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THE HOUSE OF WORTH AND THE ORIGIN OF HAUTE-COUTURE

Audacity and rarity at the root of a legend.
23 Jan 2019

The world of fashion is a complex, cyclical, and ever-evolving one, a patchwork of influences, iconic figures, changing tastes and trends. However, unpick the historical thread of haute-couture and follow it back through the decades, it would eventually lead to a singular, forward-thinking figure: one whose bold ideas and unique vision laid the groundwork for the world of fashion as we know it today.

Charles Frederick Worth is widely referred to as the father of haute-couture and the founding figure of fashion as an industry and artform. Through his creations, his concepts, and his entirely new ways of approaching dressmaking, Charles Frederick Worth was able to define the image of his own era and provide inspiration for a multitude of designers that followed. Taking inspiration from the glories of times passed, while fixing his sights firmly on the future of his industry, Worth crystallised the flamboyance and beauty of the present. In doing so, he created ripples which are still felt today in the world of haute couture, which will continue to influence and inform our concept of luxury as the future unfolds.

From Humble Roots to Haute-Couture

Born in 1825 into an impoverished family in Lincolnshire, England, Charles Frederick Worth’s entry into the world of fashion was established at a young age. He spent much of his youth working as an apprentice at two different textile merchants in London. 

During his time away from the workshop, he would gaze for hours at the wonders of the National Gallery, fixated by the beauty of the dresses captured in oil paintings of historic queens and aristocratic ladies. It was in those echoing halls that Worth’s unrivalled sense of style and artistry first began to take shape, and from the billowing gowns, exquisite trimmings, and masterful artistry of previous eras, he started forming an eye for detail that would define his own future, and which would play a key role in shaping the world of fashion as we know it. 

Portrait of Charles Frederick Worth by Nadar Félix. Credit ©Ministère de la Culture -Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Félix Nadar.

Worth’s insatiable appetite for new ideas was forged in the heat of an art scene rediscovering the purity of a past, one which was free from the increasing mechanisation of England’s industrial revolution. Medieval masquerades were all the rage in London’s high society, and Romanticism and Neoclassicism were en vogue during the designer’s formative years. Worth’s path, which would combine the brilliance of regal history with the ever more flamboyant demands of high society, was being paved ahead of him. It was a path that would see his work raise fashion to the status of an unquestioned art form, and naturally, it led from London towards the glittering streets of Imperial Paris. 

Upon arriving in Paris at age twenty, Worth quickly found work with Gagelin, a major textiles company which refined and furthered what he had learned during his apprenticeship. Ever the ambitious social climber, Gagelin allowed the young artisan to open a dressmaking department as an extension of their business. It was not long before his eye-catching, distinctive work became the talk of the town; so much so that his trailblazing gowns and creations were featured in the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. This rapid ascendency allowed the young Worth to make a name for himself in Paris’ most fashionable circles, yet his star was still to rise considerably further.

Capturing the Essence of the Bespoke

Paris in the 1850s was a city in the midst of an entirely new cultural dynamism, led by the restoration of the royal house, and with Napoleon III crowning the city as a show home for new European ideas and fashions. When Napoleon wed Empress Eugenie, her exquisite fashion sense set the template for the women of high society in Paris to follow. The demand for luxury goods, especially luxurious items of dress, soared to new, dizzying heights.

In 1858, Worth was able to open his own store to showcase his creations and his new approaches to high fashion, and once Empress Eugenie began regularly stepping through his doors on rue de la Paix and commissioning works from Worth, his reputation exploded. Such patronage, such runaway popularity, and such a privileged position allowed him the full freedom to follow his instincts and passions, and realise what he once dreamed of whilst sitting on the viewing benches at the National Gallery. 

Portrait of Empress Eugénie, wearing a Worth dress, by Jean Marius Fouque, after Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Credit ©RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Michel Urtado.

Charismatic to the core, Empress Eugenie and her court were deeply charmed by the Englishman, and they were keen to show off the talents of their new favourite dressmaker at various state functions. Society balls at court, the intimate receptions at the Tuileries, and events like horse races in Longchamp became the 19th century equivalent of today’s fashion shows. The Parisian ladies of high society would display their latest items of haute-couture, which would be admired by figures from throughout the Second Empire and the wider world. 

While Worth’s eccentric, flamboyant and heavily elaborate designs borrowed extensively from a quasi-imagined past, his reputation and the flurry of excitement surrounding him was founded on entirely new practices which had simply never been seen before. He was, on the one hand, committed to meeting the ever-more luxurious demands of his clientele. On the other, he broke new ground by dictating the terms on which his dresses were designed, fitted and created. Prior to Worth’s arrival as a fashion designer par excellence, ladies would have selected  fabrics themselves, and their clothes would have been made from pre-existing templates. Worth’s vision, however, was based upon the uniqueness of each silhouette and fit, and from reimagining design features from prior centuries, acting as flourishes for thoroughly modern designs. In such practices, his clothing would epitomise the essence of the bespoke. Through his singularity of artistic expression, and his unshakeable belief in his talents, ideas, and creative drive, the notion of haute-couture was born.

Inventiveness to Echo Through the Ages

True artistry in any discipline rarely comes about as a result of following the crowd, and Worth was a man destined to lead with his unending roster of industry-defining ideas. Forever working by his own rules, The House of Worth was the first of its kind in many ways. His pioneering showrooms used live models rather than mannequins to display his dresses, which then would be customised and fitted to the client’s unique body shape or personal style. Furthermore, nobody prior to Worth had entertained the notion of the seasonal collection, nor had they explored bringing their designs and ideas to a truly international market. Worth was keen, from as early as 1855, to export his most original models to London and elsewhere in Europe, and by the 1860s, Worth creations were being purchased from the most luxurious department stores of New York, and beyond.

Originality, boldness and inventiveness were the core principles to which Charles Worth was committed. It is often claimed his designs were the first to ever be recognisably masterpieces of their creator. It is not easy to imagine just how groundbreaking that must have been; for the very first time, the craft of dressmaking and fashion had been elevated to the status of a high art, driven by innovation, inspiration, and with the vision of the artist taking precedence over the whims or wishes of the client. The essence of putting an individual stamp onto his work was not merely metaphorical, either, as Worth was also the first to add a signed label to this clothing. While the labels were originally printed onto the interior of the waistband, his name was so renowned that the ladies wearing his clothes would reverse the waistband, in order to display the label as a key feature of their bespoke dresses. The designer label, in the most literal sense, was thus brought into being.

Etiquette : Worth, 7, rue de la Paix, Paris Vers 1875. Localisation : Etats-Unis, Philadelphie (Pa.), Philadelphia Museum of Art. Credit ©The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Philadelphia Museum of Art

The heady, extravagant, and opulent years of the Second Empire were, of course, not to last, and Worth lived long enough to see its collapse and the disappearance of the Parisian royal court. However, due to the new paradigms in fashion dreamt up by Charles Worth, the days of traditional dressmaking had by this time disappeared forever. As with the dawn of every great artistic movement, the world of fashion had been utterly redrawn, and the demand for bespoke items, conjured from the hands of singular artists, would never waver thereafter. Haute-couture had well and truly arrived, and in the creation of this artform, Charles Worth tore up the rulebook, and  wrote one anew on pages of velvet, lace, and silk.

Worth, High-Fashion, Rarity, Haute

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