I recently read Peter Medawar’s The Art of the Soluble, which really brought my attention to what he refers to as the cause of the “schism between the pure and the applied”. Medawar, a famous immunologist, was referring to science, of course, but what struck me was that this idea isn’t just true about science and math.
It exemplifies a phenomenon so ingrained into the collective consciousness that fashion suffers no less from it than any academic field. I am speaking of the barrier between couture and ready-to-wear, as you no doubt have guessed.
(Alexander McQueen: RTW and Couture.)
Medawar lays the blame for science’s divide on an “unwitting Immanuel Kant” who wrote obscure and difficult to understand philosophy in virtue and language back in the 18th century. The gist is basically that Kant was totally awesome, but also totally esoteric, and so the two began to be equated with each other. Hence highbrow and useless started to equal good.
For fashion, an eerily similar thing happened at the same time. Around the industrial revolution (also 18th century omg!), clothing started to be mass manufactured and so the whole “ready to wear” thing started to equate with common clothing. And so couture began to ascent into its “pure” status of being avant garde and just like in science: difficult and useless.
But let’s not get carried away and start saying Kant had anything to do with the evolution of fashion dichotomy. That’s not the point. The point is that in research, the pure and applied sciences are beginning to play nice again, and I wonder if fashion is to follow similar footsteps seeing as it’s happened once before.
I’m arguing that thinking couture and handcrafted as somehow superior to machine constructed ready to wear is a mindset of the past. In fact, I’d even go as far to say that often times a lot more love goes into the crafting of a ready to wear garment. Couture is a selfish personal exploration by a designer, a one-shot statement made for the sake of speaking, if you will. Couture isn’t made to showcase women’s bodies or to make anyone feel specific things when they wear it (unless you’re Elie Saab and you’re dressing celebrities); it’s a sincere confession of art by an individual. If you like it, that’s just icing on the cake.
Ready to wear, on the other hand, is a gift for you, drafted and re-drafted with you in mind. It’s made for your eye, your body, made to let you make the statement. It’s not sewn onto a dress form with the understanding it’ll never get washed. It’s made so you can wear it again and again, each time looking only marginally worse than when it was brand new.
(Left: hand cast binding. Right: Serger machine binding. You be the judge.)
There’s often a gut instinct that couture is somehow better, but it really isn’t. It’s just less economically viable—human hands need to be paid, machines don’t. In fact, as a seamstress, I can tell you that hand sewn seams are no more sturdy than machine seams. I’ll get engineering and say there’s a trade off between adhering two pieces together and poking so many holes you compromise the integrity of the materials.
So let’s play nice. Couture and ready to wear are like apples and oranges. Just because one is much more expensive and elusive doesn’t make it better. Things you can’t wear are, in fact, clearly not better.
What I hope will happen is that the conversation between the two increases and instead of having ready to wear translations of couture, people can begin to refer them as two separate but equal translations on one idea. As in, designers stop thinking of ready to wear as a chore to be completed so they can make enough money to support their couture endeavors. It’ll be a glorious day when RTW no longer stands in the shadow of couture as some kind of a lesser afterthought.