Charles Frederick Worth
B. 1825 D.1895
The French Revolution had finally ended, and adoring subjects of the beautiful Empress Eugenie flocked to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, dressed in their glittering best. A fashion renaissance was under way in France, and lavish gowns were de rigeur. The moment was right for a young Englishman, who spoke not a word of French, to become the originator of French couture.
In 1845, at the age of twenty, with only 117 francs, Charles Frederick Worth arrived in Paris to work in the fabric trade, after apprenticing from the age of twelve at London's famous store Swan and Edgar, where he had had the opportunity to learn all about fabrics and trimmings while observing the tastes of the privileged. Upon his arrival in the French capital, he secured a job at one of its most fashionable shops, Gagelin and Opigez, where he met and then married a sales assistant, Marie Vernet. Worth made his young wife several dresses, which were much admired by both her colleagues and her customers; in effect, she became couture's first mannequin. Worth was permitted to set up a small dressmaking department in Gagelin and eventually was made a partner in the firm when, in 1851, at London's Great Exhibition, Gagelin won the only gold medal awarded to France for its elegant dresses.
By 1858 Worth, then the father of two sons, left Gagelin to open his own salon on the Rue de la Paix, a fortunate choice of location as a new opera house was soon to open in the area, making it a center of activity. By this time, Worth was well known for his crinoline, a style he is said to have originated, although a version of it had been popular in the 1500s and again in the 1700s. Worth's cage-like hoops were covered in luxurious yards of silk, satin, lace, and detailing and were worn by the most elegant women of the era. His first royal customer, Princess Pauline de Metternich of Austria, wore a Worth crinoline to the Tuileries Palace, whereupon Empress Eugenie summoned him to court for a wardrobe consultation the very next morning. Worth's fame continued to spread, and he went on to dress a variety of women known throughout the world, from Queen Victoria and the czarina of Russia to a notorious courtesan, Cora Pearl; and the 1860s became known as "The Age of Worth."
Worth's desire for perfection and his ability to "build" garments with the precision of an engineer contributed to the beauty and desirability of his creations. He designed sleeves, for example, that were interchangeable
Charles Frederick Worth: The "Father of Haute Couture" launched many new fashions during his career, including the massive hoop skirt of the 1860s and the bustle of the 1870s and 1880s. The bustle silhouette involved elaborate substructures to support the volume of the draped fabric.
and could be used with several different bodices, and those bodices could be used with several different skirts. In addition, his close friendships with his customers enhanced his influence; hence, he was able to effect several dramatic changes. In 1866 he introduced the princess dress, much slimmer than the crinoline, and the fourreau, or sheath dress. Soon customers adjusted to a narrower look, and by 1869 the bustle became the predominant silhouette. Another of his famous inventions was the evening wrap, decorated with tassels, which stayed in fashion for more than twenty years. Worth was also a great promoter of French textiles.
In 1874 Worth's two sons, Jean-Pierre and Gaston, came to work in the company. Although the house's business declined during the Franco-Prussian War, at which time the elite clientele was forced to leave Paris, those newly in power were just as willing to spend lavishly on their wardrobes; thus, the Worths continued to prosper. By his death in 1895, Paris was once again as elegant and extravagant as the city he had known in the 1860s. Haute couture was preparing for L'Esposition Universalle of 1900, during which over a million visitors would come to Paris and view les Toilettes de la Collectivitee de la Couture, an exhibit featuring the creations not only of Worth, but also of Paquin, the Callot Soeurs, Drecoll, Rouff, and other new couturiers. Paris couture became known as the culture in which the seeds of fashion germinated.
As a result of Charles Frederick Worth's role as the originator of haute couture, La Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne was developed by his son, Gaston Worth, not only to give prestige to the industry, but also to control the fierce rivalry that existed among the couture houses. Members agreed to adhere to the policies of this professional organization, realizing the benefits of unification, and the Chambre Syndicale exists to this day as couture's governing body.
The House of Worth declined in importance during the 1920s and 1930s, although his great grandsons, Roger and Maurice, tried to continue the tradition until 1952 when the house was sold to Paquin. Parfums Worth, originally established in 1900, endures to this day; with Je Reviens is its best-known fragrance. See also: Paquin; Callot Soeurs.
DeMarly, Diana. History of Haute Couture. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1980.
--. Worth: Father of Haute Couture. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1990.
Lynam, Ruth. Couture. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1985.
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