A Victorian
THE history of the House of Worth is the historv of modern dressmaking.

The average individual's consciousness of history has something in common with the selective exclusiveness of a sundial, which records only the sunny hours. Events of great interest, incidents of tragedy or comedy, characters of beautv or rascality, retain their isolated places in memory while dreary tracts of intervening tedium are forgotten. The beauty and elegance of the wonderful costumes worn at the Courts of Marie Antoinette, or the second Charles, still wake responsive admiration, or their extravagances a mild amusement in retrospect ; while the grimly sober davs which followed the troublous times of the French Revolution, or the drab and shapeless modes of the Early Victorian era, fail to evoke aught save a shudder of distaste, followed bv rapid forgetfulness. Yet it was as a reaction to such a period of stagnation in all matters of taste and beautv that this famous House came into being.

Paris has been for so many centuries the birthplace of the mode that there is something startling and slightly disconcerting in the discovery that the changes which revolutionized the world of dress in the middle of the nineteenth century, infusing into it an appreciation of personality — an entirely new factor at the time — were the work of an Englishman. Charles Frederick Worth was born at Bourne, Lincolnshire, in 1825. His father was a solicitor, but young Worth's craving for artistic expression saw no outlet in the law. Early in life he began to show an interest in drapery and decoration, and he began his career modestly as an assistant with the firm of Swan & Edgar, in London. But he was a young man of ideas, too much in advance of his times to accept one practice of the day which seemed to him irreconcilable with really artistic results in the line he had marked out for himself as his life's work. To-day his idea seems simple, but in those days such a thing was unheard of. It was that a dressmaker was the proper person to sell the materials to be used in the dresses she designed and made, and to utilize her taste and experience in their choice. But the lady of rank and fashion of the time never dreamed of ordering a dress complete from her dressmaker. She went, like the Vicar of Wakefield's wife, and chose the material for herself; and did so as infrequently as possible! She tested with finger and thumb the quality of the silk or satin, taking that which her judgment selected as the most durable. From the practical point of view this had its advantages; but, alas, her taste frequently left much to be desired; and it was Worth who saw how the resultant dowdiness could be remedied. For London, however, he found he had been born too soon; and he came to Paris, the home of good taste in dress then as now, and joined the staff of Mme. Gagelin, the most fashionable dressmaker of her day.

House of Worth

title title
title title

Even in Paris Worth discovered much amiss. The Parisienne in the second quarter of the nineteenth century was by no means the symbol of distinction that she is to-day, or that she had been in earher centuries. It was a period of prudery and of economy; the art of dressmaking was far gone in a decline, and smartness was a quality not even desired. The general practice was the same as in London. When it could be postponed no longer, one bought a length of material and took it to Mademoiselle Angelique or to Madame Melanie, who made gowns from one's own materials. Mademoiselle Angelique put two little flounces at the bottom of the skirt, and Madame Melanie three bias folds; or it may have been the other way round. At all events, there was one thing they had in common — the utter banality of their work. As for wraps, no couturiers would have attempted to make one. They were purchased from the ready-made shops — or ordered from England if thev were to be fur lined — and they fitted as it happened, which was usually badly.

It was in the employ of the best of these houses, the Maison Gagelin, that the founder of the House of Worth first came to Paris. He was a young man of originality, with great energy and a genius for the creation of modes. With Mme. Gagelin he soon made his name as a clever designer, and the elite of Paris Society began to seek his advice in the choice of their dresses. He had not been long in Paris when he conceived the idea of a dressmaking establishment where a woman should be dressed as befitted her type and personality; but here again he proved himself to be ahead of his surroundings, and he left Mme. Gagelin, after having been her partner in the business for some time. In pursuance of this idea — one new to his day of impersonal methods — he started for himself in a small flat at 7, Rue de la Paix, on a site now occupied by the palatial Maison Worth; premises which soon became the rendezvous of distinguished Parisiennes. The move was audacious in the extreme, for the Rue de la Paix was still the aristocratic quarter, and the noblesse looked askance at a business man for intruding into their midst. But vanity won the day for him, and very quickly his fame grew. Society recognized his genius, and he became a topic of conversation in all salons. Very original, very much an artist, having opinions of his own and expressing them without fear or favour, Worth soon proved his ability to develop unsuspected beauty and distinction in his patrons; and they submitted with a good grace, nay, with thankful gladness, to his most revolutionary decrees. His authority and his creative genius were the very things needed to overcome the banality and the prejudices of the period. To him more than to any other one person belongs the credit for that renaissance of taste which marked the Second Empire.

