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Charles Worth – The First Couturier

Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) English

Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Maids of Honor, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1855.

France is the birthplace of fashion, and the very first couturier that created a following and was known by name was based there. However, Charles Frederick Worth was not French, but an Englishman.

Afternoon dress, 1872

A salesman of shawls, ready made coats, fabrics, and trimmings in England, at age 20, Worth moved to France in 1846. At that time dressmakers, the majority female, catered to customer wishes and desires. Worth’s self-confidence (and alleged rudeness) allowed him to not only disagree with his patrons but to push his own ideas in such a way that they were accepted and the customers began to depend on his advice on what looked best. It was Worth, with his gift for self-promotion, who transformed the dressmaker from an artisan to an artist. With him, couture was born and from it grew its poorer but more widely influential cousin, ready-to-wear.

Evening Ensemble, 1865-1870

Worth’s talent was first glimpsed when he redesigned the uniform for the female shop assistants at Maison Gagelin, his employer. One assistant, Marie Vernet, who he later married, modeled the store wares in his designs and created a demand for his work. He opened the House of Worth in 1858 and soon caught the attention of Eugénie, the Empress of France and wife of Napoleon III, who eventually appointed him as the royal dressmaker in 1860. The Empress was one of the last royals to have a large influence on current fashions. She was a fan of the crinoline, a contraption that Worth would eventually detest because of its popularity. Instead, he made gradual changes. By creating a skirt that was narrow and flat in the front with draping on the sides, he moved the fullness to the back. Eventually this style became what we know as the bustle. However, because of the crinoline and its many configurations over its 15-year long reign, the female silhouette resembled a bottom-heavy triangle as the style of hats had become smaller in proportion to the full skirts in fashion.

Afternoon dress, 1872

His style, innovations, and influences on fashion:

  • Utilized a technique similar to smocking, called gauging, which produced a firm, non-elastic fabric that was used to avoid placing darts in lacy and delicately patterned materials.
  • Development of aniline dyes in the 1870s allowed the use of rich, bold colors, as first seen in his purple, blue, orange, and lavender gowns.
  • First designer to use living models to show his clothes in seasonal “fashion shows”.
  • Launched the concept of mass produced dress components that could be rearranged to create different dresses.
  • Responsible for the creation and adaptation of the crinoline, which in later years he regretted because of its ubiquity.

Images: Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sources: Dressmakers of France, (1956) Mary Brooks Pickens, Dora Loues Miller; Secrets of the Couturiers, (1984) Frances Kennett; Fashion (2003) Christopher Breward; Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, (2002) James Laver.

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On , StitchesByJeni said: | stitchesbyjeni.blogspot.com

I love the history. I studied as a costume designer and am fascinated with the history of clothing and how it evolved. It is so amazing to follow a creative process.

On , Kemmish said: | sewforward.wordpress.com

A wonderful ‘fictional account” of Charles Worth’s life, his marriage and his design house is in the book, Banners of Silk, by Rosalind Laker. The book, published in 1981 is out of print, but available on used book sites. It is a great read, especially if you like history. I highly recommend it.

On , Antoinette said: | clevergirl.org

Fabulous — I’d never before heard of Charles Worth but now know who to thank for the scads of fashion shows I wade through on style.com every six months. ;)

On , Helen said:

Wonderful. I loved learning about how he influenced styles and trends even to this day. Really interesting!

On , the fabled needle (jen) said: | thefabledneedle.com

i’m familiar with Worth as a design house but i didn’t know very much about the man and his specific contributions to fashion. i particularly love the info about gauging. fabulous post!

On , The Blue Gardenia said: | thebluegardenia.com

His colors are so vibrant! I especially like the blue gown.

On , Holly said: | etsy.com

Fantastic post!

On , KB said:

Very interesting post! I love those gowns–just gorgeous.

On , Kyle said: | vacuumingthelawn.blogspot.com

Very interesting Lisa! Who knew one man is responsible for so much?