Charles Frederick Worth Le Pre de la haute couture 182695

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It is impossible to write about the origins of luxury fashion without paying tribute to Charles Frederick Worth, the man who began everything about


Charles Worth Fashion Designer

Figure 2.1 Charles Frederick Figure 2.2 A design of Worth

Worth, the man who invented showing his elaborate style and haute couture and later became attention to detail the first fashion entrepreneur

Figure 2.1 Charles Frederick Figure 2.2 A design of Worth

Worth, the man who invented showing his elaborate style and haute couture and later became attention to detail the first fashion entrepreneur modern luxury fashion. He has been hailed as the architect of luxury fashion branding and remains one of the most talented fashion designers of all time. He invented haute couture as we know it today and other modern fashion

_ practices like the creation of seasonal fashion styles and trends, the use of fashion models and the fashion brand name as a label.

Charles Worth, an Englishman who went to Paris to enter the world of fashion, made a name for himself in haute couture and an indelible mark in the world of fashion. His name still commands great respect in fashion circles and beyond, even in France where the English have been widely regarded as lacking aesthetic appreciation. His high creative talent and business sense set the scene for the current modern-day luxury goods industry. He Figure 2.3 A current lingerie created the first true luxury fashion design fmm recently launched brand and paved the way for the appli-

brand Coun.vorth, an atemf at cation of modern branding and market-reviving the Worth fashion house. to

The style is inspired by the original ing principles in the world of luxury designs of Charles Worth fashion.

Frederick Worth

The early years

Charles Worth was born in England, at Wake House, North Street, in the small market town of Bourne in south Lincolnshire, on 13 October 1825. He came from a family of solicitors with no connections to dressmaking. He was the last child of five children, three of whom died in infancy, leaving his parents with Charles and an elder brother. His father had a respectable legal career and Worth lived in comfort during his early years in the social-class-conscious society. He expected his life to follow the tradition of the family in the legal profession just like his grandfather, father and brother. However, drastic events changed his destiny.

In 1836, when Worth was ten years old, his father became bankrupt as a result of heavy gambling, drinking and bad business decisions. He deserted his family and his town and was not to return for thirty years. His bankruptcy humiliated the family and Charles Worth never forgave his father, refusing to have any contact with him even after he became successful.

Worth's mother, Mary, fled the village with him out of shame as luckily her elder son and Worth's brother had already left home to begin his legal training. This period marked the start of Worth's struggle in life. At the age of 11, he began his life of menial jobs as a cleaner in a printer's shop but was extremely dissatisfied with it. His desire was to become an apprentice in a textiles and clothing shop, but this ambition proved difficult to fulfil as during this period dressmaking was considered mostly as women's domain in England. However, he felt that he could accomplish his dream in London but since he had no money to travel to London he began making ladies' Easter bonnets for sale to raise money. Eventually, in 1838, he and his mother managed to raise enough money for his train fare to London.

In 1838, at the age of 12, Worth started his apprenticeship with textile merchants Swan & Edgar of Regent Street, London. He worked there for seven years until the age of 19. During his apprenticeship, he diligently studied the different types of materials, their characteristics and functions. His role also entailed courteously welcoming customers at the store's entrance and attending to special requests, which is an equivalent of the present-day Customer Services. He was completely immersed in the world of textiles as he worked 12 hours per day and six days a week. He also lived in the store and slept under the counters at night. All he lived and breathed for seven years was fashion. This period laid the foundation that would eventually lead him to haute couture in Paris.

Charles Worth was continuously fascinated by the high level of knowledge and cultural exposure of his superiors and colleagues at Swan & Edgar. The tales of their extensive travels captivated him and he constantly listened and learned. He was determined to overcome the social downfall of his father and secretly longed to improve his education, which had been cut short at 11 years. He began reading literary books and visiting galleries frequently to improve his level of knowledge. The National Gallery Trafalgar Square, which he visited often became his treasure of information. Through the displayed paintings he observed the changes in the dress styles of women over the centuries. He was intrigued by the progression of fashion and how the past influenced the future of fashion, sparking ideas of clothing women in his mind. The knowledge he acquired during this period later became valuable in his career in Paris.

As he continued his apprenticeship and self-education, his appetite for designing women's clothes grew and he became restless to satisfy it. He learnt from magazines that the centre of female fashion was Paris, and he immediately realized that his dreams could only become reality in Paris. He decided that his time in London would soon be over and he set his sights on Paris.

