The Paris couture shows were sensational. But, asks Susannah Frankel, are the clothes so steeped in history they risk being irrelevant?

The twice-yearly haute couture collections are anachronistic at the best of times. There is, after all, no need, since the advent of the sewing machine, for clothing to be crafted entirely by hand. Neither, given the arrival of the designer ready-to-wear on the scene, is it necessary for garments to be painstakingly fitted to each individual client.

That said, the skills of the craftspeople involved in the medium - master embroiderers, specialists in feathers, fur, lace and the most accomplished seamstresses in history - are surely worth preserving as indeed, for those who need convincing further, are their jobs.

Haute couture provides vital research and development for a brand, inspiring the production of everything from the many different collections a designer is today expected to come up with to fragrance and beauty lines. It is not unusual for the creative director of one of fashion's bigger names to oversee upwards of six collections a season - women's clothing, menswear, pre-collections, second lines, bridal, sport, denim… The list goes on.

With this in mind, the hours spent poring over the latest fabrics and considering new silhouettes in the haute couture ateliers no longer appear so indulgent. It is here that the future of fashion - and that goes for the status labels in question as well as the high street copycats - is informed.

Even so, the shows at Paris couture were so steeped in fashion history, and in what might not entirely unreasonably be described as occasion-wear to boot, that its relevance, at times, seemed questionable.

There is no doubt that the nostalgic romance that swept away John Galliano's audience at Dior to a faraway and extravagant place was lovely to behold. Given that this is fashion's most fabled fantasist and that the heritage of the house has always been the reinvention of old-style glamour - such a viewpoint seemed strangely reasonable.

Shown in the Orangery at Versailles and inspired by Christian Dior's own art collection this was the most opulent show of the week - and the clothes were no less sensational. Corseted silks and satins with overblown skirts, sinuous fishtail gowns that seemed lighter but were still strictly underpinned to ensure the best is made of madam's curves, jewels, embroideries, rainbow colours and hair and make-up that looked like an acid-fuelled tour of the past 500 years all made for extraordinary viewing.

Galliano had flown in the supermodels of yesteryear to walk his catwalk alongside today's big names and that, too, was spectacular. These were clothes with authority and modelling's older sisters appeared indomitable posturing and pouting in their finery.

Galliano's catwalk is always an extreme place, and one where any client has to search hard for a piece that will suit everyday life. At Christian Lacroix one has to search harder still, although the front row suggests that the couturier's clientele is alive and kicking. This collection was quintessential Lacroix - rich brocades, furs, frills, feathers and embroideries piled up until the women wearing them could be forgiven for buckling under the weight of it all. There was more black than might be expected, which was disappointing. Following the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent, this is fashion's great colourist after all.

At Chanel Karl Lagerfeld went for a more louche - although still at times historical - take on the feminine wardrobe. It seems not insignificant that if Dior was famous for looking, dewy eyed, at the curvaceous belle époque, duly bringing back the corset, the notoriously serpent-tongued Mademoiselle Chanel called him 'a madman' for it.

True to this house's signature style, then, a Twenties line with a dropped waist was dominant, making for more androgynous and therefore more obviously contemporary viewing. Here once again, however, the emphasis was on evening dress - tuxedo stripes snaked up everything from stockings to gloves - proving that even those privileged enough to buy haute couture are more likely to spend their money on this than on a simple day dress.

Jean-Paul Gaultier's most successful pieces were, perhaps for this reason, long, lean, tailored wool suits in rust or grey that looked all the more chic for their understatement. More spectacular were ethnic-inspired pieces heavy with jewel-coloured embroidery. Tailoring at Armani Privé - ultra-small, skinny jackets over full ikat print skirts - was more uptight, which seems strange coming from a man who gave women - and men - a famously relaxed jacket in the 1980s. Cate Blanchett, taking pride of place in the front row, would be more likely to take an interest in long black velvet columns, which would suit the modern-day red carpet down to the ground.

Finally, Riccardo Tisci's urban collection for Givenchy, while overly tricksy in places, continues to move forward. Martin Margiela's Artisanale collection of hand-worked, limited-edition pieces, meanwhile, seemed positively grounded compared to that offered up by the rest of the pack. That says something given that jeans covered in denim sequins (for him) and a sheath dress made out of the types of rings one might win at the fairground (for her) all took centre stage.