The Fashion Insight Of Maison Worth: An Interview With Jean-Philippe Worth

During his lifetime, Charles Worth revealed very little of his design philosophy or how he approached the design process. From a business perspective, Worth was prudent given the rampant fashion piracy of the period. However, for posterity, it’s sheer frustration. In the case of Maison Worth, Charles Worth for the most part revealed little and granted few interviews with journalists. Moreover, he took great pains to ensure that journalists had no access to his atelier whatsoever for fear that they’d gather information that would ultimately be used to pirate his designs (a very real threat).

Fortunately for posterity, Charles Worth’s son Jean-Philippe Worth was more forthcoming. In an interview by a Marie A. Belloc for the 1896 edition of Lady’s Realm, Worth provided some insight into Maison Worth’s design process. When asked where he looked for inspiration, Worth replied:

I am always on the look-out for new and old ideas and new schemes of colouring. Colouring, as you are aware, plays an important part in modern dress. I even yet remember with what difficulties my father met when he tried to impose the slightest modifications in the hard, metallic tints which were for so long literally the only colours introduced into dress. An attempt at anything artistic was looked at with terror and suspicion…

To quote but one instance: every woman in Paris possesses some garment in which a combination of blue and green plays a
subtle part. For years my father tried to introduce this eminently becoming harmony of colour. Some of the most beautiful brocades ever made to our own order were tinted in this fashion. But it was not till an accident- in other words, the courage and audacity of one of our handsomest clients- brought the beautifying qualities of this combination before the public that we were ever able to make the experiment on a large scale; and the same may also be said of yellow and pink, pale blue and
violet, and many others of the symphonies of colour now universally adopted. Of course, it is only fair to add that nothing can be more horrible than these violent contrasts, unless combined and imagined by a really artistic eye. But that is more or less true with anything connected with colour and form; for what looks well on a red haired woman makes a brunette look sallow, and so on.

Worth’s comments is revealing in that while it’s possible to come up with new fashion ideas, it’s far more difficult to get people to adopt them. In the example he gives, basically it wasn’t until one of Worth’s more influential clients adopted the idea of a harmonizing color scheme of blue and green that it was adopted by others. In short, it took a “fashion influencer.”

Illustration from the article.

Worth further discusses fashion inspiration, noting:

As to where I get my ideas: sometimes from a piece of old Church embroidery or a scrap of Louis Quinze brocade, picked up in an old curiosity shop. Often I have reconstituted a whole piece of material from a small breadth taken out of a Court costume or vestment. When I am satisfied, or as satisfied as I am ever likely to be, with a design, it is reproduced to my order in different schemes of colouring, and even of material. I very much enjoy designing picture-costumes. Often an artist will come with his future sitter, and together we will discuss what kind of material and what genre of colouring will suit the lady in question…

I am as ready to take an idea from a primitif [primitive] of a martyred saint as from a Lely or a Gainsborough. There is no greater mistake than to decide too long beforehand on the models of the coming winter or summer, for it is really impossible to tell at any given moment what the coming season will bring forth…for instance, a very bitter winter will to a certainty mean the prevalence of fur on every kind of gown, while an exceptionally mild season brings out light cloths, and even lace.

In this somewhat rambling statement, Worth indicates that inspiration can come from just about anywhere- pretty much something that just about any designer will say. What’s interesting is his observation that one can’t wait for too long in selecting the fashions for the next season and that the weather of a particular season affects the succeeding season- that pretty much sums up the fashion cycle today.

As for changing fashion, Worth notes that :

As for me, I naturally do not concern myself with the popular modes. The moment a fashion becomes exaggerated- in other words, universal—we have to begin to think of something to replace it. I am often asked by English clients whether the big sleeve has come to stay. All I can say is, that exaggeration will kill any model, however becoming. Not only does it make the fashion common, but a woman rarely looks well or artistic in an outré garment.

In the above, Worth gives an abbreviated version of the fashion cycle: fashions are introduced, become exaggerated, and then are replaced by new fashions. The fashion cycle is a constant that’s been present throughout history in one form or another.

Ultimately, while Jean-Philippe Worth’s comments really don’t offer any unique insights in regard to Maison Worth, they do demonstrate that many of fundamental ideas underlying modern fashion design were also present back in the 1890s. In future posts, we hope to unearth more about fashion theory as it applied to the couture of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

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