At the age of 19, Worth ended his apprenticeship period at Swan & Edgar and joined the prestigious establishment of Lewis & Allenby on the same Regent Street, London. He had become a sophisticated textile salesman and finessed his skills while planning to leave for Paris. His ambition was realized within a year.

Welcome to Paris

In order to realize his dream of going to Paris, Worth once again turned to his mother for financial support. Between them, they raised enough money to cover his transport fare from London to Paris, with £5 extra for pocket money. He had no contacts in Paris, no aristocratic connections, no knowledge of the French language, little education and almost no savings. Yet in the winter of 1845, just after his twentieth birthday, Charles Frederick Worth took his own destiny in his hands and left London for Paris to pursue his ambitions.

His early years in Paris were difficult. His lack of money, verbal and written communication skills in the French language and Parisian fashion know-how forced him to take menial jobs to survive. His hopes of success in fashion were quickly dashed but he refused to concede to failure and return home. Even if he had wanted to, he didn't have enough money for his transport fare back to England.

After one year, he eventually found a menial job in a dry goods store, where he improved his French language skills and became comfortable with dealing with customers. He continued to visit galleries, especially the Louvre, where he observed scores of costumes in paintings. He also frequented the streets that housed the prestigious shops of silk and textile mercers of high fashion on Rue Richelieu. He nurtured his dream of becoming a dressmaker although this was also considered a woman's job in Paris. Worth was determined to become a dressmaker rather than a man's clothing tailor, because he knew where his talent lay.

He eventually got his first real job in the textile trade in 1847, two years after arriving in Paris. It was at the prestigious textile merchants, Maison Gagelin on Rue Richelieu in the current first district of Paris. He worked at Gagelin for a total of 11 years from late 1847 to 1858, doing a similar job as he had at Lewis & Allenby in London but in a more sophisticated environment and in a foreign language.

Charles Worth witnessed several changes in the French fashion style as the society evolved. At the beginning of his stay in Paris, French fashion was at the height of its majestic glory and influence, but became austere through the political and economic upheavals such as the ousting of King Louis Philippe, the death of the French monarchy, the new Republic and the Napoleonic Empire. Also, the French revolution of 1848 brought a decline in the flamboyance of women's clothes and a general demure in French fashion. Through all this mayhem, Worth often wondered if he was in the right place.

The eye-opener

As the political crisis gave way to a more stable environment, a positive fashion and social attitude emerged in Paris. The construction of eminent buildings such as the Opera together with state visits and official receptions that followed their openings, created an opportunity for luxury to flourish. The opulence that accompanied these grand ceremonies aroused a taste for luxury fashion in the upper social class, which greatly benefited designers, jewellers, dressmakers and textile traders.

Worth was awestruck by the magnificent events in the French world of royalty and aristocracy. His first direct involvement with this world of opulence was when Gagelin, the company he worked for, was asked to supply the materials for Empress Eugenie's trousseau during her wedding to Napoleon III in January 1853. This came through their connection with dressmakers because although Gagelin was a textile supplier, they were constantly consulted by dressmakers on the suitability of specific materials for certain styles. The association of Gagelin with the wedding of Napoleon and Empress Eugenie gained Gagelin immense publicity in fashion magazines and fashion society, leading to increased sales. This was Worth's first lesson of the important role of aristocratic and celebrity connection to the success of a fashion business. Empress Eugenie, who was known for her style and charm, would later play a key role in Worth's success.

Paris had at this time gained great influence and attracted global attention as the brightest city in Europe. The nouveaux riches such as bankers and industrialists contributed to the social expansion of the city. The world looked to Paris as a source of fashion, culture and the art de vivre and the ever-observant Worth spotted an opportunity in the newly wealthy Parisian society. He saw the changing mannerisms and attitudes of the wealthy towards fashion and also the influence this had on the rest of Europe and beyond. The consumer public were more influenced by the destructuring of the society and the progression brought by industrial advancement. Worth recognized a market gap that had been created, which no designer or dressmaker had identified. During this period, the most prominent dressmaker was the renowned Rose Bertin, who had dressed Marie-Antoinette and other royals and aristocrats. Her approach to dressmaking and serving her clients, however, remained structured to the strict aristocratic system, even as the society evolved.

