Let's face it: fashion comes with a language all its own. Fab Vocab is a feature on NPJ Designs where we'll look up and behind the meanings of weird and confusing sartorial words.
The business of designing, making, and selling fashionable, custom-made women's clothing.
Thank you Merriam-Webster
|via Hub Pages|
As with so many things in fashion, the French set the standards for couture, short for haute couture. No, seriously - there's an agency and everything. Defined as "the regulating commission that determines which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses," the rules of the chambre syndicale state that only "those companies mentioned on the list drawn up each year by a commission domiciled at the Ministry for Industry are entitled to avail themselves" of the label haute couture. 
Furthermore, the term itself comes from the French for "high" or "elegant" (haute) and "sewing" (couture). Over time, Couture "has come to indicate the business of designing, creating, and selling custom-made, high fashion women's clothes." A bit ironically, the French term actually began with an Englishman! Charles Frederick Worth and his wife opened their couture house on the rue de la Paix in the 1950s. Not only was Worth the first dressmaker to open a salon in Paris, he was also the first to display his creations on live mannequins.  Later, he and his sons founded an association of couture houses called The Chambre Syndicale De La Confection Et De La Couture Pour Dames Et Fillettes (see above). Its initial purpose was intended to stop couture designs being copied. 
|A couture Worth design from 1885-86 on exhibit at the Museum of the City if New York. Click on the image for details.|
Recently, couture has lost some of its meaning thanks to overuse. The word has been attached to any number of stores and fashion lines. In other words: caveat emptor. A design may be called couture, but that does not mean it or its designer have met the stringent guidelines of The Chambre Syndicale as set forth in 1945 (updated in 1992).  According to some sources, the haute couture market is very small . "Today only 2,000 women in the world buy couture clothes; 60% are American. Only 200 are regular customers. Often, designers will loan clothes to movie stars or other public figures for publicity." 
|Actress, Cate Blanchett poses while wearing a haute couture Velentino for U.K. Vogue in 2005|
I'd hate to cause you needless worry, so I am here to assist with the correct application of the term "couture." I know; you're so lucky.
1. Couture must be custom-made for a single, specific person's body by a fashion house that is an accredited member of the Chambre Syndicale De La Couture or be a piece in the couture archives of a former member of the chambre. In the following image, Uma Thurman (left) is the only celebrity wearing haute couture. Versace hasn't offered couture fashions since 2003 , and, to the best of my knowledge, Robert Cavalli is not listed as either a present or former couturier.
2. It might be beautiful or it might be artistic, it might even be both, but that does not make it couture. See above.
3. All couture fashions are bespoke but not all bespoke pieces are couture.
4. See number 3 and substitute "custom" for "bespoke."
5. All couture designs come from an accredited fashion house, but not all designs from that house are couture. Prêt-à-porter, or ready-to-wear, lines are not couture even if they come from a haute couture house.
6. There is no price minimum for couture clothing. Haute couture is generally expensive, but the terms are not interchangeable. Likewise, "French" also does not mean "haute couture."
|Victoria's Secret $2.5 million bra. Expensive, but not couture.|
|Blake Lively in Chanel couture. Estimated price for couture evening wear is $60,000 |
That wraps up this vocabulary/history lesson and now I'm curious: what kind of couture designs draw your eye?
 Chambre Syndicale Fashion History
 infoplease: Fashion
 Wilcox, R. Turner. The Dictionary of Fashion. New York Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969
 Wikipedia: Haute Couture
 Elegant Lifestyle