In spite of the fact that the Court did not take him up for several years, his success brought a large number of imitators; and thus Worth's influence on the modes of the present time, both directly and indirectly, has been beyond computation.

The gossip of his earlier patrons, however, finally reached the ears of the Empress Eugenie, who afterwards became his most beautiful and faithful customer. Only once did they disagree, and that was on the question of the crinoline. The Empress designed it — Worth opposed it as a monstrosity; but the Empress insisted and won.

Other great names in the customers' book are Elizabeth of Austria, Margherita of Italv, Mme. de Castiglione, Mme. de Pourtales, and every reigning star in the theatrical and operatic world. It was, indeed, the faithfulness of the beautiful Empress, and the way in which her example was followed by so many Court ladies, that earned for the House of Worth the title of "Court dressmaker." But the distinction thus conferred does not imply that Worth does not dress ladies in other circles of Society. The genius of Worth, then as now, lies just in this particular fact that he can dress women of all ages, all types, and all nations, and dress them in a manner which gives each distinction, emphasizes the personality, and confers the lasting satisfaction of being well turned out.

On only one occasion did M. Worth exhibit his wares; and that was at the Paris Exposition of 1855, when he took first prize for a Court mantle of his own design, entirely covered with embroidery in gold thread. In many of the French Museums, however, there are to be found examples of the beautiful materials which Worth designed and had manufactured especially for the use of his house.

For it must be remembered that one of M. Worth's most important and lasting contributions to the prosperity of those who cater for women's needs, as well as to the variety and elegance of his clients' garments, was his insistence on new fabrics, new trimmings, new materials of every description. In his endeavours to restore in Paris the splendours of the days of La Pompadour, and of Marie Antoinette, he found himself confronted at the outset with a grave difficulty, which would have proved unsurmountable to a man of less energy, resource and initiative. The magnificent materials of those days were no longer to be had! The Revolution had destroyed the market for beautiful materials of this type, and the Restoration and regime of Louis Philippe had left a dour aspect in the City of Light. When Worth first entered the business of dressmaking, the only materials of the richer sort used for woman's dress were velvet, faille, and watered silk. Satin, for example, was never used. M. Worth desired to use satin very extensively in the gowns he designed, but he was not satisfied with what could be had at the time; he wanted something very much richer than was produced by the mills at Lyons. That his requirements entailed the reconstruction of mills mattered little - the mills were reconstructed under his directions, and the Lyons looms, turned out a richer satin than ever, and the manufacturers prospered accordingly. On parallel lines, he stimulated also the manufacture of embroidery and passementerie. It was he who first started the manufacture of laces copied from the designs of the real old laces. He was the first dressmaker to use fur in the trimming of light materials -- but he employed only the richer furs, such as sable and ermine, and had no use whatever for the inferior varieties of skins. Under his direction, the House of Worth was the first to adopt the custom of showing its creations on living mannequins.


When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, the House of Worth had reached the pinnacle of its fame, but with the Battle of Sedan the glorious days of the Second Empire came to a close. Charles Frederick Worth was shut up in Paris when it was besieged by the Germans, and the world of fashion was indeed disconsolate. Who was to tell it what to wear? Worth escaped in a balloon from the beleaguered city, but where he was few people knew. A little incident which occurred at this time illustrates how indispensable he had become to the elegantes. Just before the war broke out he had introduced the fashion of draping the beautiful Indian shawls as mantles, and he alone seemed to possess the art of producing the right effect. A certain American lady — it was Mrs. Charles Francklyn, prominent in New York Society of the day had been presented with an exquisite example of these beautiful Indian shawls. Overjoyed, she started for Europe, in order that Worth might drape it for her; but, alas, when she reached France she found the gates of Paris closed, and Worth was behind the city fortifications. Then came news of his escape, and Mrs. Francklyn started on a hunt all over the Continent of Europe to find him. It was a long and weary hunt; but she did find him at last, and the shawl was draped to perfection by the inimitable artist.

When the war was over, of course, Paris was depressed. Economy was the watchword of the moment. But Paris is ever lighthearted, and soon regained her spirits. Economy for the fashionable woman meant the wearing of the simplest of dresses, that cost only about L.25 apiece; and Worth was soon turning out wonderful creations in silks and satins of a rich orange colour called Bismarck enrage, and of a lovely deep grey known as Cendres de Paris.