Worth's creative mind buzzed with ideas and thoughts of the new societal trends and he became restless to create women's clothes to address society's needs. He endlessly questioned the dressmakers he was in contact with about the tastes and styles of the nobles, which provided him with a defined image of the current consumer needs. He also relentlessly sought opportunities to realize his ambition of dressing women.

During this period Worth met one of the young apprentices at Gagelin, Marie-Augustine Vernet, who he would later marry and who would become the catalyst for his future success. As their relationship grew, he began making dresses for her. The styles were according to the emerging tastes that he could decipher from observing the society. The customers of Gagelin took notice of Marie-Augustine's finely cut and stylish clothes, which were different from the fussy clothing of the day. They began to request the same designs. As the demand grew, Worth asked Gagelin to start a women's department, which Marie-Augustine could manage. This idea horrified the management of Gagelin as they were considered the most distinguished silk mercers in Paris and arguably in the world of fashion and couldn't be linked with mere dressmaking. Worth pointed out examples of the dressmakers who had expanded their businesses to include the sale of textile alongside dresses, creating more choices and making selection easier for customers. After several rounds of persuasion and continuous pressure from customers, Worth was finally allowed to open a small dressmaking department within the company premises. He became one of the first men in the woman's trade of dressmaking in Paris. His presence in a textile house gave him great advantage in the choice and variety of fabrics for customers and his contacts with the silk mills in Lyon was an additional plus.

Worth's style was simple but he was obsessed with the perfect cut, exact fit and refined finishing. He also remained flexible and experimented with new concepts and colours. He was an extremely meticulous man and the great attention to detail that he paid to his designs and clothes separated them from others. These attributes would later elevate his clothes from dressmaking to haute couture.

In 1851, Gagelin was selected as a member of the French delegation at 'The Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations' at London's Hyde

Park. Worth's dress designs were displayed and won a gold medal. This was an honour for Gagelin and the entire French delegation. After this event, Gagelin began advertising Worth's designs in fashion magazines. Four years later, in 1855, Worth's designs won another first-class medal at the 'Exposition Universelle' in Paris. He had become an established dressmaker and Gagelin eventually realized his great value.

Worth, also recognizing his worth to his employers, requested a job promotion, possible partnership with the company, better working condition for his then pregnant wife Marie-Augustine, and the opportunity to rent one of the spare rooms at the store premises. He was refused all his requests. He realized that his time was Gagelin was over and he decided to leave the company to start his own business.

Worth and Bobergh (1858-70)

Charles Worth partnered with another dissatisfied employee at Gagelin, the Swedish Otto Bobergh, and together they raised the capital to start their fashion business. Their first store, Worth & Bobergh was opened at no.7 rue de la Paix, close to the Jardin de Tuileries in Paris, in 1858. Their strategic location in the centre of Paris meant that they were close to other dressmakers but, more importantly, to luxury apartments and the potential wealthy customers who lived in them.

Worth continued to design and make clothes in his signature simple and perfect cut style, while going through the challenges of a new start-up business with Bobergh. Their big break came almost as an accident a year later through the wife of a prominent novelist Octave Feuillet. She was to attend an imperial reception hosted by Emperor Napoleon and Empress Eugenie and was disappointed with the dress made by her dressmaker. In desperation she went to Worth for a solution at the last minute. Worth not only created a perfect dress for her on the same day (which was unheard of) but also gave her make-up as a complementary product. During the reception, Empress Eugenie noticed the dress and asked for the name of the couturier. When told that he was an Englishman, she was appalled and even amused at the thought of a male dressmaker. Although she didn't immediately patronize him, she didn't forget the dress or its maker.

At the beginning of their business venture, little business came the way of Worth & Bobergh and they became desperate for exposure. Worth understood that one of the quickest and most effective ways to rise in prominence as a dressmaker was through celebrities. He searched for the right candidate who was both influential in the fashion society and a friend of Empress Eugenie. He found his answer in high society lady Princess Von Metternich, wife of Austria's Ambassador to France and a close friend of the Empress. Worth and Bobergh sent Marie Worth to her with an album of their designs. Von Metternich was impressed with the designs and ordered two dresses immediately. She was also amazed that Worth required only one fitting to make the dress instead of the standard six fittings and was even more astonished with the results. She wore one of Worth's dresses to a ball and Empress Eugenie took notice. When the Empress enquired about the couturier, she was once again told that it was Charles Worth, the Englishman. This time, she sent for Worth at once. Worth & Bobergh thus became the official dressmakers of the Empress in 1860, two years after starting their business.

