What makes haute couture so special? And by special, I don't just mean expensive, although the 'special qualities' of haute couture are certainly a reason for the extreme expense of the garments. Couture is fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fashion, where anything and everything is magically possible.
Haute couture literally translates as 'high sewing', and the idea of haute couture originated with Charles Frederick Worth in the 1850s (of course, anyone who saw me expound over yesterday's Dior gown will be well-aware of that). For a modern audience, it's difficult to articulate what a revolution haute couture was: prior to Worth, a by and large woman took fabric to a dressmaker and had a gown created to her own specifications and taste. Worth, by contrast, set himself up as an arbiter of style, a designer-cum-dictator who told women what they must wear. Marie Antoinette's 'Minister of Fashion' Rose Bertin set the precedent almost a century earlier, but Worth was the first to really transform high fashion into high art. Worth, indeed, is the originator of our caricature of the haute couturier, dressing in an artist's smock and affected velvet beret declaring 'I have Delacroix's sense of colour, and I compose: a toilette is as good as a painting.' Essentially, Worth and haute couture founded the fashion industry as we know it.
What continues to make haute couture so special is the tradition it embodies. The painstaking, labour-intensive construction methods haute couture utilises have all but died out. Mainstream fashion cannot afford the hours of work they require: and most customers simply do not have the requisite embassy balls, operas, or court functions (royal court rather than county court, of course) to justify a feather-crusted chiffon sheath, beaded georgette gown with train, or indeed a tulle gown buoyed with petticoats and fastened over its own padded and whaleboned internal corset. Oddly enough, the women who do have reason to wear these garments usually only do so once or twice, many then donating them to the museum collections where they arguably belong.