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Sep 23, 2012

Haute Couture: "J'Adore" or "Bore"?



Confession: sometimes I feel about haute couture the way I feel about those magnificent Gilded Age mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.  Yes, they're beautiful, but you don't need to study them to build yourself a perfectly lovely split-level ranch house.

And their very existence reflects obscene levels of economic inequality that never bode well for societies in the long run (and which we're dealing with again today).

That said, it's hard not to be drawn into the glamour, the beauty, and the exquisite workmanship of haute couture.  Like the old Hollywood studios, the great couture houses brought together artists and craftsmen who represented the pinnacle of their respective fields: textile designers, embroiderers, lace makers, milliners, etc.  Unlike the movie studios, however, whose product, no matter how elaborate, was created specifically for the masses, haute couture was (and is) for the economic elite, and if we can enjoy it today it's because many of these luxurious creations are in museums. 

Which brings me to The Golden Age of Couture: Paris & London 1947-57.  I've been holding onto this library book for nearly six months now and never got around to reading it.  Alas, someone has put it on reserve and I must return it by early October, so it's now or never.  And what a gorgeous book this is.









If you like stunning photographs of sumptuous vintage fashion (gowns in particular), you'll love this coffee table-sized book.  The writing, much of it by Claire Wilcox, the Senior Curator of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Fashion at the V&A, and curator of the show this book was written to accompany, is superb -- which isn't always the case for books of this type.  If you're interested in the history of couture and the intricate web of relationships -- both artistic and economic -- that supported it during its Golden Age, here's the book for you.  (You can find paperback copies of it for sale here -- hardcover copies have gotten alarmingly expensive.)

You can see more than fifty photographs from The Golden Age of Couture here.

I made an interesting discovery reading this book.  The fabric I used to make Cathy's rose print dress, which was labeled "Ascher Studios," (and for which I paid $2/yd) is actually a recreation of a Zika Ascher fabric designed by Cecil Beaton!  (Ascher supplied fabric to Christian Dior and to other couturiers, and commissioned many contemporary artists to create his designs.  More about Ascher Studios here.)





This is also an Ascher Studios print, btw:



I think the term couture is one of the most over-used in the fashion and home-sewing world, and often applied to anything made with a modicum of hand sewing.  There's nothing wrong with something being just home-sewn, right?  And haute couture, in France at least, refers to a very specific set of rules and and relationships, dictated by the government itself.

Readers, in closing, what's your feeling about haute couture?  

Do you find it breathtaking and inspirational or decadent and deadly dull?  Are you more focused on just making a pair of jeans that fit than on recreating vintage Dior?

Jump in!

40 comments:

  1. Oooh, good question. I love to look at couture (like at the museum), but I need to create things that will be a)finished this century and b) stand up to semi-regular washing. Oh, and I don't have a zillion dollars to spend on fabric. And I'm not that talented. It's looking like I"m in the jeans camp.

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  2. Peter, you are SO RIGHT. I love to look at pictures of haute couture
    but like rich food, a little goes a long way. I supposed it is all enmeshed with values that I cant really share or relate to. Now Cathy, on the other hand..........................

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  3. I have no need for couture in my life....but I love to look at it (in museums, etc. For example, I will never have occasion to wear a feathered gown like those that were on display at the Met last year in the McQueen exhibit, but it was breathtaking to see up close). I think it's inspiring, and you can take elements from such gowns and incorporate them into your less-ambitious garments (like your lovely printed fabric).

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  4. Your architectural analogy is spot on. I would never, could never, live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, for example, but I'm very glad they exist to inspire us all and to give us something to marvel at. It's all about someone honing design and craft to an extraordinary extent - and that's always admirable, even if it doesn't suit our own tastes.

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  5. I've had that book on my wish list for a while now. Must hint harder for Christmas.

    For me, it would be a book to look through and sigh wistfully(much as I do with the V and A's books on Historical and Nineteenth Century Fashion ).

    There's an admiration for that kind of talent, coupled with the realisation that I have neither the time, money nor drive to create something on that level.

    But inspiring, none the less.

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  6. Couture IS an overused word. Does anyone even know its true meaning? Having said that, it can be very inspirational, like art. I find basically, that design is quite different, having to be utilitarian. When and if I have time, I like to make looking at beautiful things made by humans or nature, every single day. Thank you for bringing us beauty with your blog. S'wonderful!

