Charles Frederick Worth

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Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) is often called the father of couture, although I would argue that the real first couturier (although she was not called one at the time) was Rose Bertin (1747-1813).

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Worth was born in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England on October 13, 1825. His first jobs were working with London textile merchants, and he moved to Paris, the center of the fashion world, in 1845. There he worked with Gagelin, which sold textiles and some ready-made garments, eventually becomming the lead salesman and opening a dressmaking department. This was where Worth established his reputation as a great designer, winning fashion contests at the Great Exhibition in London (1851) and the Exposition Universelle in Paris (1855). In 1858 Worth struck out on his own and opened his own business.

Worth had extremely good timing. Napoleon III ascended as emperor, and took as his wife the fashionable Eugénie, and the revitalization of France initiated by the emperor, and the trendsetting initiated by his wife, led to an insistence for high fashion that mirrored the fashion demands of the late 18th century. Empress Eugénie became a patroness to Worth, setting the stage for his enormous success.

He was known for the lavish fabrics and trims which made up his beautiful garments, and often took historic influences. Apart from the one-of-a-kind designs he made for his wealthier clients, Worth also made collections which were displayed on live models, which less wealthy clients could order in their own size. He would provide entire wardrobes, including morning, afternoon, and evening dresses, nightgowns, wedding gowns, gowns for masquerade balls, and even costumes worn onstage by the famous actresses and singers of the time.

Worth died in 1895, and his sons took over the family business, which continued to flourish until 1952 when his great-grandson retired.

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From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


These two gowns from 1887 and 1892 showcase the lavishness of a Worth design. The asymmetry of the skirt drapery is one of the hallmarks of Worth's exquisite craftsmanship. The sunburst and clouds on the skirt of the dress to the left show an oriental influence. A fascination and appropriation of eastern cultures has been present in all of the fine arts for centuries, and of course often translates to fashion. In particular, this dress seems to show a Japanese influence, possibly brought about by the renewed interest in Japan in the late 19th century due to the re-opening of Japan's borders to the western world by Admiral Perry in 1854.

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The Japanese rising sun flag, adopted as the national flag of Japan in 1870.

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From the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This shows stylized clouds similar to the clouds in the gown.


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From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


This gorgeous evening gown from 1898-1900 shows the influence of the Art Nouveau movement that swept the world at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The scrolling velvet design is reminiscent of the wrought iron fences and banisters which adorned much of Paris architecture at the time.

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Wrought iron balconies in Paris.


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From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


This gown from 1893-1900 was worn to a costume party, and shows the influence of the 18th century revivalism that was all the rage at the time (and in my opinion should be all the rage all the time). The gown resembles the robe a l'anglaise style prevalent in the late 18th century. Many Worth gowns show historic influences, due in part to Worth's many visits to the National Gallery to study historic dress in his early years.

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A robe a l'anglaise from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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