By Anna Yanofsky
The only thing better than spending a long morning ogling a rack of couture garments, is doing so with an expert guide. In her many years as one of sewing’s premiere Haute Couture technique experts, teachers, and authors, Claire Shaeffer has led quite a number of slack-jawed fashion admirers through spectacular show-and-tell sessions, but the students of FIT’s Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, and Museum Practice MA program may have been her most engaged crowd yet. On a recent Saturday morning, armed with a rack packed full of The Museum at FIT’s collection pieces, Shaeffer wasted no time showing the students just what makes a garment couture.
The basic definition of a couture garment is one that is made-to-measure in a couture workroom by a designer for a specific client. But, the real definition of haute couture lay in the intricate details that fashion’s moneyed elite pay a premium for. The first garment that Shaeffer pulled from the museum rolling rack was an excellent specimen of couture by one of her favorite couturiers, Mr. Christian Dior. The gown was a deep emerald green evening dress of rich silk satin with a delicate four inches of fine fringe trim. At first glance the gown was gorgeous, but with a little explication from Shaeffer, it became a marvelous work of craftsmanship. The petite mains, or workroom seamstresses had put so much skill into the dress. Under the direction of the head of the couture room’s dressmaking studio they created a gown with mitered seams that met at an angle at the corners of the full skirt and they placed small lead weights in discreet inner pockets at the bottom of the skirt so that the gown never lost its graceful line, no matter the wearer’s movement. Perhaps most impressively, the seamstresses created the lush four-inch fringe that trimmed the skirt by taking a length of the dress fabric and laboriously removing each individual weft thread from the weave. The result was stunning—and that was just the outside of the garment.
Couture, especially that created by the House of Dior, hides it’s most impressive work. Beneath the beautiful outsides are support systems that subtly and sturdily shape and shift a woman’s figure into the designer’s perfect silhouette. For the emerald Dior dress, that meant a corselette sewn directly to the skirt of the dress supported by cotton netting and lined over the bust with couture-grade boning. This was no ordinary boning. Shaeffer had an example of boning material with her, it was certainly not the common stiff strip of plastic found in off-the-rack clothing, but neither was it baleen (the part of a whale’s mouth used in corsetry often referred to as whale bone). Instead, it was a remarkably flexible strip of modern spiral steel boning, which allowed for a firm shape but as much comfort as the client could expect while dressed in Dior’s nipped-in waist style.
Shaeffer also spent time demystifying the allure of Chanel. The legendary French House of Chanel is supremely secretive about their techniques and have made it very clear that they are not fond of Shaeffer sharing their trademark tricks. However, Chanel’s resistance has not deterred Shaeffer’s persistence. Through the dissection of official copies of Chanel garments, she has been able to assemble a list of what signifies a real Chanel, and not a knockoff. The linings of Chanel suit jackets are put in by hand and quilted without interfacing. Collars are shaped expertly, so that they lay or stand with ease or authority. The sleeve vents have working buttonholes that are double bound, inside and out. And, most characteristically, a Chanel suit jacket will be edged inside with a brass chain to give the jacket weight to keep it perfectly shaped. While any one of these elements could be copied by knockoff makers, Shaeffer’s knowledge of all of them makes her quite good at spotting a fake. In fact, she had her suspicions of one of the suits in the museum’s collection, but she was polite enough to leave the matter open-ended.
Even with four hours of instruction time, Shaeffer still had much more to share. In her more than 15 sewing books, one can spend endless hours studying her years worth of knowledge. For those up for the challenge, Shaeffer also offers intimate and challenging sewfaris, classes of ten or less students where she teaches her techniques hands-on. If you are curious about couture, Shaeffer is your ultimate source.