Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Charles Worth - The First Couturier

Originally published on the Coletterie blog.

Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) English

The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting,
Franz Zaver Winterhalter, 1850-90.

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, 1862-65.

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.

Wedding dress, 1896.

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.

Evening ensemble, 1887.

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.
Afternoon dress, 1872.

  • 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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