Charles Frederick Worth (13 October 1825 – 10 March 1895) was an English fashion designer who founded the House of Worth, one of the foremost fashion houses of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He is considered by many fashion historians to be the father of haute couture. Worth is also credited with revolutionising the business of fashion.
Established in Paris in 1858, his fashion salon soon attracted European royalty, and where they led monied society followed. An innovative designer, he adapted 19th-century dress to make it more suited to everyday life, with some changes said to be at the request of his most prestigious client Empress Eugénie. He was the first to use live models in order to promote his garments to clients, and to sew branded labels into his clothing; almost all clients visited his salon for a consultation and fitting – thereby turning the House of Worth into a society meeting point. By the end of his career, his fashion house employed 1,200 people and its impact on fashion taste was far-reaching. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has said that his “aggressive self-promotion” earned him the title of the first couturier. Certainly, by the 1870s, his name was not just known in court circles, but appeared in women’s magazines that were read by wide society.
Worth raised the status of dressmaking so that the designer-maker also became arbiter of what women should be wearing. Writing on the history of fashion and, in particular, dandyism, in 2002, George Walden said: “Charles Frederick Worth dictated fashion in France a century and a half before Galliano”.
In 1846, Charles Frederick Worth moved to Paris. He arrived there speaking no French and with £5 in his pocket. By the time his mother Ann Worth died in Highgate, London, in 1852, Worth was a sales assistant at Gagelin-Opigez & Cie, a prestigious Parisian firm that sold silk fabrics to the court dressmakers, also supplying cashmere shawls (then a ubiquitous accessory) and ready-made mantles. It was here that he met Marie Vernet, who became his wife in 1851.
Worth began sewing dresses to complement the shawls at Gagelin. Initially, these were simple designs, but his expert tailoring caught the eye of the store’s clients. Eventually, Gagelin granted Worth permission to open a dress department, his first official entrance into the dressmaking world.
A 1958 article in The Times published shortly before a centenary exhibition in London to mark the opening of his Paris fashion house noted that the ambitious Englishman’s ideas were almost too much for his employers: “The young Worth, full of ideas, was having such a success at Gagelin’s that it was felt necessary to restrain his rashness”. His obituary, written by a Paris correspondent for The Times explained this comment in somewhat more detail, saying that he was refused a share in the Gagelin business, even though he had extended its activities into making up, rather than just selling, garments. He had also helped build the company’s international reputation by exhibiting prize-winning designs to both The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and the Exposition Universelle in Paris four years later. At the Paris exposition he had displayed a white silk court train embroidered in gold.
With a wife and two sons, Gaston Lucien (1853) and Jean Philippe (1856), Worth was eager to establish himself. By this stage, he was a known name. He acquired a young Swedish business partner, Otto Gustaf Bobergh, and in 1858 the duo set up in business at 7 rue de la Paix, naming the establishment Worth and Bobergh. Marie Vernet Worth played a key role from the start, both in the selling of the clothes and in introducing many new customers.
Success came fast from this point on; in 1860 a ball dress Worth designed for Princess de Metternich was admired by Empress Eugénie, who asked for the dressmaker’s name and demanded to see him the next day. In her memoirs, de Metternich commented: “And so…Worth was made and I was lost, for from that moment there were no more dresses at 300 francs each”.
Worth offered a new approach to the creation of couture dresses, offering a plethora of fabrics (some from his former employer Gagelin) and expertise in tailoring. Within a decade, his designs were recognized internationally and in high demand. By the 1870s, they were appearing in fashion magazines read by wider society. Indeed, the influence of his designs may have spread even earlier via the fashion columns following Empress Eugénie’s fashion choices in influential titles such as US magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Worth also changed the dynamic of the relationship between customer and clothes maker. Where previously the dressmaker (invariably female) would visit the client’s home for a one-to-one consultation, with the exception of Empress Eugénie clients generally attended Worth’s salon in rue de la Paix for a consultation and it also became a social meeting point for society figures. His approach to marketing was also innovative – he was the first to use live mannequins in order to promote his gowns to clients. His wife was his early model in the 1850s, leading Lucy Bannerman to describe Vernet as the world’s first professional model.
The fashion house had begun with 50 staff, but swelled over time to over 1,200 staff. This was work that required painstaking attention to detail, finesse and craftsmanship: a Worth bodice might have up to 17 pieces of material to ensure a good fit on its wearer. Seamstresses would be assigned to different workshops where they specialized in, for instance, making sleeves, stitching hems or skirt making. Most of the sewing of Worth garments was by hand, although the advent of the early sewing machine meant some main seams could be stitched mechanically.
Worth became Empress Eugénie’s official dressmaker and ensured the majority of her orders for extravagant evening wear, court dresses, and masquerade costumes. She had him on call constantly to create dresses for events she attended. As an example of the scale of Worth’s business with the Empress, for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, she had decided she needed 250 Worth dresses. Apart from Empress Eugénie, he had numerous other royal clients, including Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
Wealthy and socially ambitious women were drawn to Worth’s showpiece creations. Over time this included American clients; Worth loved working with them because his French language skills never reached fluency and, as he put it, American women: “have faith, figures, and francs – faith to believe in me, figures that I can put into shape, francs to pay my bills”. Wealthy Americans travelled to Paris to have their entire wardrobe made by Worth – and that meant morning, afternoon and evening dresses as well as what were termed ‘undress’ items such as nightgowns and tea gowns. He would also design special occasion garments, such as wedding dresses. Alongside high society, the House of Worth also produced garments for popular stars such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry and Jenny Lind – who shopped there for both performance and private wear. Prices at Worth were dizzying for the time; the last bill it issued to Princess de Metternich – who had commented on the end of the 300 franc dress once Worth acquired royal patronage – was for the sum of 2,247 francs. Her purchase had been one lilac velvet dress.