Charles Frederick Worth - The Father of Haute Couture Fashion
inFebruary 18, 2011 - 12:56pm
Now isn't it ironic the creator of Haute Couture was an Englishman? Most likely, Charles Frederick Worth is also probably someone you've never heard of. Women dreamed of being dressed by him and girls fantasized about wearing one of his debutante court presentation gowns much the same way we look upon those glorious Red Carpet creations worn on Oscar night.
Worth was born in 1825 in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England. Forced to work at the age of eleven, for years he was employed at a department store and then at a fabric company before moving to Paris in 1846. He was hired by prominent drapers, Gagelin and Opigez, who sold textile goods and some ready-to-wear garments. Soon he married Marie Vernet, the shop's shawl and bonnet model for buyers. Worth made her a few dresses and customers started asking for copies. His dress department was successful and the firm's reputation grew when Worth's designs were displayed at the Great Exhibition in London and the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Still, the firm refused to venture into dressmaking. In the mid-18th century, dressmaking was regarded as déclassé and a unprestigious profession . It was a time when material was purchased and taken to a seamstress, the woman decided the style. Worth's idea was to enable customers to buy the design and fabric and have the dress made at one location. Despite being made junior partner, Worth struck out on his own funded by Otto Bobergh, a wealthy Swede.
Worth and Bobergh opened in 1858 and were soon patronized by the French Empress Eugénie, aristocrats and notable women like Cora Pearl and Catherine Walters, famous demimondaines; singer Jenny Lind and actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. To his credit, he was the first to design for both royalty and the demi-monde. Never before had an entertainer like Lillie Langtry shared a dressmaker with a duchess. Many of his clients came from as far away as New York and Boston. A wealthy woman would order a complete wardrobe comprised of morning, day and evening dresses as well as extravagant privately worn items such as tea and nightgowns.
His timing couldn't have been better. Emperor Napoleon III restored the royal house in 1852 and once again made Paris the cultural leader of Europe. Not since before the French Revolution had the demand for luxury goods grown so much. When Napoleon III married Empress Eugénie, her style reigned at court and her patronage ensured Worth's success. His clothing labels (the first of their kind) on her dresses carried the royal crest along with his name.
Worth reshaped women's figures by removing excessive frills. He used rich, simple fabrics that enhanced outlines and trimmed with fringe, lace, braid and pearl tassels. Worth also created the ankle-length walking skirt, shocking for it's day. As dress skirts grew fuller, crinolines were a must but Worth disliked them. By flattening the skirt in front and sweeping the fullness around to the back, he formed the very popular bustle first shown off by Austrian Princess Pauline von Metternich. Next were Princess gowns, waistless dresses that hung straight in the front with draping full pleats in the back. Worth designed elaborate historically inspired dresses commissioned for performance costumes and the masquerade balls so popular at the time. By studying famous portraits in museums, Worth was able to incorporate the elements of historic dress much the same way as designers today revamp and bring back former trends.
The first true couturier; Worth was the dressmaker elevated to artist who would forever change the face of the industry. The customer was no longer the designer. He used a novel selling approach whereby quarterly, Worth displayed dresses on live models at fashion shows. A woman would make her selection and her input was limited to fabric choice and measurements. A master at self-promotion, by the 1870s Worth's name often appeared in fashion magazines including those beyond royal and celebrity circles. Due to his efforts, Haute Couture not only became a profitable business, it was a publicity magnet.
Worth and Bobergh closed during the Franco-Prussian War. He re-opened in 1871 (without Bobergh) as the House of Worth. His sons, Gaston and Jean-Philippe, were brought into the business and took over after his death in 1895. The house flourished into the 1920s and continued until 1952 when Worth's great-grandson, Jean-Charles, retired.
Charles Frederick Worth set the wheels of Haute Couture in motion. Not until him did women ask, "Who was she wearing?". He was a visionary who saw art was not only relegated to paints, brushes and chisels. The designers that followed can all claim some form of innovation or another but not one can say they were the original. He was the man who brought fashion into it's exceedingly lucrative limelight.