Charles Frederick Worth: The Father of Haute Couture
by Ellen Micheletti
Charles Frederick Worth did not invent fashion. There was fashion before Worth and there were well-known dressmakers before Worth, but Worth was the first male to become a professional clothing designer for women and the first clothing designer to become internationally famous. He is considered the father of haute couture.]]>Support our sponsors Charles Frederick Worth was born in England in 1825. His father went bankrupt and deserted the family when Worth was very young, so his mother took a job as a housekeeper to a relative. Worth knew he would have to earn his own living, so he took a job at the fabric shop of Swan and Edgar. Later, he took a post with the silk mercers Lewis and Allenby where he gained knowledge and experience in fabrics. Thanks to the influence of Beau Brummell, English clothing makers were known for their superb tailoring of men’s clothing and Worth absorbed this. When he began to design clothing for women, one thing that he insisted upon and was known for was perfect fit.
During his time off from work, Worth went to art galleries. Worth’s study of the clothing of past eras influenced his ideas of fashion design and Worth gowns often borrowed period details. For instance, when he designed a gown for the Empress Elizabeth for her coronation as Queen of Hungary, he took the front laced bodice, which was characteristic of Hungarian peasant clothing and made it a feature of Elizabeth’s gown, but instead of lacing the bodice with a ribbon, Worth laced it with a string of pearls.
Worth moved to Paris where he worked for the firm of Gagelin doing what he had done in London – selling fabrics and accesories. Gagelin had hired young women to model the accessories that they sold. These women would wear the shawls, cloaks and mantles so that the customers could see how they looked. One of the models was Marie Vernet and she and Worth often worked together. They were married and she became the mother of his two sons.
Worth designed some simple and elegant gowns for Marie to wear while she showed the shawls and cloaks to prospective customers. Some of the customers noted the attractive gowns and their perfect fit and asked if Worth would make some for them. Worth eventually left the firm of Gagelin and with a financial partner, Otto Bobergh, opened his own shop in 1858 – Worth et Bobergh.
Worth knew that in order to become a success and to attract the patronage of wealthy clients, he had to become known in court circles. France had become an imperial monarchy under the reign of Napoleon III and his elegant wife, Eugenie. In order to get Eugenie’s notice, Worth cultivated Princess Pauline von Metternich, the wife of the Austrian ambassador to France, as a client.
Pauline was not beautiful. Her portraits flatter her, but photographs show her to be close to ugly. She was short and slim and had excellent posture, but she had sallow skin, bad teeth, pop-eyes, a snub nose and a big mouth. Pauline was not a bit vain, she made fun of her own looks, and compared herself to a monkey. Even though Pauline was no beauty, she was very chic and stylish. She was not afraid to wear outfits that were in the advance of fashion and she was one of the Empress Eugenie’s best friends. Pauline was charmed by one of Worth’s creations. It was a gown of silver-spangled white tulle trimmed with daisies and pink hearts with a white satin sash. She wore it to one of the imperial receptions.
Eugenie noticed Pauline’s pretty gown and asked her where she had bought it. Eugenie was shocked to find that a man had designed it, but she asked Worth to bring her some gowns for approval.
Worth made a gown out of a very rich Lyon silk brocade and brought it to the palace – and almost lost his imperial patronage before it started. When Eugenie saw the gown, she informed Worth that she did not like brocade; it looked like curtains. Luckily for Worth, Napoleon III came in and when he saw the gown and found out that it was of Lyon silk, he ordered Eugenie to wear it saying that it would be good for business – the Lyon silk industry needed a boost.
Worth became one of the Empress Eugenie’s dressmakers. He was never her exclusive dressmaker, but he was her favorite. Most of the ladies of the nobility followed the lead of the Empress and made Worth their designer of choice.
Worth pioneered several innovations in the art of dressmaking. He developed a system of interchangeable pattern pieces where a sleeve from one gown would fit the bodice of another one, which would fit the skirt of a third. He also used the sewing machine for all but the hand embroidery, beading and finishing. Worth was a fashion tyrant and would not let a client leave until he was satisfied that her outfit was perfect. The house of Worth also was the first to use live models to show the gowns, and to show a collection in advance. Other firms had used models to show accessories, but Worth had them model the entire outfit so that a client could see how it looked. And, he pioneered in designing dresses to be copied in French workrooms and distributed throughout the world.
Worth has been credited with inventing the crinoline, or hoopskirt. The fashion historian Diane de Marley has studied Worth and concluded he did not invent the crinoline, but he did modify it. At its most extreme, the crinoline was an absurd and sometimes dangerous garment. Some of its wearers were killed when they got too close to a fire and their skirt ignited. But it did have the advantage of being lighter than layers and layers of petticoats. Worth designed a crinoline that pushed the fullness to the back while still keeping the wide silhouette. Worth’s flat-front crinoline was his own creation and it later metamorphosed into the bustle.
Worth also created the walking skirt by cutting off just enough material so a skirt would clear the ground and not drag in the mud, while still leaving the ankles covered. He also designed jaunty hats for women to wear instead of the bonnets that had been popular for years – Worth did not like bonnets. He designed many costumes for the costume balls that were so popular in French court circles and continued to design for the great court functions during the social season in Paris.
All was well with the House of Worth until the Second Empire (1852-1870) fell and Eugenie went into exile in England. But what looked like a catastrophe for Worth, proved not to be as bad as it looked at first. Even though France had lost its royal court, there were other courts in Europe and soon Worth was designing for the royal courts of Russia, Great Britain, Sweden and Italy. Worth also picked up patrons across the Atlantic. This time period was the beginning of America’s Gilded Age. Men who had become very, very wealthy wanted to display their wealth and Worth clothing became a status symbol for the rich along with a mansion in the city, a “cottage” at Newport and a yacht. The very rich Americans – the Vanderbilts, the Goulds, and the Morgans all wanted Worth.
When Worth died, his house was continued by his sons. Some of his gowns are in the costume collections of a number of museums especially in The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and they can also be seen in the paintings of Winterhalter, and John Singer Sargent.
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