic financial problem within couture is the inevitability that it will only ever be bought by the tiniest minority of women and that in times of economic trauma, they too balk at spending cash on luxury clothing. Thus this industrie de luxe can never run securely and smoothly.

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It never has. It is always subject to vicissitudes caused by international economic crisis and has only survived over the last 150 years because of its sensitive commercial flexibility. Where the money is, couture clients will be found and then educated into the specific consumption etiquettes of the trade. Up to 1914, the focus was exclusively on the private European and US plutocratic rich. In 1900, the Syndicat de la Couture Parisienne with its elite twenty-one members, already exported 65 per cent of its products to the international elite circles of royalty and plutocratic rich all around the world.

In truth, it was only in this 1890– 1914 period, in the first thirty or so years of Syndicat’s existence, that the industry of couture was relatively crisis free. Unrivalled, Paris had no challengers. It could produce and sell clothes at any price it chose to its eager, captive, international clientele.

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With astute business acumen even then, the couturiers were already selling to elegant department stores from New York to Berlin. The Syndicat launched itself into public view for first time at the Paris International Exhibition of 1900. The success of their pavilion was so huge that the police had to be called in to hold back the crowds pressing to see the staged scenes of wax dummies posed as if at grand soireés or at the races.

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