charles frederick worth

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Seed Beaded Ball Gown, 1888

Designed by Charles Frederick Worth

Worn by Clara Luz Romero Vargas, wife of the Mexican Ambassador to Germany, to attend the Coronation of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1888

via Live Auctioneers

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It’s time for FRIDAY FASHION FACT, and today is our first designer bio! I can’t think of anyone better to start off with than the father of haute couture himself, Charles Frederick Worth.

Charles Worth was born in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England in 1825. Due to his family’s lack of money, Worth was forced to start working when he was just 11 years old. He was an apprentice to a printer, but hated the work. He was drawn to fabric shops, with trims and ready-made accessories, so when he was 13 he moved to London and began an apprenticeship at the department store Swan and Edgar. Young Worth spent his free time wandering the National Gallery, becoming enamored with historical portraits. Worth believed that the fabrics and fashions of the past were far superior to modern styles, as we so often think today.

When Worth was 20, he moved to Paris with the hopes of breaking into the elite dressmaking industry. After years of struggling between odd jobs, he landed a position as a sales clerk at Maison Gagelin-Opigez, Chazelle et Cie, an elite house of silks and shawls. He worked his way through the ranks, ultimately earning his way to a design position. In 1855, he won first prize at the Exposition Universelle for his design of a court train which quickly became the style across Europe. Around this time, Charles Worth married Marie Vernet, a model at Gagelin-Opigez. Charles created all of Marie’s dresses, which the customers then began to request.

With his talent and popularity exploding, Worth set out to create his own company. In 1857, he partnered with Otto Gustaf Bobergh, a wealthy Swedish businessman, and opened Worth et Bobergh in Paris. The shop was a near-instant success. Worth dressed his shop-girls in the most elaborate fashions, giving his shop the appearance of a royal court. In 1870, Bobergh decided to retire, and thus the House of Worth was officially born.

Charles Worth was both a historian and an innovator. Influenced by the historical portraits he loved so much when he was younger, Worth brought luxury and detail into his designs. Royalty and the most elite members of society became Worth’s standard clientele. He created the idea of showing his lines the season before, since his clients would be in the countryside in the summer, so he showed his Spring/Summer looks in January, a system that remains to this day.

Charles Worth trained his sons Jean-Phillipe and Gaston-Lucien in the art of dressmaking, and by 1890, handed the business over to them completely. In 1895, at the age of 69, Charles Frederick Worth died suddenly of pulmonary congestion. His legacy lived on, though, and House of Worth continued to thrive under his sons’ leadership. That, however, is a story for another day.

Want to learn more about Charles Frederick Worth? Check out these books:

The House of Worth, by Amy de la Haye and Valerie D. Mendes

Worth: Father of Haute Couture, by Diana de Marly

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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“Tulipes Hollandaises” (textile)
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956). Designer: Charles Frederick Worth. Designer: Textile by A. M. Gourd & Cie. Date: 1889. Culture: French. Medium: silk & metal.

Worth was constantly interested in supporting the textile industry as evidenced in this cape, which is designed to showcase its textile to the extreme. The textile itself has a repeat which is over three feet long making it stunning but also making it extremely difficult to weave. The dramatic fabric, "Tulipes Hollandaises,” was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris and won a grand prize. The tulips have an aggressive dynamic quality about them with the brilliant, vibrant colors against the deep black background consistent with the seductive femme fatale sensibility of the 1880s and 1890s. | THE MET