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    1. I agree, couture is so over used lately. I've even heard it in lipstick ads! Annoys the mess out of me. What's wrong with "hand made"? I think it just has such a Becky Home Ecky (a word that makes me want to strangle Tim Gunn, though I like him all the same otherwise) reputation now. People are shocked. SHOCKED!! That I can sew something that doesn't look like a 10 year old did it.

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    2. Couture is french for sewing. But Haute Couture translates to high fashion sewing. A book I have by Claire B. Shaeffer called Couture Sewing Techiques elaborates on Haute Couture and its origins. :)

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  7. I think the word Couture *is* overused. That said, there is as much place in my life for haute couture as there is the Mona Lisa. That is, really pretty to look at pictures of, but no real place in my life. I'm in the jeans camp. I just have no practical use for gowns. Pretty dresses, yes. Gowns, no!

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  8. I find the world of haute couture fascinating and I do love some of the interesting sewing construction that goes into these garments. I think learning about them can translate into your own sewing world where you pilfer certain things from here and there to make the construction in any garment better. But I fully admit that I'm a little tired of the whole thing lately. I don't have ANY occasion to wear such gowns and clothing and really who does? Were you to wear such a creation you would probably be afraid to eat or drink anything as you might end up spilling something on the garment.

    You are absolutely right that the term "couture" is being widely overused! It's getting ridiculous. I'm totally in the jeans camp!

    xoxo,
    Sunni

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  9. I love it!!! Someday I would like to take a year of my life and make one truly remarkable garment. Then find someplace to wear it to. I would hate to have the pressure of a time frame.

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    1. I agree, a year to work on a masterpiece, and the money, and then show it. The dream keeps me going when I hit a low point and want to give up.

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  10. "And their very existence reflects obscene levels of economic inequality that never bode well for societies in the long run (and which we're dealing with again today). "
    I absolutely agree with your statement, and yet....
    I do love the design process, the way the dresses are constructed, the opulence of the fabrics. I'm even more conflicted about it as relative of mine appears in the Golden Age of Couture book (Jean Desses, I just wish I had some of his creations).

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  11. I see Haute Couture as the polar opposite to the likes of H&M, who's clothing is often poorly manufactured and usually only looks good until after the first washing, and sometimes not even on the hanger. I guess I'm glad the artform exists because it is aspirational, and it leaves us with crafts people who hold on to knowledge that could be used to create far better crafted clothing. Much of the hand sewing used in couture is used by tailors to create suits that a man can wear day in and out for years. So many of the wares we buy now-a-days are a false economy. Cheap to purchase but only last a few years, or in the case IKEA, a single move. I've started to get the point where I focus on spending more on items that I know will last and only get better with wear. Granted, this is easier as a man, but I think the notion holds true regardless. If Haute Couture needs to exist in order for better goods to be manufactured, then I guess I'll take the trade off.

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  12. I came away from reading The Golden Age of Couture with more than a bit of sadness. It seems the gloriously feminine designs of the 1950s no longer exist. Today, it appears the couture houses rely mostly on the perpetration of shock rather than the creation of breathtaking beauty. I realize that Dior, Fath and the like weren't designing clothing for the likes of economically deprived me, but a woman can look at their designs and dream. Not so, with the garments we mostly see today during Fashion Week.

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  13. I admire those who produce haute couture but, like you, I don't feel the need to sew like that all the time. It's nice to add couture elements from time to time and I sometimes add a handsewn buttonhole or something like that. I have yet to make a full couture garment and I suspect I never will. I'm making clothes for me to wear, not works of art. I guess it comes down to time and priorities. When I'm cooking I usually make my own stock or my own pasta, but then there are times when I need to cook a meal and I use store bought. Doesn't mean I can't cook. I like your architectural analogy as well.

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  14. I occasionally seem to come across sewists, who seem to have this 'haute couture yard stick' against which they measure other sewists' work against. Sometimes the words 'wallmart sewing' gets thrown into heated discussions, but I just think as long as people have fun it's all good. Those who want to get into sewing commercially fine, but otherwise it's all good :-)

    PS.: as you can probably guess I am working towards the fitting jeans x

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    1. I don't know about so-called 'Walmart sewing', but I do know that there are many people out there with blogs who sew and who think that their stuff is just amazing and who are praised for their sewing, but who have never sewn a zipper or a buttonhole or any kind of pocket other than a patch pocket. I think it rankles with those who have years worth of sewing under their belt to produce something that is perfectly fitted and involves regular sewing skills such as a zipper and a hand-rolled hem, and have people give higher praise to a pillowcase dress simply because the fabric mix is cute on the latter.