Since Empress Eugenie was the most fashionable and influential woman in Europe, all the royalties and aristocrats copied her style and sought her dressmakers. Within one year, Worth & Bobergh had clients across Europe and as far away as New York. Their client list consisted of the 'who's who' of royalty, fashion and society, including Queen Victoria of England. Their influence escalated in such a short time that Worth in particular became a personal clothes consultant to the Empress while other royals and nobles across Europe scrambled to be on his client list.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Worth's fashion credibility and authority became established and he rose to become the dominant figure in French and global fashion. His astute business sense and innovative spirit led him to revolutionalize the fashion industry, changing the simple function of dressmaking to become the art of haute couture. He also introduced the use of human models to showcase his designs, instead of the standard wooden busts. He organized private shows of his designs to clients, shop buyers and textile manufacturers, establishing the practice of fashion shows and private shopping. He was also the first couturier to have a seasonal collection and eventually became the first fashion business tycoon. Instead of going to his wealthy clients for fittings, he compelled them to come to his store, with the exception of Empress Eugenie. No one was too important for him and he soon became the most expensive couturier in the world. By 1864, he had over 1,000 seamstresses working for him.

During the early years of success, Worth's wife played a key role as both the model of his creations and the public face of Worth & Bobergh. In the current luxury fashion environment, her title would have been 'Brand Ambassador'. She regularly attended high society events where she modelled her husband's creations and created awareness for his business. In the process, she also became a fashion force in her own right.

The business of Worth & Bobergh, however, experienced a set-back through the negative impact of the French political crisis and war that preceded the end of Napoleon's reign. The unstable social environment forced Worth & Bobergh's clients, who were mainly royals and aristocrats, to minimize their fashion consumption. Otto Bobergh, sensing gloomy years ahead, requested to dissolve the partnership and share their profits; he left the business and Worth found himself alone. Later, during the war, Worth was forced to close down his store.

La Maison Worth (1871-1952)

Charles Worth reopened his couture shop as 'La Maison Worth' in 1871, but since most of his prestigious clients had been exiled during the war he found himself starting afresh. He diversified into theatre costume while continuing to design women's dresses. During this period he also mastered the art of self-promotion and incorporated art in his design and image, which set him apart from rising competition. Worth critically studied the fashion society to innovate fashion styles and anticipate changes in women's tastes. This was one of his most important business tools and contributed to the success of La Maison Worth.

As the political climate stabilized towards the end of the nineteenth century, Worth's business grew once more. He regained his authority in fashion and ultimately became a fashion entrepreneur and somewhat the fashion world's ruler. He was the first couturier to set seasonal trends and impose his tastes on his customers. The fashion society revered him and the rich and famous sought his attention. At the height of his fame, La Maison Worth was the most prestigious couture house for design and apprenticeship training.

Charles Frederick Worth died of pneumonia on 10 March 1895 aged 70. The news of his death reverberated in the fashion world amid great homage for his work. After his death, his wife Marie-Augustine and sons Gaston and Jean-Philippe, who were already working at La Maison Worth, continued to run the business. Gaston managed the finances while Jean-Philippe was in charge of design and production. Although they applied the skills and competences they learnt from their father, Charles Worth, La Maison Worth was never the same.

La Maison Worth flourished well into the 1920s but the couture house had to deal with rife competition from rising couturiers like Jeane Lanvin who opened her design house in 1890 and Paul Poiret, who came along in 1903. Also Coco Chanel emerged in 1910 and Madeleine Vionnet in 1912. These designers understood their consumers and the fashion requirements of the changing society, as much as Charles Worth did during his lifetime. They continually innovated to meet customer needs while La Maison Worth remained inflexible and restrictive. As a result, the popularity of the competitors grew and loyalty to Worth's house diminished. In a bid to promote their design house, which had also become a fashion brand, Jean-Philippe Worth wrote a biography of his father in 1928. The book was a success and Worth's name soared once again in fashion circles. The glory was, however, shortlived as this venture wasn't backed by concrete offerings of desirable clothing. La Maison Worth continued designing for the woman of the previous century, while its competitors had moved forward with current social needs. Finally, in 1953, after several years of business depreciation, La Maison Worth was taken over by the House of Paquin.

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