Though born and raised in England, Charles Frederick Worth became the first world famous French fashon designer. He was also the first to create and emply the principles of design and fashion that would be called “haute couture” or “high fashion”. Worth not only designed clothes for much of Europe’s nobility and many American millionaires, he also introduced many modern changes in the ways clothing was designed, made, and sold. Worth was born in 1825 in Lincolnshire, in the east of England. His father was a lawyer who had lost most of his money gambling, so young Charles was forced to go out to work when he was only eleven. He worked for many years at a department store, then at a company that sold fabrics. Through his sales experience he learned about what women wanted and needed in clothing and fashion. He wished to become a dress designer, so at the age of twenty he took a job with a fabric firm in Paris in 1846, where he could study design while he worked. It was there that he introduced his first new idea of offering dress design to customers at the fabric company. For the first time, ladies could get the whole dress, design and fabric, at the same location. In Paris he was hired by Gagelin and Opigez, well-known Parisian drapers. While worling in their shop, he married one of the firm’s models, Marie Vernet, a young woman of elegance and charm. He persuaded Gagelin to open a dress department which was a great success. Paris, at that time, was full of female dressmakers who indulged in random frivolity. Worth realized that aesthetic perfection must be built on a foundation of technical excellence. He was the first to sign his work and the word “couturier” had to be invented for him. His wife inspired his creativity and he designed her dresses which attracted the attention of Gagelin’s customers and led to orders. Gagelin included several Worth dresses in their display in 185l at the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace. Worth, by now a junior partner in the firm, urged his partners to expand into dressmaking, but they hesitated to risk their reputation in a business as low-class as dressmaking. Worth found a wealthy Swede, Otto Bobergh, who was willing to bankroll the venture and opened the dressmaking establishment of Worth and Bobergh in 1958. Worth was soon patronized by the French Empress Eugénie and after that by many titled, rich, and otherwise notable women, Cora Pearl, the famous demimondaine, and Pauline de Metternich, an Austrian princess and musical patron, were Worth devotees. So Worth came to design all the Empress’ official court clothing and his label wore the royal crest. For the next decade Worth designed clothes for most of the royal ladies of Europe. He also dressed actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt. Many of his customers travelled to Paris from other countries, coming from as far away as New York and Boston. Much of his work is associated with the movement to redefine the female fashion shape, removing excessive ruffles and frills and using rich fabrics in simple but flattering outlines.Worth re-defined the nature of the relationship between the garment’s purchaser and it’s maker. Before him, even the most skilled and talented dressmakers were regarded as servants in circles that determined social prestige, placed much lower n the social ladder than painters or architects. Firstly, he was a man, a couturier, successfully imposing himself on the hitherto female and low-prestige world of the dressmaker. Secondly, he was able to get his clients to come to his house, rather than the other way around, just as a patron might visit an artist’s studio. Thirdly he proved himself a master, not only of formal court clothing but also of the more witty, fanciful and often historically-based show costumes, modeled on famous paints or commissioned for masquerade balls. He was catering for those who liked to be conspicuous. Under Worth’s leadership, haute couture became a luxury business, as well as an interface between the silk and brocade manufacturers of Lyons and the world of the aristocracy and the Court, but also a vehicle for publicity which favoured both the client and the couturier. More than any other person, Worth can be said to have presided over the popularity of the crinoline. From the 1840’s onwards, skirts grew larger and larger. Worth designed and delivered these huge creations, but he really did not like them at all. He enlisted the aid of the Princess de Metternich to launch a new shape. He flattened the skirt in front and swept the fullness around to the back, forming a bustle. This new shape caught on fast, and by the 1880’s became almost architectural. The crinoline slowly went out of fashion. Worth always boasted “I am the man who dethroned the crinoline.” He followed the bustle with the Princess line, which evolved into the fashions of the turn of the century, known as “Fin de Siecle” styles. Worth’s copious use of luxurious fabrics throughout the 19th century, inspired the silk manufacturers of Lyons to weave more and more interesting textiles. Worth was a gifted designer, who seemed to have had a clear understanding of the times in which he lived. He was able to dress both royalty and high society, as well as the demi-mode such as actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, with equally affluent taste. He died in 1895 and passed Maison Worth on to his sons Gaston, who ran finances and Jean Philippe, who was the designer. In 1900 there was a display of haute couture at the Paris Exposition Universelle, and Worth, Callot Soeurs, Doeuillet, Paquin and Redfern all took part. Maison Worth continued to provide gowns for grand and traditional affairs, right up to the 1950’s. Throughout the decades, Worth salon reflected the taste of the times, including “Art Nouveau” and woven/printed flowery fabrics. They also made many gowns inspired by great paintings. Worth used beautiful and luxurious fabrics for his dresses, and he trimmed them with rich decoration, such as fringe, lace, braid, and tassels made of pearls. His many important contributions to design included an ankle-length walking skirt, shockingly short for its time, and the princess gown, a waist-less dress that hung simple and straight in the front while draping in full pleats in the back.
Charles Frederick Worth