Thursday, July 18, 2019

THAT Dress!

The luxury fashion label WORTH takes its name from the company founder, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), who established his Parisian haute couture house in 1857. Worth, perhaps more than any other designer, was instrumental in establishing the foundations of today’s global fashion industries. Worth’s influence was so seminal that he has been described as the ‘Father of Haute Couture’ and the period of France’s Second Empire (1808-73) as ‘The Age of Worth’. Worth believed that fashion design was art and did his best to distance himself from the trades industry. He donned a velvet beret, fur trimmed coat and floppy necktie, so that his style called to mind Rembrandt. Worth was a creator and arbiter of taste. In a move unheard of at the time and was completely unprecedented, the designer dictated the styles that his clients wore.

Translated literally “haute couture” means “fine sewing.” Implicit in the term is a supreme quality of innovative design and top-level craftsmanship. It is widely accepted that Worth was the first haute couturier. Before Worth, it was highly unusual for a man to design dresses for women. Traditionally, women had purchased fabrics and trimmings and then discussed their style requirements with their female dressmaker. In contrast, Worth supplied all materials and offered a complete clothing service, providing clothing and accessories for all occasions.

Charles Frederick Worth was born in Lincolnshire, England. When he was eleven years old his family fell on hard times and he was apprenticed to a printer. He disliked the work and found alternative employment with a local haberdasher. Selling fabrics, trimmings, and a few ready-made fashion items (such as shawls), he found his true love. The spring of 1838 found the ambitious youth (he was just thirteen years old) moving to London, the fashion capital of England. It is variously reported that he found an apprenticeship with the elegant department store Swan & Edgar, or the luxury silk mercer, Lewis and Allenby.

During his precious leisure time, Worth explored London’s art galleries and became fascinated by historical painted portraiture. In particular, he was entranced by the sumptuous materiality and style of the dresses worn by the women depicted. He became convinced that these were far superior to prevailing trends: he retained his passion for historical fashion references throughout his career.

It was not long before Worth set his sights further afield, this time to Paris, the international capital of luxury goods. In 1845, with only minimal savings, he set sail for the city of light where he was to become the most famous fashion designer in the world.

Worth gained a position as a selling clerk at Maison Gagelin-Opigez et Cie, purveyor of luxury silks, shawls and mantles (capes). The young man demonstrated a flair for designing. In 1855 Gagelin-Opigez were awarded the prestigious first prize at the Exposition Universelle for a lavish court train that Worth had designed.

Following his marriage to fellow worker Marie Augustine Vernet (1825-98), Worth designed dresses for her to wear to work. They attracted admiration from clients who enquired if they might order similar models for themselves. Worth’s moment had arrived and – at the peak of France’s Second Empire – it was altogether timely.

By 1857 Worth had acquired the knowledge and possessed the creative talent to start his own business. He entered into a partnership with Otto Gustaf Bobergh (1821-81), a colleague from another company, who provided the financial capital required. They rented first floor premises at 7 rue de la Paix, a quiet residential street in central Paris, with an initial staff of 20 workers. It was not long before this street was to become the most famous fashion address in the world. Worth furnished the premises along the lines of a private residence to ensure maximum comfort for his clients. And, it is for this reason that elite fashion firms became known as ‘houses’.

Worth had forged good working relationships with textiles manufacturers whilst at Maison Gagelin-Opigez et Cie and invited them to make special production runs of unique fabrics for his collections. He worked especially closely with the silk weavers in Lyon and collaborated with them on the designs, including reviving historical patterns. Worth was also responsible for ordering the production of fine, lustrous silk satin which has, ever since, became a mainstay fabric for luxurious evening gowns.

Unlike other designers of the time, Worth recognized that his clients were in the country in the summer, so it would be advantageous to present his spring/summer collection in January. He was thus the first fashion designer to create and present collections and to show them in advance of the season for which they were intended.

Worth even changed the shape of the crinoline. From 1856 the term crinoline was used to describe the new, lightweight, flexible cage structure, initially made from whalebone and eventually from sprung steel, which replaced cumbersome, layered and heavy petticoats often stuffed with horsehair to create the shape. In Worth’s hands, the crinoline became the height of chic. The crinoline remained dome-shaped until 1859, when Worth introduced a more ovoid design. Between 1862 and 1867 Worth reduced the size of the crinoline and in 1868 he designed dresses that were flat at the front, with the fullness swept round to the back: these gowns were supported at the rear by the new half crinoline or crinolette that Worth retained until 1873.


  1. Wonderful info, very useful when describing gowns of the period in fiction. Thanks for sharing your research.

  2. Hard to imagine many Worth gowns making it to the Old West in the early days. Lovely article even so. I found clothing, including party gowns, in local museums provided my characters well.

  3. Even though Worth gowns might not make it to the West, his designs were copied everywhere. Nice article.


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