The Paris haute couture shows for fall and winter have ended.

Doesn't it seem like just a few months ago that you saw those frivolous French frocks in the papers and magazines? No, those were the ready-to-wear showings, very different. Ready-to-wear clothes are actually manufactured and can be purchased by mortals who have enough confidence and cash -- say, the equivalent of two mortgage payments for a skimpy little sweater dress.

Couture clothes are special, one of a kind.

They are the theater of fashion and can only be had by women who can pay the high-ticket prices to be part of the play.

A couture evening dress can cost as much as a family station wagon -- as much as a fully-loaded status wagon if the dress has some extra beading.

Who buys this stuff? Well, the market is dwindling, what with Ivana having to learn to make do and Imelda keeping a lower profile. That leaves the occasional rock superstar and oil-rich ladies who spend lavishly but keep themselves discreetly covered when in the public eye.

But despite dire predictions that couture is dying from lack of rarefied bank accounts, Paris continues in this biannual blitz of furs, feathers and photographers. A couture line seldom pays for itself -- the cost of using the best fabrics, craftsmen and models is staggering. But couture does pay eventually. Top designers invest the energy and money in their name. Their financial success depends on the million-dollar licensing agreements which lend their label to everything from luggage to lipsticks.

So the next time you treat yourself to a Chanel lipstick or Dior dusting powder, just think, all that glitz and glamour is rubbing off on you.

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