By Caroline Rennolds Milbank
Scholars of industrialization have observed that the English in the 19th century tended not so much to invent but to tweak. In the same way that English manufacturers/engineers devised how to adjust the inventions of others, making them feasible, affordable, reproducible, Charles Frederick Worth experimented with the existing clothes-making system to create what is an enduring - even 150 years later - model of the haute couture.
Prior to Worth, dresses were typically created on a one-by-one basis for a specific person. They were made by professional or amateur (always female) dressmakers or by the wearers themselves. Although some fairly coarse fabrics could be produced at home, the majority had to be purchased, from rural “variety stores” selling everything from animal feed to lace, or the new (in the mid-nineteenth century) urban department stores. There were also drapers, smaller than department stores, specializing in fabrics, as well as in shawls and the forms of outerwear that did not need to be closely fitted to the body and thus could be made up “on spec.” These were the first “ready-to-wear” garments for women. One could also purchase a dress at a draper’s, i.e., purchase the fabric, come up with a style, and have the dress made by an outside contractor.
By dressing his wife, Marie, first in the draper’s shop where they both worked, and then by sending her out in public, Worth invented the sequence of a style being designed, produced, displayed, and then ordered (which is what invariably happened when women admired Marie’s elegant clothes). Before Worth, the idea of a dress being recognizably the work of its creator simply didn’t exist. He was the first designer to actively change the prevailing silhouette (his detested crinoline). He dressed like an artist and he was the first to sign a dress - with a label. He developed the notion of a “maison de couture” as a place both public, open to anyone with “figures, francs and faith,” and private, a place to be enveloped in luxury and discretion. He understood the power of the growing fashion press and made savvy use of this knowledge. His diplomatic skills were such that he survived dressing the Empress Eugénie and those known to be the lovers of the Emperor Napoleon III, simultaneously, at the same event. At a time when travel had exploded, with steam engines making safe and rapid ocean crossings and trains further connecting continents, Worth became the first global designer, dressing the crowned heads of every monarchy extant as well as all those who aspired to dress like the aristocracy, a clientele that grew like wildfire with industrialization. Worth clients could expect the very best of the past, as in unsurpassed levels of craftsmanship, and the future, clients from anywhere in the world could purchase by “mail order” and receive their trunks of new clothes in a week or two. As a result of Worth’s example, the “couturier,” a word that had to be invented for him, was established as an arbiter of taste and a catalyst for change.
Worth was born October 13, 1825, in Lincolnshire, England. As was fairly common at the time, he was farmed out, at age thirteen, as an apprentice. After a couple of fits and starts, he landed at Swan & Edgar’s, one of the top London draper’s establishments, where he served the typical unpaid apprenticeship of seven years. A favorite task was to assist in unpacking shipments of Paris finery. At Swan & Edgar’s his observations netted numerous pivotal lessons: he learned that women wanted beautifully made clothes from beautiful stuffs but didn’t know how to achieve this without advice; that his advice about matters of taste was valuable, increasingly valuable; and that Paris was the mecca for the arts of fashion.
In 1846 he took the daring step of moving to Paris with no sure prospect of work and only a little French. It wasn’t long before he was hired by Gagelin-Opigez et Cie, a grand draper’s offering fabrics, shawls, embroideries, laces, and “confections.” At a time when a fine handwoven shawl or a piece of handmade lace was instantly recognizable as an extremely costly item of clothing, comparable to an early 21st-century crocodile Birkin bag or a sable coat, a carriage trade draper’s would have been the most luxurious store catering to women next to a jeweler’s. Worth thrived and in 1851 was promoted to head salesclerk. Also in 1851, Gagelin (also known as Opigez & Chazelle due to its two directors) won a gold medal, the only one won by a French firm in the category of “Upper Clothing,” at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London. According to Worth’s son and biographer, Jean-Philippe, it was Worth’s designs (for dresses in embroidered silks) that captured the medal. In 1858, Worth teamed up with a Swedish former draper’s clerk, Otto Gustaf Bobergh, and opened a business, Worth et Bobergh, at 7 rue de la Paix. As the “New York Times” would write in 1864, the establishment was lavishly decorated: “Nothing but satin, velvet, gilding, and inlaid wood. . . . Enormous mirrors rose from the floor to the ceiling. . . .” There was even a “standing lunch composed of ‘every delicacy.’”
The political situation in France was in Worth’s favor. In 1848, King Louis-Philippe had been ousted. Elected president was Prince Louis Napoleon, who installed himself as emperor. He and his new wife, the Empress Eugénie, (they married in 1853) would have an enormous effect on matters of fashion, turning Paris into the centerpiece of a mesmerizingly extravagant court as well as into an excitingly modern city with swaths of boulevards and impressive new buildings.
A year after Worth et Bobergh had opened, in December 1859, the Princesse de Metternich, a belle-laide with a hand-span waist, arrived on the scene as the wife of the new ambassador from Austria. Most accounts credit her with introducing Worth’s talent to the Empress via a floral-embellished tulle ball gown worn at the Tuilleries Palace. However, Worth claimed that the Empress’s custom was due to the Countess Pourtalés wearing to great effect a gray taffeta walking dress trimmed with black velvet ribbons with the then-new design of a jacket that matched the skirt. The Empress Eugénie could have remained loyal to the royal modistes who had made her wedding dress and trousseau, but she began to order clothes from Worth, sealing his fate as the most brilliant designer of fashion in the most brilliant city. He costumed entire balls at the Tuilleries, single-handedly, if the fawning reports in the press are to be believed, and his renown multiplied.
The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) put an end to the Second Empire. As war raged inside the city walls, Worth et Bobergh functioned mainly as a hospital. Fearful that life under a new government would not prove as fertile a ground for the flourishing of couture, Otto Bobergh departed the business, and was bought out by Worth for a million and a half francs. The new label bore the actual signature of the artist in chief: C. Worth.
There would be no more French empresses, but, as it turned out, the reputation of the house of Worth was dependent not on court patronage but on the perfection of the fit, the exquisite styles, and the exclusive materials and trimmings. The success of the house grew, even after Worth’s death in 1895, thanks to the continuity provided by the business and artistic talents of his successors: his sons, Gaston-Lucien and Jean Philippe; his sons-in-law; and grandsons, including the last family member to oversee designing: Jean-Charles Worth.