Worth, the sunrise of the haute couture

by Maje Pérez-Ramos

Charles Frederick Worth wasn’t a famous general, a politician or a painter. However, he is one of the key figures of the XIX century, Long before the great French fashion houses we all know and respect, Worth ruled im the wardrobes of the most powerful women on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. His was the first fashion empire, which in its most glorious years employed more than 1200 people. No less important than his creative side was his facet as business man: his strategies forged the business model used to this day in the haute couture and his name was well known for the general public as synonym of luxury and top quality clothes.

Few things are remembered about his personality by now, aside from the fact that he established the difference between the dress-maker and the designer. As Mark Tungate put it in Fashion Brands (Kogan Page, 2012) “Worth was the first dress-maker to impose his own taste to women, the prototype of fashion designer”.

Born in 1825 in the small city of Bourne (UK), Worth was self-made man. Son to a father who abandoned his family in poverty, little Charles was only twelve years old when he started as an apprentice in a London department stores. At twenty-one he tried his luck in Paris, where he arrived with no more than five pounds in his pocket. In 1858 he got enough funding to open his own establishment at 7, Rue de la Paix, where his mastery of the craft and his designs, wisely inspired in the portraits displayed in the great museums, were soon to turn him famous.

As we approach the turn of the century, one after another, every crowned head in Europe requested his creations, from spanish-born French empress Eugenia de Montijo to Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary (Sissi) and, of course, Queen Victoria, but also aristocrats and actresses alike. His brand expanded like no other before: he opened stores in several European key cities and his dresses were the first in being labelled. He implemented a system in his ateliers, in which each dress-maker specialized in specific elements of the dresses (sleeves, skirts, corsets, etc.) His popularity was such that wherever his dresses could not be sold or bought, women could at least purchase the patterns to recreate them. His fame extended to the United States as well. Of his success among the wealthiest American women is testimony the next lines, taken from “The age of innocence” (Edith Wharton, 1920), a classic north-american novel, set in the New York of the 1870’s:
“…In my youth- Miss Jackson rejoined, “it was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton has always told me that in Boston the rule was to put away one’s Paris dresses for two years. Old Mrs. Baxter Penilow, who did everything handsomely, used to import twelve a year, two velvet, to satin, two silk and the other six of poplin and the finest cashmere. It was a standing order, and as she was ill for two years before she died they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper; and when the girls left off their mourning they were able to wear the first lot at the Symphony concerts without looking in advance of the fashion”.

As we can see, Worth marks the beginning of the haute couture as a global, industrial business but also the sunset of an old world in which dresses used to be unique, artisanal pieces treasured by women and passed on from generation to generation. As opposed to the humble, traditional dress-making workshops, Worth developed a never-seen-before system, as it’s described in The House of Worth, 1858-1954: The Birth of Haute Couture (Thames & Hudson, 2017). He opened elegant stores that became meeting points for the socialites, in which professional models showed the dresses that were later custom-made for each client. He managed to get the fittings done also in the store, instead of in the client’s home. The whole haute couture system, as we can see, was born in his establishments.

Charles Frederick Worth made an enormous fortune and died in 1865 at the age of 69 years in his villa of Suresnes (Île de France), sorrounded by his family and his art collection. His sons and descendants continued his work and the House of Worth kept expanding in the following decades. The maison finally extinguished in 1954, when the fourth generation of the family sold the business. World War Two had inflicted the coup de grâce to a long process of decline. The Worth brand was exhumed in 2010 in an effort to revive the glory days, a dream that lasted one prêt-à-porter collection and four haute couture ones designed by Giovanni Bedin. The true spirit of Worth, however, lives in the memory of the most famous women of his time, who got portrayed wearing his creations. In the Louvre, the Met o El Prado, the master pieces of Winterhalter, Singer Sargent, Cabanel o Madrazo picture forever the story of this very first emperor of Fashion.

Find out more: The House of Worth, 1858-1954: The Birth of Haute Couture. Chantal Trubert-Tollu, Françoise Tétart-Vittu, Fabrice Olivieri, Jean-Marie Martin-Hattemberg. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

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