A knowledge of fashion history plays an essential role in the design process and one is always researching how the fashions of the past as one means of drawing inspiration for the future. Moreover, when recreating historical garments of any era, it’s essential that one learn as much as possible not only about the styles themselves, but also about how they were designed, constructed, and marketed. While online research is the first step (unfortunately, for many it’s the only step), it’s only the beginning. The next steps are examining extant original examples and reading books- a lot of books. 🙂
Books, whether recent or old, can provide great insights about fashions of the past and while we may disagree with their conclusions, they do provide interesting perspectives and are often a reflection of when they were written. In the end it’s up to the individual to make their own informed conclusions and it’s from there that the design process begins.
There are many excellent books in fashion history out there and I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about one centering on one of the greatest couturiers of all time- Charles Frederick Worth- so enjoy! 🙂
Charles Frederick Worth (October 13, 1825 – March 10, 1896) was one of the first couturiers in the modern sense of the word and he not only influenced fashion in the Mid to late 19th Century, but his innovations also gave birth to modern haute couture. However, while the basic details of Worth’s life are well known and a large body of his work survives, there is little hard information about the man himself and his specific accomplishments.
One of the few English language books on Worth is Diana De Marly’s book Worth: Father of Haute Couture which examines Worth’s life and career and places it in the context of the larger social and political world that Worth operated in.
De Marly gives an excellent overview of the Worth’s career and is especially strong in its coverage of the relationship with the Empress Eugénie, and the Princess Pauline von Metternich and how they were instrumental in Worth’s rise as the first celebrity couturier. The book is less strong in covering Worth’s later career after the fall of Napoleon III and the rise of the Third Republic but it still provides a good overview. Unfortunately, one of the major weak points of this book is the lack of illustrations of many of the dresses that De Marly cites although online searching through the collections at the Met and elsewhere go a long way to correct this.
Worth’s influence in eliminating the crinoline in the late 1860s and replacing it with the bustle, and then again nearly eliminating it in the late 1870s (and once again returning to a modified bustle) are well covered and she cites various surviving examples (although looking them up online was not always easy). De Marly also describes Worth’s introduction of the princess line style although I do believe that she overstates her case that it was solely invented by Worth. What is also interesting is when she briefly touches on Worth being one of the first to introduce bias-cut sleeves in the early 1890s, some 30 years before Vionnet- I only wish that she had discussed this more in depth and cited some actual dress examples, all we have to go on is an engraving.
One of the strongest parts of the book is De Marly’s detailing how Worth was not merely a designer of fancy dresses but that he was a fashion dictator, determining what looked best on his clients and then dictating the specific dress details. As De Marly points out, the taste that his clients exhibited wearing his creations was really Worth’s taste rather than those individual clients. Worth’s influence was such that before attending any major social function, his clients would stop by Worth’s atelier so that Worth could personally examine and approve their outfits (or making last-minute changes when a client’s outfit somehow fell short).
I would highly recommend this as essential reading for anyone interested in getting an in-depth view of the great couturier himself and his profound influence on the fashion world of the late 19th Century.
P.S. Regretfully, this book has been out of print for a long time and second-hand copies can be quite expensive.