Charles Frederick Worth – the Father of Haute Couture

Charles Frederick Worth
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Although tailors and dressmakers were no doubt responsible for many innovations before, and the textile industry certainly led many trends, the history of fashion design is normally taken to date from 1858, when the English-born Charles Frederick Worth (1826-1895) opened the first true haute couture house in Paris. He is widely considered the Father of Haute couture.

The Haute house was the name established by government for the fashion houses that met the standards of industry. They had certain standards such as: hiring a certain number of employees, show clothing at fashion shows, and present a certain amount of patterns to costumers. This particular house was a great deal to accomplish and most tailors and sewers aspired to open one. Since then the professional designer has become a progressively more dominant figure, despite the origins of many fashions in street fashion.

Haute Couture

Charles Frederick Worth was born in 1825 in the market town of Bourne in Lincolnshire, England. Worth apprenticed as a draper in London for 6 years at Swan & Edgars (a specialist in fine wools and silks). His fascination with beautiful silks led him to move to Paris in 1845 with a desire to create ladies fashions. He became an assistant draper at Maison Gaglin, well-known Parisian drapers, where he remained for 10 years, rising to premier commis.

At Gagelin’s he met one of the firm’s models, Marie Vernet, a demoiselle de maison who demonstrated the features of the cloths as draped on a moving woman and model shawls and bonnets for prospective customers. They were attracted to each other very early on, but owing to their limited incomes they did not marry until May 1851. Worth made a few simple dresses for his wife and customers started to ask for copies of the dresses as well. Maison Gagelin showed several of Worth’s designs there and although they caused great consternation in their departure from current fashion, Gagelin was awarded a gold medal for France.

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 1858. Worth was soon patronised by the French Empress Eugénie, and after that by many titled, rich, and otherwise notable women. Catherine Walters and Cora Pearl, the famous demimondaines, and Pauline von Metternich, an Austrian princess and musical patron, were Worth devotees, the infamous beauty Virginia Oldoini, Countess di Castiglione was often dressed by him. He also dressed actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and singers such as Nellie Melba. Many of his customers travelled to Paris from other countries, coming from as far away as New York and Boston.

In combining the classic with innovation, Worth created the first luxury brand synonymous with fashion and style in 1858, and within 10 years, he had become a highly influential and respected couturier dressing royalty, nobility celebrity and the notorious.

Dress designed by Charles Frederick Worth for Elisabeth of Austria painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Much of his work is associated with the movement to redefine the female fashionable shape, removing excessive ruffles and frills and using rich fabrics in simple but flattering outlines. He is credited as the first designer to put labels onto the clothing he manufactured, and would prepare a portfolio of dress designs that would also be shown on live models at the House of Worth. Clients would attend these shows, selecting a design, and specific colours and fabrics, so a duplicate garment could be tailor-made in Worth’s workshop. Worth gave his customers luxurious materials and meticulous fit. Rather than let the customer dictate the design, as had previously been dressmaking practice, four times a year he displayed model dresses at fashion shows. His patronesses would pick a model, which would then be sewn in fabrics of their choice and tailored to their figure. Worth was sufficiently fashionable that he had to turn away customers. This only added to his éclat. He completely revolutionized the business of dressmaking. He was the first of the couturiers, dressmakers considered artists rather than mere artisans.

Court Presentation Dress

This presentation dress, c.1895, is from the House of Charles Frederick Worth. The dress was designed specifically for presentation at court, worn by a Debutante. It is made from heavy pure silk satin, hand embroidered with metallic beads, sequins and diamante in a sumptuous floral design. It is trimmed with hand-made lace and like all presentation dresses has a richly worked long train. Trains, which had always formed an important part of court dress, extended from three feet to eight feet by 1870 and even longer by the end of the century. Trains were fastened at this period from the waist and were often made of costly and ornate materials.

Presentation at court was an important milestone in the life of a young woman, marking her emergence into the adult world and providing her with a passport to the most exclusive social circles–-and the chance of getting a rich husband. It is thought that Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, was the first queen to have young ladies presented to her at drawing rooms as an acknowledgment of their ‘coming out’ in society. From 1837 these young girls were known as debutantes. This tradition drew to a close in the 1950s.

House of Worth

Worth and Bobergh shut down during the Franco-Prussian War and re-opened in 1871, without Bobergh, as the House of Worth. Worth took his sons, Gaston (founder of Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture) and Jean-Philippe, into his business and the couture house continued to flourish after his death in 1895. The House of Worth was in many ways a new departure, marking a shift from the old fashioned dressmaker to something much closer to the modern couturier or fashion designer.

Worth combined his individual tailoring with a formula and standardization more characteristic of the ready-to-wear clothing industry today which back then was just beginning to emerge. In 1936 the House of Worth showed a first collection at 120 rue du Faubourg Saint Honore, under the direction of a fourth generation of the Worth family, Jacques and Roger.

Following his death in 1895, his sons Gaston-Lucien (1853–1924) and Jean- Philippe (1856–1926) took over their fathers business and succeeded in maintaining its high standards.

The revival of the House is an initiative by House Of Worth Ltd. which can trace its intellectual property rights back to the House of Worth started by Charles Frederick Worth. Charles Frederick Worth was followed by his sons and grandsons into the Couture business, and by accounts, it was not until the third generation, which a separate fragrance business was set up in 1932. The Worth fragrance business has traded continuously since then. A member of the fourth generation of the Worth family, Roger Worth, son of Jacques, was active up to the Second World War.


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