Book Review: The House of Worth, 1858 – 1954

To many, Charles Frederick Worth and the House of Worth created pretty dressed by the score during the Mid to Late 19th Century; in short, he was fashion itself. However, Worth was more than just a collection of pretty dresses, he revolutionized the fashion industry, setting it on a course that gave rise to the Haute Couture industry we know today. However, outside of a little basic information that’s often repeated from website to website and in exhibition catalogs, there’s little hard information on either Worth himself or industry he gave rise to (at least in English).

The one the most complete biography about Charles Worth is Worth: Father of Haute Couture by Diana de Marly but it’s been out of print for some 27 years and is fantastically expensive when you can find it on the used book market (don’t ask what I paid for my copy! 😉 ). However, I am pleased to announce that there is now a book that goes a long way to filling this gap: The House of Worth: 1858 – 1954: The Birth of Haute Couture. Authored by several individuals (Chantal Trubert-Tollu, Francoise Tetart-Vittu, Jean-Marie martin- Hattenberg, and Fabrice Olivieri) and an introduction by Christian LaCroix, this book provides an overview of both Worth himself and his legacy, the House of Worth.

At 335 pages with 486 illustrations, this book is huge and easy to mistake for just a coffee table book with a lot of pretty pictures. It’s not- the information is priceless and provides insight to how Worth operated and what made him a success. Even more compelling are the chapters covering his legacy, the House of Worth, which continued on until it finally closed in 1956 (the trademark name “Worth” still lives on today with a line of perfumes).

What is especially compelling about the book is that it spends some time describing Worth and the fashion industry of the time. From the beginning, Worth was most noted for transforming what was a decentralized, female-dominated industry into a large-scale, industrial operation which completely broke with tradition, especially in that now a man was designing women’s clothing- the rise of the “Man-Milliner.” The idea of a man designing and making women’s clothing was considered shocking in some quarters to the point that Worth was attacked in the press for. However, with the patronage of the Empress Eugenie and Princess Metternich, opposition diminished and others were soon to follow.

Worth, and later his sons Gaston and Jean-Philippe, were always attuned to the market and quick to make changed in their marketing, devising many innovations that were later to become standard in the fashion industry such as licensing designs to outside entities, streamlining production methods, and custom commissioning their own fabrics. And naturally, some attention is given to the idea of “designer as dictator.” a phenomena that exists to the present day. Finally, the commentary on Worth’s pricing methods are revealing in that while he charged extremely high prices, it only stimulated more sales- the power of elite appeal.

Worth Dictator1

Designer as Dictator

Of course, we must make mention of the exquisite color plates illustrating some of Worth’s most notable works are worth the price of the book alone. Although the majority of the pictures can be found online and in  other sources, they’re still a visual treat to be able to physically examine- the next best thing to viewing the garments in person.

We highly recommend this book and there is no doubt that it will become the centerpiece in any fashion library- it has for us. 🙂 To obtain your own copy, just follow this link.

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