16 May 2013

Continuing my series of couturier's profile, now I arrive at the section which I believe will be my longer post ever. It's the Father of Haute Couture, Charles Frederick Worth!  

 Charles Reutlinger, Portrait photograph of Charles Frederick Worth, Musee de la Mode de la Ville de Paris

"What doesn't show is as good as what does, so that when the right side is quite worn out I shall simply wear the wrong side"

That's a line describing creations of Charles Frederick Worth. He is the person whom people refer to as the "father of couture". Charles Frederick Worth is not originally from France. He was born on October 13, 1825, in Bourne, a small English town in South Lincolnshire. He was born of lawyer family--his grandfather, father, and brother were all lawyers. But it was his bad luck that his father failed in gambling, bringing little Charles, at 11, forced to work.
First he was sent by his mother to work as an apprentice in a printer shop, but Charles hated it. When he was 13, he became an apprentice to a draper firm, Swan and Edgar, located in Piccadilly Circus. This area was a place in London where all of the best dressmakers' ateliers and fabric shops were located. For the next seven years, Charles learned to sell fabrics, recognizing the nature of fabrics which in later years would be beneficial for a career that he built.

After seven years of apprenticeship, Worth went to work for the finest silk merchant in London, the supplier of gown fabrics for Queen Victoria, Lewis & Allenby. But even then, Charles knew that the heartbeat of fashion was in Paris. With the money he borrowed in the age of 21, he moved to Paris, and spent two initial years learning French.

The most famous mercers (dealer in textiles) in Paris, Gagelin & Opigez on rue Richelieu, hired him and assigned him as commis, responsible for the firm's silk purchasing. Worth was so smart that he used this opportunity to spread his networking. Several times, after showing shawl collection from Gagelin, he would say that he had another one, then saying that the shawl was too exquisite the customers would not be able to afford it. The shawl which actually the first one he showed, was being presented with an air of awe and reference. The customer was more often than not inclined to purchase the shawl.

Back then, there was a terminology for young women modelling the shawl, called demoiselles de magasin. These girls were young, around 16, who had been apprentice to a store by their parents.  When the training was finished, the girls continued to work for the store owner. Worth eventually fell in love with one of the models, who later became his wife, a girl named Marie Vernet. For her, Worth created simple white muslin dresses. Again, Worth showed his geniality, that every time Marie stood to show the shawl, she would wear Worth's creation. The customers liked the simple dresses Marie wore, and they wanted Worth to create similar dresses. After a dealing with Gagelin, Worth became a dressmaker in 1850. With his wide range of knowledge about fabrics, his dresses were soaring to success. Worth used his position in Gagelin, with his connection to textile mills. Worth then ordered specific fabrics he wanted to make dresses. He used his knowledge of English tailoring, such as fitting the bodice (the upper part of women's dresses) to her body and detailing and direction of the fabric's weave when cutting. His skill  simplified and changed the tailoring techniques to find the best way to make a dress, making it best fit to the owners perfectly. 

Marie Augestine Vernet Worth, wearing Worth gown

His remarkable instinct and knowledge in fabrics met with the perfect timing of France's Second Empire, ruled by Napoleon III. With vast development movement establishing Paris as the capital, he made the whole city to the new level of lavish living; opera, balls, night gala. With such full social occasion in town, it was just a perfect momentum for Worth to expand even more. Due to the important role Worth playing during London's Great Exhibition in 1851, he became a partner in 1853.

Gagelin unsatisfactory treatment to Worth and his wife, was the reason why then Worth decided to establish his own design business. In 1858, seven years after marrying Marie and two years after having two sons, Gaston and Jean Philippe, Worth found a salesman, Swede Otto Gustave Bobergh, and together they opened Worth and Bobergh in the shop known as "A la ville de Paris" on rue Montmartre.

