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FASHION HISTORY: Charles Fredrick Worth, AKA The father of Haute Couture

Charles Fredrick Worth was born on October 13th, 1825 in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England. His father, a drunk who mismanaged his money, caused his mother to send young 12-year-old Worth to London to apprentice and to learn the dress goods trade. By studying the portraits at the National Gallery, he taught himself the art of dressmaking. In 1895, he left for Paris where he began to work for the notable Gagelin and Opigez, a shop that specialized in fabrics such as shawls, silks, and cashmeres.

In the early 19th century, the world of fashion was dominated by individual dress makers, who were mostly women, who often made so little money that they had to turn to prostitution as a means of income. Worth was determined to make dressmaking a luxurious experience and in 1851, against his reluctant employers wishes, he began making dresses at Gegelin and Opigez, with his wife Marie, as his muse and model. At the 1855 Paris World Fair, he won the “first class medal” for his take on his original design of a court train.

In 1858, Worth left Gagelin and Opigez to open his own buisness at rue de la Paix in partnership with Otto Bobergh. On a nightly stroll with his wife Marie, they discovered that Princess de Metternich, the wife of the newly appointed Austrian Ambassador to Paris, was to be presented that evening at court. He was immeadiately struck by her regal distinction and grand manner.

The princess’s taste and growing reputation made her the perfect candidate to adorn Worth’s new designs. He desided that it would be his wife Marie, that would deliver his designs to the Princess at the Austrian Embassy.

“I opened the album” Princess Metternich wrote in her souvenirs, “and to my surprise to find on the front page was a charming dress, and the second page a perfectly ravishing dress! I imeadidatley sensed an artist…”

The princess received the “friends and family” discount, paying a modest price of 300 francs to wear one of Worth’s gowns to the next court ball. The dress was made of white-silver threaded tulle, trimmed with daises hidden by diamonds inspired by the shape of blades of grass and cinched at the waist with a satin belt.

This began the House of Worth, the first haute couture establishment.

Empress Eugenie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, had taken a liking to the young Austrian princess Matternich. As she recounts in her memoirs, the following conversation ensued later that evening. “May I ask you, Madam,” she enquired, “who made you that dress, so marvelously elegant and simple?” “An Englishman, Madam, a star who has arisen in the firmament of fashion,” the Princess replied. “And what is his name?” “Worth.” “Well,” concluded the Empress, “please ask him to come and see me at ten o'clock tomorrow morning.” “He was made, and I was lost,” wrote Princess Metternich jokingly, “for from that moment there were no more dresses at 300 francs each.” I guess that she was upset that with Worth’s budding popularity, the princess lost her friends and family discount.

Fashion, at this time of the French court, was a matter of political necessity to affirm the power and magnificence of the Bonaparte dynasty. To reach the Empresses dressing room that morning, worth had to pass through the three main salons of the royal apartment, each decorated in the color of blue, green, and pink respectively. Eugenie received Worth in her spacious dressing room, complete with revolving mirrors and a lift that would bring down the Empress’s dresses from a ceiling storage room above. The Empress told worth that she initially required one evening dress. The English designer was pleased to discover that the Empress was not opposed to modification of their ideas. Together, he felt that they would revolutionize the world of fashion.

Soon, Empress Eugénie was ordering all her garments from Worth, from court dress to street clothes and everything in between. This turned out to be a bit of work for Worth considering Eugénie, while on public duty, had to change garments several times per day to keep up appearances, as no lady of stature would wear the same garment twice. If a member of the royal court broke this unspoken rule, they were banished from all future court gatherings. Although the designer had his work cut out for him, this allowed Worth to eventually have total creative freedom over the garments that he created for the Empress. Although she nicknamed worth a “tyrant of fashion,” she often gave way to Worth’s creative desires, even when they didn’t align with her personal taste.

At the time the Crinoline, a structured petticoat designed to flare out a woman’s skirt, usually made of stiff horsehair and cotton, was all the rage in the mid 19th century France fashion. Neither Eugénie or Worth were fans of the garment, but they knew they could not dislodge the garment entirely. Instead, Worth came up with gradual changes to the garments, which the Empress embraced wholeheartedly. In 1862, the Empress made an appearance at the Races, one of the most prestigious events of the year, without a shawl, which was unheard of for a woman of high society, let alone the Empress herself. She did not make this decision alone, as it was Princess de Metternich who felt it was a shame to cover Worth’s beautiful creations with a shawl or cloak. The arrival of the Empress caused a rift in the fashion climate, causing women everywhere walk the streets of Paris without their shawls.

In 1867, on a trip to Salzburg, the Empress boldly wore a dress which did not entirely cover her feet. The next day, the Austrian press was full of reviews on the new style adorned by the Empress of France. The Parisian fashion magazines followed suit, spreading the new silloutte as far as the United States. Godey’s Lady Book (one of the first American fashion magazines) reported on the “Empress blue” color of Eugénie’s garments, and soon portraits of the Empress were on display in shop windows from Europe to North America, as she led the charge into a new wave of fashion.

By 1868, Worth and Eugénie decided it was time to give the crinoline the boot, once and for all. They agreed upon a new design that would change the dress sillouette for the next decade. This new dress was to be straight and narrow in the front, hugging the figure, with an overskirt in the back of the dress to form a bustle. Both Princess Metternich and the Empress wore such a dress at a ball, and its success was instantenous.

For years, the Empress used her public appearances to promote her favorite designer. Grand State balls, receptions, and the races at Longchamp served the same purpose as todays runway shows. So it’s no surprise that by 1868, the House of Worth had become the standard of good taste and elegance. This began the long standing tradition of fashion designers creating their own fashion houses, complete with in house atleirs, fabric rooms and showrooms.

Another innovation brought about by Worth was his use of distribution techniques. As early as 1855, he agreed to make replications of his most popular “models” and sell them to foreign buyers with the right to distribute them commercially wherever they wanted. He also sold many items at varying price points, going so far as to sell his patterns to American department stores.

Worth was also the first to use labels on his clothing, and soon realized the branding and marketing potential this would hold. His label made a visable statement about the client’s style, elegance and wealth, a statement that would stand the test of time and serve as the pinnacle of 19th century standard of quality and push it forward as we see it today.

The House of Worth survived the collapse of the second empire in 1870, but Charles Fredrick Worth came to dearly miss working with his dear Empress Eugénie. The absence of Court culture changed the very nature of Parisian fashion, causing Worth to focus in more on exports, making the whole buisness all the more impersonal. Every year to her memory, Worth would send a large bouquet of Parma violets tied with a mauve ribbon signed in gold embroidery to the Empress in exile on her many birthdays.

Charles Fredrick Worth died on March 10th, 1895. He set the gold standard of 19th century dress, and ordained the fashions of Paris, and became the first global fashion house. Most importantly though, with the help of three incredible women, Marie Worth, Princess Metternich, and Empress Eugénie, Worth had created Haute-Couture.

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