      Then there's the issue of fit - I personally don't like to show off any garment that doesn't fit well, and yet I see many people who blog about garments that they think are fantastic (and which get tons of praise from their readers) but which have really glaring fitting issues. Do I comment on those blogs and mention the obvious fit issues or do I stay quiet? It makes me think that these people are unaware of their lack of ability, since it doesn't make sense that they wouldn't care. I'm not saying that everyone should be held to a couture standard. I'm saying that many people strive to make garments that aren't obviously 'home sewn' and they are constantly working to that higher standard, so it makes them upset when people get praised to the rafters for garments which pull at the bust or whose arms are too tight or when the crotch is baggy.

      I have experienced this. I sewed my own wedding dress and the bridesmaids' dresses. I've sewn 2 formal gowns to wear to military balls - the second has an integrated foundation. But these got less praise than, say, a friend's wedding gown that was mass-made and purchased, or perhaps gowns worn by others at the same ball. They've gotten fewer comments than much of the clothing I sew for my kids, which is far simpler in terms of construction, but perhaps more colorful and more embellished. People who don't sew or whose skills are at the beginner level are often distracted by the embellishments and colorful prints and don't even see the problems with their construction.

      And generally speaking, commercial sewing has little to do with haute couture, since commercial sewing is done with a machine and haute couture is done by hand. Many people who are new to sewing start with a machine and are intimidated by hand sewing.

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  15. Haute Couture just means 'high sewing', as Haute Cuisine means 'high cooking'. It is, I guess, the ongoing practice of the aspirational aspect of fashion, striving for some kind of subjective perfection.
    I couldn't tell anyone where couture finishes and "home sewing" starts, because I learned a lot of what I know from a couture trained seamstress, so it's just how I do things. And there's nothing remarkable about it either, it's just about getting a good fit and finish. :)

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    1. It should be translated as "sewing at the highest level." At its best, Haute Couture is an art or approaches art.

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  16. I went to this exhibition when it was here in Australia a couple of years ago. LOVED it! Then I recently bought the book and have been working my way through it. Enjoying it, but it's a heavy book and hard to read in bed at night. (And I don't want to eat it over dinner, as I might make a mess on it.)
    I LOVE 50s style dresses (think my last life must have been then) so I'm really enjoying all the pretty pictures too.

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  17. oh, and by the way, why does the name Jacques Fath make me think of a nursery rhyme? "Jacques Fath could eat no sprat, his wife could eat no lean... "

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  18. I admire it a an art form. I can appreciate the skill and time that is put into every detail. But for me it will remain something to look at in pictures or a museum!

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  19. I view much haute couture as pure art. Sometimes it's breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes it's shocking, but it's almost always wonderful art. The designs in the Schiaparelli/Prada exhibit at the Met are a great example. They are very cool to look at, but for the most part (the "Flayed" gown, anyone?) are not something that I would wear, even if I lived that lifestyle.

    But I also use Couture garments as inspiration for my own sewing, and I aspire to be able to create a garment that is as beautifully constructed as the haute couture looks.

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  20. Peter, I always find your posts either informative or inspiring! I love thought provoking questions and you always have them.

    Let me first be general: like others, I doubt I could/would live in a Frank Lloyd Wright, BUT I love looking at them. Wouldn't mind some inspiration from in it a house (currently I own a tri-level which was very inspired by Wright's cantilevered (please no comment in spelling at this hour) innovations) in Ohio. I used to live in Springfield, Ohio and admired a house daily as I drove to work. I was delighted to discover it was a Wright!

    I LOVE the quality construction, the beautiful feminine designs, but alas, at my age (and weight) and lifestyle, it is not practical for me to walk around in a walk away. Since I don't blog, no one really knows much about me, but I spend half the year in the Alaskan Bush with temps often in the -40 to -65 windchill range, flying to villages daily and always risking crashing on the tundra. (yes, it has happened to me!) I have to dress for it. The rest of the time, it is snow up to my armpits, literally or I am covered in delta silt before freeze up! Not very practical to wear a fifties style dress. I doubt I could get it stuffed into my snow pants! But my daughters gave me a sweet little sewing machine last year and after a very long drought from sewing, I have returned to find better fitting clothing and more appropriate expressions of my personal style while still meeting my practical needs.

