Henry David Thoreau once warned his readers to ''beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.'' It currently seems to be a very expensive business to be clothed at all, let alone in the height of ever-changing Paris fashion. Yet the biannual couture showings continue to mesmerize the world, and some women, out there somewhere, are buying enough French perfume and ready-to-wear clothes and accessories to offset the cost of designing and making these fabulously expensive high fashion collections, roughly calculated at about $500,000 for each individual presentation by a major house.
According to recent statistics from Christian Dior, the average profit on a couture model is only about 2.5 percent, despite the astronomical cost to the private client, who is rapidly becoming a highly endangered species. Where once the fabled 5,000 international elite dressed regularly in the Paris couture, the number has now dwindled to well below 1,000. Women from the OPEC oil countries are by far the largest spenders, followed by the South American millionairesses.
Typical prices in Emanuel Ungaro's winter collection were around $4,500 for a daytime suit, plus $2,250 for the blouse. At Jean Louis Scherrer, a velvet cocktail dress trimmed with light embroidery cost about $6,000, and the matching shawl was $3,333. All, of course, depends upon the fluctuating rate of the greenback exchange, which has been so favorable for Americans in the past 18 months.
The estimated franc equivalent of half a million dollars that each top house spends twice a year to produce the custom-made collections does not include the furs, which may soon become as scarce as the women who can afford to buy them. The latest blow to luxury lovers, announced at the end of this past year, is the tax increase on all furs except rabbit and sheepskin, which are apparently considered too democratic to bother with. The tax has soared from 18.6 percent to 331/3 percent, which now means that Madame must be prepared to spend exactly one-third more than the actual price.
Since the haute couture collections obviously lose so much money, many economists wonder why the famous fashion houses bother keeping the ''haute'' in the contemporary scene at all. Why not just sit back and concentrate on the lucrative ready-to-wear, accessories, lingerie, beauty products, and most of all the gold mine from perfume?
Yet the turnover from all these goodies can be traced almost directly to the worldwide publicity achieved by the couture. At the end of January and July every year nearly 700 fashion writers and photographers flock to Paris. Their pictures and ponderings subsequently result in more than 1,500 pages of free editorial publicity in almost every country where one wears more than a loin cloth. These extravaganzas may seem as far removed as the moon from the average woman's horizon, but after perusing all the gurglings and gushings, the farmer's wife on a minuscule clothes budget may well end up buying a pair of Dior stockings on her next trip to town.
Jacques Rouet, director of the Dior empire for more than 30 years, called the couture ''the pearl in our crown, the central force from which all else springs, and we are happy to underwrite it indefinitely.'' If $1 million annual expenditure for two couture collections helps to promote a total worldwide annual turnover amounting to almost half a billion dollars, any grade-school scholar can calculate the profit.
The United States once led the field of foreign buyers in the couture, with both private clients and professionals purchasing original models or toiles to copy for their custom-made salons. Today there are only about 20 wealthy American women who dress regularly in the Paris couture. Deluxe American ready-to-wear from top New York designers is often priced as high as a custom-made dress in Paris, and alterations cost extra. So actually, for those who can afford it, a Paris couture dress does become a long-term investment in the finest quality fabrics and workmanship available anywhere in the world.
Along with all the high-fashion byproducts, couture patterns are a good source of income for the top houses. More and more women are making their own clothes, not only for economic reasons but for the satisfaction of individuality , personal choice of fabric, and color. The Paris high fashion syndicate has an annual million-dollar contract with Vogue patterns in the US. Many women actually become their own designers, replacing the collar of one pattern with another, changing details, and evolving a unique wardrobe over the years.
Asked to define the true meaning of Parisian elegance, the late Pierre Balmain replied: ''Do not discard your old dresses. Elegance is never a total renewal, but a gradual updating each season to maintain your own personality.''