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Thursday, November 20, 2014

The House of Worth

Paris in the 1850s (left) and the House of Worth gown from 1926. Notice the train persists.
Charles Frederick Worth
In today's fashion publishing world, it's interesting the number of magazines touting men's apparel as compared to those showcasing the latest women's fashion trends. Besides the fact that men seem to be hardwired not to care too much about how they look or keeping up with clothing styles, probably the overwhelming reason for this publishing phenomena is the fact that, even going back a century or two, there have not been all that many changes in the cut of men's dress suits and other apparel. A man wearing today's standard three-button suit would not look particularly out of place in any decade of the past hundred years or more. Now, take a look (above) at how far women's gowns have evolved since the early 1800s. Why is that? Well, transportation modes for one thing, women in the workplace for another, and feminine fickleness would probably round out the top three. Another important factor was Charles Frederick Worth.

Ball Gowns, 1860s, Charles Frederick Worth
Worth is often referred to as the "father of haute couture." Of course, women wore "designer" dresses in Paris long before Charles Worth could hold a pencil or wield a needle. Usually they were one-of-a-kind creations designed and made for a specific woman, often for specific occasions. Worth changed all that. His business model revolved around the fashion model parading about wearing one of his dresses while he and others milled around taking orders for similar or identical gowns. Then the orders, measurements, and other details were sent to "the factory" to be sewn by hand either by company seamstresses or farmed out to women working independently out of their homes. Of course, quite apart from Worth, Elias Howe, around 1845, had something to do Worth's success. Howe's sewing machines, both the home and industrial models, changed the clothing industry forever.

1888 Russian court dress, Charles Frederick Worth
A Worth Evening Dress, 1893.
As his name suggests, Charles Frederick Worth was not French. Worth was English, born in 1825. He got his start working in his hometown of Bourne, Lincolnshire, selling fabrics and draperies. He came to Paris in 1846 where he also worked for a drapery shop, and there married one of their models. Models? In a drapery shop? I though only Scarlett O'Hara wore draperies. The company, Gagelin and Opigez, also had a sideline making shawls and bonnets. Worth began designing and making simple outfits for his new wife. Ladies visiting the shop saw them, liked them, and began asking for copies. His success in selling "window treatments" as we call them today, brought him a partnership in the firm. He urged them to move into high fashion but the curtain makers were unwilling to risk their reputation by descending into the dressmaking business.

Fancy Dress Costume, 1870, Charles Frederick Worth
A Charles Worth creation, 1898-1900.
So, having slipped into the French fashion industry through the back door, Worth found a rich Swede to bankroll him, whereupon he opened his own shop in 1858. Success came quickly as the Empress Eugenie, wife of the Emperor Napoleon III, discovered his talents and began patronizing Worth's establishment. With that, her rich, and titled friends began to follow suit. Soon, Worth was dressing princesses, duchesses, baronesses, and all other ladies whose lords could afford him. Entertainment figures such as Sarah Bernhardt and Nellie Melba (for whom melba toast was named) began patronizing him. Often his wealthy customers came to Paris specifically to acquire their annual "wardrobe" for each year's social season. Eventually that came to mean far more than ball gowns. Women then had morning dresses, afternoon dresses, evening dresses, and intimate apparel worn only in the boudoir. With the kind of following, that's a lot of ladies and an enormous number of dresses. Soon, Worth found himself turning away business in an effort to maintain some semblance of exclusivity.

Afternoon Dress, 1872, Charles Frederick Worth.
A Worth wedding gown, 1898.
Charles Worth was the first to put designer labels in all his clothes, also the inventor of Paris fashion shows as we know them today, held four times a year, when he displayed his newest creations. Ladies would choose a design, then choose the colors and fabric, often even the trim, all of which was custom made to fit their corseted, hourglass figures. Worth's yards and yards (I'm tempted to use the word "acres") of luxurious fabrics were nothing new to the mid-century Paris fashion world, but all the "ruffles and flourishes," made feasible with the aid of Howe's marvelous, timesaving machine, were new, and Worth employed them lavishly. Worth was, in fact, the first of his kind, a dressmaker, turned designer, considered by Parisians to be a true artist

An 1887 creation by Charles Frederick Worth
now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Worth, behind the scene.
When the Franco-Prussian War came to Paris 1871, Worth simply closed up shop. After the war, when the ladies waistlines were somewhat thinner from near starvation, Charles Frederick Worth reopened as The House of Worth (very clever name). His sons, Gaston and Jean-Philippe joined him in the business, then took over themselves after their father's death in 1895. The business continued to flourish under their management and later that of their son, Jacques,(who started the company in the perfume business). Later, he brought his son, Jean-Charles, into the business. The great fashion dynasty came to an end in 1952, with the retirement of Charles Frederick Worth's great-grandson. The business merged with Paquin and later closed in 1956. An attempt was made to revive the firm in 1999 under designer, Giovanni Bedin, who displayed his first new collection in 2010, then introduced a ready-to-wear line in 2011. Since then, only the perfume line has continued to be successful.

The House of Worth Collection, 2010. Charles Frederick must be rotating in his grave.


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