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Charles Frederick Worth And The 19th Century Fashion

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  • Category: Fashion

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Introduction: 19th Century Fashion

During 1675 onwards, the influence of national features in fashion had been declining.  Fashionable dress design had obtained influences from international markets by 1800s with wardrobes coming from Paris and London.

French designers had continued to influence European fashion until 1820.  The styles that the French had initiated were based on classical fashion like that of Ancient Greece.  Loose, high-waist gowns in white had become the trend during the 19th century women fashion.  Many wore thin garments with little underwear, making it an inappropriate style of dressing during winter time.  In an attempt to fight the cold, women had begun dressing in three-quarter-length overdress, which was made in warmer material.  Shawls, redingotes, and pelisses were also a hit during winter.  Thus, in 1830s, colors in dresses were brought back with tighter waistlines that fit naturally.  In addition, large-brimmed hats and bonnets, fuller, shorter skirts, and leg-of-mutton sleeves had become a norm in fashion during those times.

On the other hand, in spite of the wars, the second half of the century had become prosperous for many countries, especially those in Europe.  Upper classes had started wearing more fashionable dresses.  Men, however, had remained dignified and somber.  Women had changed wardrobes faster than men.  For the middle class, the technical advances for mass manufacturing had made fashionable dresses readily available for them.

Consequently, the development of ready-to-wear dresses, the establishment of department stores, the invention of the sewing machine, and the development of new marketing techniques had revolutionized the industry of fashion.

In 1840 onwards, fashion was dominated with a framework underskirt and restrictive corset.  The skirt’s fullness was achieved through additional layers of petticoats; thus, becoming the 1850’s crinoline petticoat.  However, by 1856, people had realized the heaviness of crinoline.  As such, the invention of cage crinoline had prospered as it was more flexible compared to crinoline.  From a slender shape, crinoline had changed to something like rear bustle and became fashionable between 1870s and 1880s.  Crinoline had gone back to its original shape by 1890s but no reduction was given in the constrictive corset.

Fashion in the 19th century was elegant; however, dresses were not easy to wear.  Wardrobes during this century had restricted movements as they encompassed multiple layers, sheer quantity of material, and intricate designs.

This paper aims to discuss the progress of the 19th century fashion through the influences and contributions of Charles Frederick Worth, who had become the “father of haute couture” and “the first couturier.”  Charles Frederick Worth was a talented dress designer who established his own fashion empire during the 19th century and had grown amidst the increasing wealth and luxury of the Second Empire of France.

Consequently, this paper also aims to explore on the changes made by Charles Frederick Worth in the 19th century fashion as well as who were his clients and patrons, how he had become successful, and other pertinent details about his career that were significant in the 19th century fashion.

The Beginnings of Charles Frederick Worth

Born in Lincolnshire, England on October 13, 1825, Charles Frederick Worth has been known the fashion designer who managed to dominate Parisian fashion during the latter half of the 19th century.  He worked as a clerk and apprentice for two London textile merchants during his younger years.  He gained thorough knowledge of fabrics as well as techniques in the business of supplying dressmakers through his jobs.

In 1845, Worth relocated to Paris and worked with Gagelin, which was a prominent firm selling textile goods, ready-made garments, and shawls.  Worth became the leading salesman of Gagelin, leading to the establishment of a small dressmaking department for the company.  This is where Worth gained his first position as a professional dressmaker.  Having done prize-winning designs for Gagelin, Worth opened his own firm together with a business partner in 1858.

The Success of Charles Frederick Worth

The prominence of Worth as a fashion designer had coincided with France’s establishment of the Second Empire.  In 1852, Paris had once more become an imperial capital through the restoration of a royal house with Napoleon being the new emperor.  Napoleon had envisioned a great plan for both Paris and France.  He had initiated modernization and changes, which strengthened the economy of France and made Paris a showpiece of Europe.

The demand for luxury goods including fashionable dress and textiles had increased.  As Napoleon III married Empress Eugenie, the court’s style in dressing had been based on her tastes.  Empress Eugenie had become a major patron of Worth’s designs, making Worth a popular dressmaker from 1860s and beyond.  Thus, the success of Charles Frederick Worth had also resulted to revolutionizing the fashion statement during the 19th century.

The designs of Worth were notable for the incorporation of elements of historic dress and the use of lavish trimmings and fabrics.  Worth had also considered making wardrobes that fit the wearer.  Worth had become known as making various designs shown through live models at his workshop.  Clients selected designs in the workshop where tailor-made garments were also available.

In spite of the fact that Worth was not the first designer to run his business in this way, he had earned the titles “the first couturier” and “father of haute couture” because of his aggressive self-promotion.  His name had appeared frequently in ordinary fashion publications, which spread his fame to clients outside the courtly circles.  Worth had reigned supreme among other Paris dressmakers.  He was often found in the middle of fascinated audiences, dressed in rustling silks that were colorful.

Apart from Empress Eugenie, other royal clients had frequented Worth’s shop.  These include Queen Victoria and Empress Elizabeth.  Worth had designed a dress for Empress Elizabeth for her coronation as Queen of Hungary.  In the United States, women belonging in the elite families of Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, and Carnegies had also become patrons of Worth’s designs.

Worth had often considered French weavers in his attempt to support the textile industry of his country.  His attention to detail and quality was very elaborate.  Even the inside of his designs was finished with the same quality as that of the outside.  More so, Worth had utilized his artistic genius, making him one of the best dressmakers in Paris.  He had popularized the cage crinoline and the half-crinoline, which both had become fixtures in women dressing between 1870s and 1880s.