    That aside, again I love looking at the beautiful gowns and creations from yesteryear, I love the movies and TV shows, but as a person who is astute, at least I think so, I appreciate that along with liberated clothing, came liberation for women in general. I also see women who were defined by their clothing. It was a metaphor of the times. Clothing reflects society and reflects expectations. That was never more true than during the fifties. I think women were constrained physically, but also emotionally and mentally. Although there are some things regarding the women's movement I view differently than most feminists, it is still a good thing that women have achieved some freedom from the constraints of clothing men designed for them, as well as the life that was also often designed for them by men.

    I didn't mean this to be so long, nor do I mean to offend anyone. But in closing I would like to say that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. And I often wondered how many of those beautiful gowns imprisoned the wearer.

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  21. Mixed.

    It's fun to look at, but it's never interested me as much as does everyday clothing. I do love seeing examples of gowns but they don't really mean much to me. I don't think I've ever even owned an official formal dress, at least not in my adult years. What I really spend my online search time looking for are good examples of ordinary work- and day-clothing, and since those are what got worn out and thrown away, they're maddeningly hard to find.

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    1. Modern haute couture bores the heck out of me, too. Way too much ego and way too little connection to reality.

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  22. Sorry to nitpick, Peter, but as a Realtor I must tell you that there is no such thing as a "split-level ranch". There are split levels, bi-levels, raised ranch, and ranch houses. A ranch, by definition, is one level only.

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  23. This is an interesting question, as always. I have never been much into couture, being a practical sort. I want to be able to sew fancy and everyday garments. As someone else mentioned, haute couture is best looked at as art and not clothing. As home sewing folks we can take lessons from these creations, but I can't really take the products seriously. They are great to look at, as many art forms are, but they are not part of the everyday world.

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  24. If you equate Couture with ballgowns, then it is true that there isn't much call for it in most people's lives these days beyond admiring the frocks from a distance in books or museums. But Couture was so much more than that, with day styles I would wear in an instant if only I had the money (or the know-how to replicate them myself). The Balenciaga suits and coats in that exhibition (and book) were to die for, as were the Dior day dresses, with lines and details that trickled down into everyday fashions.

    Also the key is very much in the title, "The Golden Age...". This year's exhibition at the Dior Museum was 'Stars in Dior' and it was fascinating to contrast how beautiful, stylish and wearable Marlene Dietrich's - "No Dior, no Dietrich" - 40s & 50s day and evening dresses were compared to what stands today for Couture (including many modern Dior dresses worn on the red carpet by Hollywood stars, also displayed in the exhibition, but which just looked gaudy, sometimes even poorly made by comparison).

    Couture isn't just gilded mansions. It's also Case Study houses, and I'd live in any one of those at the drop of a hat...

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  25. I love couture for the inspirational, breathtaking aspect of it, and every so often I really do stretch myself with a sewing project and do all the extra hand sewing work. And honestly, after doing projects where I went that extra mile, I was inspired to improve all my techniques and garment finishes, even the 100% machine sewn blue jeans level garments. So, I guess I view Haute Couture as a "best practices" teaching aid for myself.

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  26. I love them--breathtaking and inspiring. I don't think, for the most part, I'd try to reproduce many of the creations--they are not practical for my lifestyle. But of course, couture extends beyond evening gowns. And there are design elements and cuts that I see in couture sports wear and day wear that I file away for future reference/drafting.

    I like reading about the even earlier designs from the 1920s and 1930s. To see photographs of, and read analyses of clothing by designers like Schiaparelli, Vionnet, Patou, and Balenciago--it's almost like touching a dream, if you know what I mean.

    But my all-time favourite designer? Pauline Trigere. Chic, timeless, and practical.

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  27. ...inspirational or decadent and deadly dull? I find haute couture inspiring as I do anything that has been finely crafted. Geogrrl says it best: --it's almost like touching a dream.

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  28. Regardless of the usage of “couture” or “haute couture,” I love looking at the types of garments shown in “The Golden Age” and dream of a life I do not have. I sigh the way I do when I see Cathy in the rose print with crinoline. I doubt I’ll ever sew any of them.

