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The Founding Father of Haute Couture

As the fashion weeks wraps up our thoughts turn to Charles Frederick Worth, the designer who dominated Parisian fashion in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and is often credited with creating haute couture.

Worth was known for his use of lavish fabrics and trimmings and his attention to fit. While he created one-of-a-kind pieces for his most important clients, he also created a variety of designs that were shown on live models at the House of Worth then clients made their selections and had garments tailor-made in Worth’s workshop. His aggressive self-promotion earned him the titles “father of haute couture” and “the first couturier” and by the 1870s, Worth’s name frequently appeared in the leading fashion magazines of the period.

Born in Lincolnshire, England in 1825, as a young man Worth worked as an apprentice and clerk for two London textile merchants. In his time off he loved to visit the National Gallery and other collections to study historic portraits. Elements of the sitters’ dresses in these paintings would later provide inspiration for Worth’s own designs and his incorporation of elements of historic dress. He relocated to Paris in 1845 and found work with a prominent firm that sold textile goods, becoming their leading salesman and eventually opened a small dressmaking department for the company before opening his own brand the House of Worth in 1871.

Worth’s rise as a designer coincided with the establishment of the Second Empire in France. The restoration of a royal house once again made Paris an imperial capital and the setting for numerous state occasions. Napoleon III implemented a grand vision for both Paris and France, initiating changes and modernization that revitalized the French economy and made Paris into a showpiece of Europe. The demand for luxury goods, including textiles and fashionable dress, reached levels that had not been seen since before the French Revolution. When Napoleon III married Empress Eugénie her tastes set the style at court and the empress’ patronage turned Worth into a sought after dressmaker from the 1860s onward.

Worth also enjoyed immense popularity among wealthy American patrons, as well as royalty (including Queen Victoria) and aristocrats. Many clients traveled to Paris to purchase entire wardrobes from the House of Worth. For the wealthy woman, a complete wardrobe would consist of morning, afternoon, and evening dresses , and lavish “undress” items such as tea gowns and nightgowns, which were worn only in the privacy of one’s home. Women also looked to Worth to supply gowns for special occasions, including weddings and ornate masquerade balls, a favorite entertainment in both the United States and Europe. Worth’s clients also included leading actresses and singers such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, Nellie Melba, and Jenny Lind.

1885 Court Presentation Gown House of Worth.
Worn by Princess Alexandria of Denmark to Court of Queen Victoria

Charles Frederick Worth built his design house into a huge business during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His sons, Gaston-Lucien and Jean-Philippe took over their father’s business following his death in 1895 and the house flourished into the 1920s. The great fashion dynasty finally came to an end in 1952 when Charles Frederick Worth’s great-grandson, Jean-Charles retired from the family business.