Designer Diaries – House of Worth

Charles Worth was born in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England, in October 1825. His early days are pretty much lost to history. He may have been the fifth child of his family or the third, although it is agreed his father left his mother at some point in Charles’ youth, and the family became destitute. Charles went to work early, at age 11, in a print shop. Within a year the 12-year-old was in London and employed by a department store, Swan & Edgar, and fashion history was about to change.

Worth was a quick study. He eventually worked for several different textile manufacturers and absorbed knowledge about the different types of fabrics, dress design, and the complex structure of women’s clothing. He also learned the mechanics of dress design and how to cut patterns and stitch hems. In London, Worth was known to frequent the National Gallery, hovering in the galleries to study the classic portraits and, more importantly, the clothing worn in them. This formed the basis of his design philosophy.

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By 1845, Worth was in Paris and employed by Gagelin and Opigez. The company was a supplier for the royal court dressmakers.  He worked his way up to lead salesman, and he eventually opened a dressmaking department.  Worth married Marie Vernet in 1851, and she would prove to be an excellent marketing partner for him. She would wear his dresses around town, drawing so much attention that Worth was inspired to forge out into a business of his own.

He partnered with Otto Bobergh (remember him from the Augusta Lundin story?) and opened a store at 7 rue de la Paix in the fashion district of Paris.  Thus he became a trailblazer in the fashion industry, one of the very first to have his own store that designed and manufactured what would eventually be known as ready-to-wear dresses. He also did considerable custom work. In that arena, he became well-known in well-heeled circles for the luxurious fabrics and embellishments used in his creations, and for the individual fitting of each dress.

Griffe de robe. Griffe sur cordon de taille : Worth & Bobergh, 7 rue de la Paix, Paris. 1869. Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

Empress Eugenie

The elegant Empress Eugenie, the wife of Emperor Napoleon III, took notice of this new talent on the scene, and soon Worth was heavily involved in developing her large wardrobe.  The Empress needed lots of clothes, for both day and evening, not to mention ball gowns for state occasions.

Empress Eugenie in early Worth (Met Museum, Public Domain)

Worth and the Empress both disliked the practice of using horsehair in the petticoat. This method of adding fullness to the skirt was difficult to work with and uncomfortable to wear. Worth tightened the front of Empress’ dresses and retained the fullness in the back, which resulted in the bustle. This style soon took over from the full skirt with a crinoline for not just wealthy Worth clients, but throughout western women’s fashion.The bustle dress design was called the fourreau. Below are a few examples of Worth’s designs.

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Empress Elisabeth (Sissi)

Word got around royal circles, and commissions came from women of other royal courts, including Queen Victoria of England, Czarina Maria Feodorovna of Russia, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Empress Elisabeth, or Sissi, as she was commonly known, was beautiful, slim, and a nineteenth-century fashionista. Sissi was also an excellent marketing tool for the ambitious Worth – much like his wife but with an entire continent at her feet. The Empress wore a Worth dress for her coronation, and for her famous Winterhalter portrait, with the stars in her hair. 

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Empress Maria Feodorovna

Empress Maria Feodorovna, whose fashion plate ways we have discussed before, had a wardrobe full of Worth gowns, many of which are housed in the Hermitage today. Most have remained in very good condition.

Worth briefly shut down his shop during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. He returned without partner Bobergh, but it barely caused a blip in his stride through the fashionable circles of Europe. With the active involvement of his two sons, the design house grew in influence throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century.

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The Legacy

Worth died in 1895, of complications from pneumonia, but the house continued to design and sell influential fashion well into the twentieth century. The family involvement did not end until 1952, with the retirement of Worth’s great-grandson Roger. Worth gowns made for non-royals are definitely to dream over. Enjoy the workmanship in the gowns below.

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For modern Baguettes, dressing up in a Worth gown is not an everyday event. I assume anyway, do we really know your lives? For those of us who need help with the entire concept, the video below may help.

The era of Worth elegance may have passed, but the legacy of ready-to-wear clothes lives on thanks to the vision and business acumen of the founder. We barely scratched the surface of his influence. Spam your Worth gowns, royal or not, in the comments.