    I consider these garments to be examples of high art and craftsmanship, rather than anything I would ever wear in real life. Michelangelo was an amazing artist, but my ceiling is just not as large as the Sistine Chapel.

    Occasionally, we can learn from the masters. Balenciaga was known to add hidden contraptions within his garments to make them stay in place and hang well on the wearer. The inside of the garment was as important as the outside and everything was finished beautifully.

    Sometimes it gets to be too much. I’ll peruse the fashion mags and see gown after gown. How many American women are stocking up on evening gowns?

    As for today’s runway creations – sorry, but I think a lot of these designers are the shock-jocks of fashion. There is so much that I look at and say, yuk.

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  29. I have to agree with a lot of your comments...

    I feel like "couture" is very overused right now. It bothers me when people use it when they clearly don't know what it means. It doesn't bother me when people say they used couture techniques on a project, but claiming something as couture when you only used one couture technique isn't really correct.

    I really appreciate the work and skill in couture clothing, and I am glad that there are artisans who continue to keep these skills alive. However, I have to agree that today a lot of couture garments seem very disjointed with wearable fashion. I think there is a place for avante garde, but I also think there is something beautiful about a functional piece of clothing made impeccably by someone with great skills.

    As far as my own sewing goes - I like to choose my techniques based on the project. If I want a knit dress or basic t-shirt am I going to turn to a couture manual? No, I am going to whip it up on my serger. If I want to make a structured coat I am more likely to turn to couture techniques, though even then I mix and match. A lot of times the fabric determines which techniques I am going to use, and I like to use my sewing machine over hand sewing when I can. So... will I ever make a truly couture garment? Probably not. But can I steal tricks and tips to improve my own projects? Heck yes. I think I have decided that I mainly want to sew clothes that are functional for me, and I want my results to have a good fit and good construction. And a lot of the time that doesn't require couture.

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  30. Love this post!!! Love Cathy on Broadway and in her 1952 Garment.Picture Perfect Darling!!. I think Couture is slightly misused in today's society, in comparison to the true meaning and what it used to stand for in the past. Personally, I love working on both type of projects - simple jeans and Couture Dress. I think Couture dress/garment requires loads of passion, patience and dedication which is what we, as a niche sewing blog community, are all about. Once again, love the post...Cheers Mike :)

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  31. Ooohh! Every time I see pictures of couture, I feel disappointed I cannot see the insides and investigate how they were put together. The yummy confections just make me want to swan about in yards and yards of gorgeous fabric. If I could, I would wear this stuff at least once a week!

    I am far from the economic elite, but the fit and quality represented in Couture is something to strive for, even if on a limited budget, right?

    And if I hear the term "couture" applied to another polyester monstrosity with embellishments glued on that will not last a few hours of wear, I just might scream out loud.

    Sure, there are other issues to discuss, and call me vapid for not bothering to dig a bit deeper, but I just want to enjoy the exquisite workmanship of those gowns (and suits, etc.). And one day I hope to have the opportunity to wear one . . . maybe . . . pretty please!

    BTW, thanks for the info on Asher Studios! I have been having heaps of fun working with your cotton rose print (just don’t tell Cathy!).

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  32. I love haute couture. I wish I had a huge team of seamstresses and tailors to sew a collection I envision. Hmm... All I need is money! Simple! Lol.

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  33. Over the summer I visited the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit in San Francisco, and learned about the strict definition of haute couture. Among other criteria, the garment must be one of a kind, fitted over time to a specific person, and made from non-commercially available components (aka, no zippers from JoAnn's, people!). The exhibit listed the hundreds of hours necessary to craft the buttons, sew the beading onto the pattern pieces, crochet edging, etc. Totally freaking mind-blowing.

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  34. Although I've taken some couture-method techniques, a lot of classic couture leaves me cold, which makes me happy because I sort of have an idea of what goes into it.

    I think couture techniques are valuable because they teach precision and how to treat fabric with care. Some day I'm going to be working with lots of silk charmeuse.

    I think the appropriation of the term "couture" by basically anyone with a sewing machine who can sew a slip stitch to be utterly absurd. "Vintage" is another irritating term.

    People make fun of how the French strictly control designations, but as you know, "Haute Couture" means something there.

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