Some of the most popular creations of Worth included crinolined ball gowns, jaunty hats, and walking skirts that were trimmed length from the hem of a dress, allowing the skirt to clear the ground instead of dragging mud.  Moreover, Worth had also innovated in the process of patternmaking through the creation of a system of standardized, interchangeable components.  This meant that a single pattern piece can be used in numerous garments.  He had utilized the then newly invented sewing machine; thus, hand sewing had become meant for intricate and delicate finish works.  Worth had become open to modernization and showed this through using ribbons, laces, and other trimmings, which were produced by machines.

During the 19th century, Worth was the first designer to collaborate a show, which showcased an entire collection of wardrobes in advance.  As a man, he was the first to become prominent in women’s fashion.  He was also first in using young women to model entire outfits.  The clientele of Worth had included American seamstresses, who bought garments to imitate for women longing for Worth’s designs but cannot travel to Paris.  As such, Worth had initiated the technique of dress designing with the purpose of being copied in French workshops and then distributed globally.

Worth was motivated unusually by his large ego resulting to a great sense of style and edge in business.  He had the habit of signing his name to his work through using a label sewn to the garment.  Through this, he had left the impression of being a legend to his patrons, adopting autocratic characteristics.  Worth had also incorporated a Bohemian style in his own wardrobe.  He had often appeared in a black skullcap.  In his desire for social status, Worth had come up with his own coat of arms that he had worked on from his home in Suresnes.  The design of his coat of arms had incorporated a stylized snail and a blue cornflower.

Through the combination of his brilliance and arrogance, Worth had ensnared the imagination of his clients, specifically women.  He definitely had absolute control over the fashion world of Paris.  On the other hand, some of his critics had commented on his high prices and his dictatorial mannerisms.  Consequently, some advocates of a reformed aesthetic dress had started calling for the scrapping of crinoline, corset, and other unusual padding.  These advocates had preferred the utilization of undecorated dresses, which were sewn from ordinary fabrics and designed to hang loosely from one’s shoulders to the floor.

The House of Worth

The immense popularity of Worth among European royalty and aristocrats as wells as wealthy American patrons in the 19th century is depicted in the large number of surviving Worth garments found in the Costume Institute and other institutions in the United States.  In order to purchase entire wardrobes and collections from the House of Worth, many clients have traveled to Paris.  Wealthy clients had usually purchased a complete wardrobe, which included morning, afternoon, and evening dresses as well as elaborate undergarments such as nightgowns and tea gowns.  Women had also come to the House of Worth to look for gowns for special events such as ornate masquerade balls and weddings.

The House of Worth were also visited with theater and concert stars from United States and Europe.  Worth had become a name for costumes and personal wardrobes for actresses and singers including Lillie Langry, Jenny Lind, Nellie Melba, and Sarah Bernhardt.

The Legacy of Charles Frederick Worth

Worth had offered lasting contributions to the fashion industry specifically in the 19th century.  He had used live models to showcase his works instead of the traditional use of mannequins.  He had also conceived fashion shows for 19th century audiences to present his new designs to customers belonging to the royal and elite classes.  As garments were usually distributed locally during the 19th century, Worth had initiated on making high fashion available widely through selling his designs to other dressmakers, newly established departments stores, and clothing manufacturers.  He had initiated on the practice of mass-producing parts of a piece of clothing put together in various ways.

The ideas of Worth had prospered in the 19th century when department stores and clothing factories were considered new developments.  For the first time in that century, people had the advantage of purchasing the latest trends in fashions from stores.  More so, haute couture style was not only limited for availability for the rich but to the middle class as well.

Summary and Conclusion

Charles Frederick Worth had become the first world famous French fashion designer in spite of the fact that he was born and raised in England.  During the 19th century, he had initiated the creation and application of the principles of design.  He had also conceived the “haute couture” or “high fashion” that was not only meant for Europe’s nobility and American elites.  The 19th century fashion industry had a tastes of modern changes through the manner Worth designed, made, and sold his garments.

Through his experience in working for a department store and textile merchants in many years, Worth had acquired enough knowledge in the needs and wants of women in the 19th century fashion.  As he had wished to become a dress designer, he took a job in Paris where he studied while he worked.  There he had begun to conceptualize the idea of offering dress designs to customers at the fabric company he worked for.

Worth had made use of elaborate and luxurious fabrics for his dresses, which were opposed to the traditional 19th century fashion.  He had used rich trimmings including laces, tassels, braids, and fringes with pearls.  His most notable contributions to the 19th century fashion included a waist-less dress hanging simply in the front while draping in full pleats at the back; ankle-length walking skirt, and the crinoline.

By the 1890s, Worth had lost his dominance over French fashion although his designs continued to be featured in Harper’s Bazaar.  Soon, the elites favored designers including Felix, Doucet, and Paquin.  The House of Worth had been turned over to Worth’s son after his death on March 10, 1895 in Paris.  Gaston, who was Worth’s eldest son had handled the finances of his father’s business completely while Jean-Philippe, the younger one, pursued his studies in painting.

Worth had an influential public image that secured him the reputation of being “the first couturier” in spite of the fact that he was not the first and only designer to employ a unique dressmaking practice.  He had been called the “father of haute couture” as his creations dominated the fashion magazines during the 19th century.  Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, Worth had been consistent in making high-quality designs and employed an aggressive “self” marketing until his workshop became a great house of couture.

Works Cited:

Batterberry, Michael.  Fashion: The Mirror of History. MN: Crescent Publishing, 1982.

“Charles Frederick Worth.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. 4 Dec. 2008 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

De Marly, Diana, The History of Haute Couture, 1850-1950. NJ: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980.

Gundle, Stephen. Glamour: A History. NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Saunders, Edith. The Age of Worth.  IN: Indiana University Press, 1955.

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