And so, in spite of wars and rumours of wars, the House of Worth has continued to prosper, and has continued also to carry on the artistic policy set by its founder. Taste, technical skill of the highest, and a facile but unslavish adaptability to the psychology and mood of the day have been the qualities which have won success. They made Worth the dictator of fashion during the Second Empire, and have enabled his successors to continue to create and perfect robes of an irreproachable style and workmanship. When he first started in the Rue de la Paix, Worth employed less than twenty workgirls; to-day over a thousand are at work in the Paris house, and a still greater number are employed in the various manufacturing industries which were started by the firm. Little by little, too, the House has assumed greater proportions, so that to-day not only does it make dresses and mantles, but it sells furs, real laces, and even underwear. And, by the way, it was Charles Frederick Worth who invented and first introduced chamois underwear. There are now branch establishments in London, Biarritz and Cannes.


The House has now reached its third generation, and happily each of the last two generations has supplied a man, possessed of the artistic genius of the founder, who has been able fully to maintain the reputation of the House. Each generation, jealous of the fine traditions which have been the strength of the House for so long, has endeavoured with complete success to comply with the requirements of the age, and to keep pace with the latest methods of work. Letting no occasion for improvement pass by, they have had the interior of the House entirely transformed, and the result is a very beautiful series of salons, decorated in the styles of different periods.

The founder of the House left a tradition to his successors which has been followed faithfully. It was always to be a little in advance of the times, but never to destroy wantonly what was good in the original ramparts of the business. The Worths of to-day, grandsons of the founder, carry on their business with old-fashioned honesty and courtesy, and with new-fashioned models. They dress the modern Parisienne, American or Englishwoman as successfully as they do a queen or a Court lady. They can make a pert little dress for a go-ahead girl with the same consummate skill as they can design a ceremonious robe for the Queen of Spain. They offer the fashions of the season for inspection, and are prepared at a moment's notice to design a personal and exclusive model, which will be set aside and never copied for anyone else.

Another feature of the House of Worth is the personal influence of the Worth brothers of the third generation, who hope to be followed by a fourth generation. They remember that Charles Frederick Worth made his name and fortune by his personal genius and close attention to business. They do not forget that he came to Paris with twent-five francs in his pocket. With all respect they follow in his footsteps in such matters as hard work and close contact with every detail in the workshops and showrooms. They see to it that every customer is treated with courtesv and fairness; and thev know that even though many of their customers may go, and do go, to other dressmakers they never fail to have their Worth dress every season, because Worth's can always be trusted to give value for money.

There is something British about the blunt way the Worths tell you that they are no longer English, but French. The founder remained English to his death — his grandsons are patriotic Frenchmen, speaking English with a French accent; but they are also good citizens of the world. They are successful employers of labour, and bv dealing direct with their workpeople have very little trouble with them. They are trusted by those who serve them, and by those whom they serve; and in their conception of citizenship, as well as in their interpretation of fashion, they are alwavs a little in advance of the times.

Amongst the many details which have sustained the world-wide reputation of the House are the untiring efforts made by the directors to maintain the exclusive character of their materials and designs. The magnificently beautiful materials which can be seen only at Worth's House are all created by one of the firm, and brought to perfection by the help of a stalf of talented artists. Immediately after the materials have been made the designs and patterns are destroyed; and the following season fresh studies, and a further artistic effort, are required to obtain that personal note for which the House of Worth is so justly famed.


Thus it happens that this famous House is unique in an interesting way— the literal manner in which its products are "creations", and the way it is possible, in describing them, to use such adjective's as "exclusive" and "unique" with full knowledge that the fact is not being overstated, but that the words actually do mean what they say.

In 1895 M. Gaston Worth published an interesting book, entitled: "La Couture et la Confection des Vetements de Femme" which discusses the various influences at work in the evolution of the mode. From this volume we cull a few of his conclusions, which are as true to-day as when they were written.

title title



AVictorian.Com © 1997-Present

protected against website content theft by Copyscape All rights reserved. Our graphics, owner's Mission Statement and presentation are all copyright protected; invasion of this privacy (by Plagiarism, using source HTML, and/or images/graphics) will result in legal action. Pages are scanned on a regular basis for evidence of Hyper-Theft.