 Evening ensemble -- Worth and Boberg, 1862–65

 Evening dress - House of Worth, ca.1882

 Evening mantle - House of Worth, ca. 1887

 Dress - House of Worth, 1888

Evening ensemble - House of Worth, 1893

Evening coat - House of Worth, 1910

Evening dress - House of Worth, designed by Jean-Charles Worth, ca. 1925

 All the dress photographs are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

As the world today, Worth needed more than skill and perfect timing to succeed. Court was a great place to promote a new design, and Worth was more than ready when Austrian ambassador arrived in Paris in 1859. His book design was brought by Marie to the ambassador's wife, Princess Pauline von Metternich. It was not Worth himself fetching the book, since Victorian society considered it improper for a man to talk to a woman about something so personal as her wardrobe (later he changed the entire Parisian society about this). However, the order from Princess Metternicht, which was should not have been exceeded 300 francs each but turned out to be more than that due to the use of expensive silk tulle, was a pay-off. Empress Eugine, wife of Napoleon III noticed the dress worn by Princess Metternich at a royal ball, and Worth was asked to meet her afterwards.

Once he got the order of the Empress, his career was likely guaranteed. But even Worth could fall into a slippery slope. His taste of fabrics was immaculate, however, his choice of brocade fabric didn't amuse the empress. She refused to wear the gown, and Worth would have lost his chance if Napeleon III had not entered the fitting room. Worth then explained that the brocade was made in Lyon, which has been hostile towards the emperor. Worth persuaded them, explaining that if the empress wore the dress, it would show Napoleon's desire to support the textile industry in Lyon, which could be an honor to the city could win many supporters for the emperor. The empress eventually wore the dress by the order of Napoleon.

In spite of this shaky start, his career kept growing. He dressed Marie and Princess Metternich in new styles and sent them to Longchamps, a racecourse where the best of socialites gathered. His new looks were instantly loved, and orders started coming. Worth was then vice chairman of the Chambre Syndicale des Nouveautes Confectionnees, a federation of manufacturers and retailers of fabrics that was become the trade association known as the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture.

But in September 1870, Worth was forced to close his doors when Prusia invaded France and the Second Empire collapsed.

In March 1871, after the French court system was replaced by the third republic, Worth reopened his fashion house, this time without his business partner Otto Bobergh, who retired to Sweden. So then the house became the House of Worth. His business flourished beyond France, with clients coming from United States and South and Central America. In 1874, his sons began working full-time in the House of Worth, Jean Philippe doing some designing and Gaston taking care of financial matters.

His influence in dressing influential people was so strong that he made the bavolet, a flap worn when a woman wears a bonnet, out of fashion by 1864. He introduced the bustle, promoted technological advancement, and used patterns made up of standardized parts. The year during his work are often referred to as the Age of Worth. He introduced the princess line, which consisted of dresses with fitted waist but no waist seams. He also continued using a label, two kind of it-one was printed and one was reproduction of his own handwritten signature, a tradition that was not so popular among non mass-produced items but then so important and followed by others.

Worth, caligraphy label on a cotton waistband, c.1910 

Worth label, with address 7. rue de la Paix, Paris

His collection was so much adored that the customers, many Americans included, didn't care about the price-beyond-cost tag that's attached to his collection, because there's this Worth label attached along to it. MacColl's book in 1989 further described, an entire season's wardrobe might cost as much as $20,000 (over $500,000 in today's dollars!), but the price was no object to an American heiress.  "Americans never stopped at three dresses; they were hard put to stop at eighty or ninety."

As Worth declared of  his American clientele (also from MacColl, 1989):

"My Transatlantic friends are always welcome; they have what I call the three f's; figures, francs, and faith!  That is why I like dressing the Americans."

In his lifetime Charles Worth was given effusive praise by his prestigious clients and that of the press. But the best was saved for last when, at his death on 10 March 1895, the Harper's Bazaar eulogy said, "Indeed, through the length and breadth of the civilized world no contemporary French name is better known than that of Worth; no painter, no sculptor, no poet, no actor, no novelist of the past three decades, has achieved so widespread a fame as that of this dressmaker of the Rue de la Paix."

Now, the House of Worth is helmed by Giovanni Bedin, who formerly worked for Karl Lagerfeld and Thiery Mugler. I don't know where the salon is located, since rue de la Paix is now used by Mont Blanc, and the website doesn't help telling me where it is.

 Giovanni Bedin - Courtesy of Grazia

Signorefandi, figures, francs, faith, fandi!