Couture vs ready-to-wear:  what’s the difference?

Basically, custom-made versus off-the-rack.

Let’s take a closer look.

Couture Definition

Couture (koo TOOR) is the French word for sewing

Often, couture clothes are one-of-a-kind designs made for specific clients.

Constructed of fine fabrics with extensive handwork (like beading or embroidery) couture pieces are custom-fitted to the wearer over several fittings.

The exclusive design, fabrics, and handwork drive up the price to thousands or even tens of thousands PER PIECE.  Lead time is anywhere from a week to several months depending on how elaborate it is.

Affluent women may commission couture gowns for their weddings or other special events like a milestone birthday or anniversary.

Renee Zellweger in Carolina Herrera Couture
Renee Zellweger wearing Carolina Herrera Couture (2004)


Amal Alamuddin with Oscar de la Renta
Amal Alamuddin dress fitting with Oscar de la Renta in his atelier (2014). Photo by Annie Leibovitz, used courtesy of


Anyone with superior design and dressmaking skills may call himself a couturier.

Couture is also known as made-to-measure or bespoke (British).


Haute Couture Definition

Haute Couture (oht koo TOOR) means high sewing in French.

It takes couture to a higher level using the centuries-old French tradition of handmade garments made of the finest materials by the most accomplished craftspeople.  There are hundreds of small supporting artisan workshops that specialize in the embroidery, lace, beads, feathers, flowers, hats, shoes, and jewels used in haute couture.

Since production can take hundreds of hours for these pieces, the cost is anywhere from $10,000 for simple daywear to six figures for heavily embellished evening or wedding gowns.  Lead time is 2-6 months depending on how much handwork is required.

Very wealthy women, royals, First Ladies, and celebrities commission haute couture gowns for weddings, special occasions, state dinners, and red carpet events.  

Nicky Hilton in Valentino Haute Couture
Nicky Hilton in Valentino Haute Couture (2015). Photo used courtesy of


Charlotte Casiraghi in Chanel Haute Couture
Charlotte Casiraghi opening the Chanel Haute Couture show, January 2022. Photo courtesy of

The term haute couture may only be used by those fashion houses that meet the exacting membership standards of La Fédération de la Couture et de la Mode. It’s a French fashion trade union based on medieval craft guilds that dates back to the 19th century.  Membership qualifications are reviewed every year.

Members must:

-Design made-to-order pieces for private clients, with one or more fittings
-Have a workshop (atelier) that employs at least 15 full-time staff members
-Show two collections per year (January and July) 
-Include at least 50 original designs in each collection with both day and evening garments

In the 1920s and 30s, 35,000 women came to Paris twice a year to see the shows and place their orders.  Today, it’s closer to 1,200.  

That’s because most fashion houses make most of their money from ready-to-wear.


Ready-to-Wear Definition

Ready-to-Wear or prêt-à-porter (prett a poor TAY) is designer apparel that’s ready-to-wear – you can walk out of the store with it that day.  Produced in standard sizes, it’s sold through boutiques, better department stores, and online.  

If consumers require tailoring after purchase, they have to pay an additional cost.  

Many brand-name designers like Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera only show ready-to-wear collections, but still offer couture services in their ateliers.  

Depending on the item, designer ready-to-wear ranges from $100 for a simple t-shirt to five figures for an evening gown.


Polo Ralph Lauren Crewneck Tee
Polo Ralph Lauren Crewneck Tee, $98


Oscar de la Renta evening gown
Oscar de la Renta evening gown, $8,990 at


Couturiers Who Make Ready-to-Wear

While haute couture dates back the 1860s, brand name designer ready-to-wear did not become acceptable until the 1960s – a hundred years later.

That’s because “off-the-rack” was considered low class while custom-made was considered high class.

So when Pierre Cardin created a mid-priced prêt-à-porter collection for Printemps Department Store in Paris in 1959, it caused an uproar.  He was promptly kicked out of la Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (a predecessor to La Fédération de la Couture et de la Mode).

He didn’t care.

“I was born an artiste,” he told The New York Times in 1987, “But I am a businessman.”

That he was. 

He continued to make both couture and prêt-à-porter.  He also started licensing his name to other products as wellWhen he started snapping up real estate in Paris with his prêt-à-porter earnings in the early 1960s, other designers noticed…and started making ready-to-wear lines of their own.

Prêt-à-Porter became so popular among Parisian couturiers that La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture finally relented.  In 1973 it added  La Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode (trade union of ready-to-wear couturiers and fashion designers).

Today, as noted earlier, most couture houses earn the bulk of their income from ready-to-wear.


The Controversy Behind Haute Couture

So why continue haute couture if ready-to-wear is so popular?

Two reasons:

-There will always be people with a lot of money who want “the best,” including one-of-a-kind clothing.  It’s been going on since recorded history and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Haute couture is about fantasy and showing off superior dressmaking skills.  While ready-to-wear collections are typically very wearable, haute couture pieces can be so out-of-this-world crazy that nobody would buy them.  But the point isn’t to sell them – it’s to show high-end customers what they’re capable of doing.

Valentino Haute Couture FW 2022
Valentino Haute Couture, Fall 2022. Photo courtesy of


Balenciaga Haute Couture, FW 2022
Balanciaga Haute Couture, Fall 2022. Photo courtesy of


Some critics refer to haute couture as “an expensive PR stunt.”

Regardless, it still remains a popular spectacle every season.


Should YOU Wear Couture Clothes?

It depends.

Yes, wearing couture and ready-to-wear designer clothes have a certain cachet because they’re associated with an elevated income.  Yes, you can look like you have a lot more money than you do by shopping overstock retailers like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s.

But you have to be careful of the message you’re sending.

This article explains why in depth.


Couture Summary 

So what have you learned?

When you read that fashion designers are showing their ready-to-wear collections, you know that those are the pieces that will be available in boutiques and department stores come the new fashion season.

Haute couture are collections shown to high-paying clients.  Customers must go to the fashion house directly to be fitted.  Or, they can order from the designer’s “look book” and have pieces made up from the measurements the designer already has on file for them.

If you like to read the society pages or watch red carpet reviews to see who’s wearing what, you’ll notice that socialites who can afford to buy couture often say so.  The caption under a photo might read, “Jane Doe in Versace, Susan Smith in Donna Karan, and Tiffany Jones in Givenchy couture.”  Translation?  Jane and Susan bought their gowns ready-to-wear, while Tiffany had hers custom made.

So that’s the difference between couture and ready-to-wear.

Wish you could afford to wear them?

This resource can help.


Diana PembertonDiana Pemberton is an image consultant and creator of The Fame and Fortune FormulaDiscover how to use YOUR image + existing skills to create fame and fortune! 




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