Worth’s American Clientele

During the late 19th Century, Americans were a substantial part of the House of Worth’s clientele. With the rise of a new class of monied families arising after the American Civil War, there was now a large class of Americans with a lot of money (aka nouveau riche) to spend combined with the desire to acquire the trappings of wealth and power of which high fashion was an important element. Charles Worth was more than happy to fill this need, especially as he struggled to keep his fashion house financially afloat in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and overall economic disorder resulting from the fall of Napoleon III’s regime. In fact, not only was American money welcome, but it was an absolute necessity now that there was no longer the built-in clientele that came along with the patronage of the Imperial Court.

Although Worth ultimately licensed some of his designs for production on the American market by third party manufacturers, his primary business model consisted of Americans, typically the wives and daughters, visiting his salon while making the socially obligatory “grand tour” of Europe (seen as a means of acquiring instant culture and refinement). The high point of the grand tour was visiting Worth’s salon where entire wardrobes could be ordered (Worth prided himself on being able to complete any order in one week). In the course of visiting Worth’s salon, custom pattern drafts and a full-scale mannequin of each client were created so that dresses could later be ordered without having to make a return visit but for many, it was the experience of actually visiting Worth’s salon and making their purchases in person and perhaps being granted an audience by the Master himself.

One example of Worth’s American patronage was a dress that was created in 1883 for a one Miss Fannie Farwell of  Lake Forest, Illinois who, at the age of 19, travelled with her cousin Grace to Paris to go to finishing school. Here’s Miss Farwell, cropped from a family portrait:

Worth Evening Reception Dress 1883 Fannie Farwell

Fannie Farwell, Date Unknown

The dress itself today resides in the costume collection of the Chicago History Museum. Below are some pictures of the dress:

Worth Evening Reception Dress 1883

Charles Worth, Reception Dress, 1883; Chicago History Museum (1980.256.3a-b)

Worth Evening Reception Dress 1883

Side Prifile

Worth Evening Reception Dress 1883

Three-Quarter Rear Profile View

Style-wise, this dress is firmly in the Late Bustle Era with its high train and bustle. The overskirt and bodice are constructed of an ivory colored silk moire with a blue floral print while the underskirt, train, and cuffs are constructed of a light grey/green silk faille. The bodice is also trimmed in multiple layers of ivory/champagne colored lace. In many respects, the color scheme resembles the Strathearn Ranch Dress that we discussed in a previous post. Unfortunately, the pictures are not as high resolution as we would like but they give a pretty good view of the dress. Below are a few close-up views:

Worth Evening Reception Dress 1883

Three-Quarter Front View

Worth Evening Reception Dress 1883

Three-Quarter Rear View

Worth Evening Reception Dress 1883

Close-Up of Hem

Worth Evening Reception Dress 1883

Upper Bodice Detail

We would love to be able to study this dress in closer detail, the subtle floral print pattern is especially compelling, especially with the light blue color up against an ivory background combined with the grey/green fabric. Overall, it’s an aesthetically pleasing package and it’s nice to be able to trace the dress to a specific person who wore it. Too bad we don’t have a picture of Miss Farwell wearing the dress (one can hope). 🙂 Finally, it’s worth noting that it was because of Worth’s American clientele that there are so many surviving examples of his work, especially in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We hope that you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into the world of Worth and his fashion house.

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