Charles Frederick Worth & Early Haute Couture

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Costume College was busy for me this year. Besides delving into the world of Paul Poiret, I also delved into the world of haute couture during the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, an ambitious topic to say the least- one could easily go on for days and barely scratch the surface. 🙂 Fashion  history has always been fascinating and even more so when one makes little discoveries that link the world of the past with today and the research process never fails to disclose tiny nuggets of useful information.

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In many respects, the world of haute couture, as we know it today, got it’s start in Paris largely through the efforts of one man- Charles Frederick Worth. Moreover, he was able to capitalize on a series of trends that had been developing for quite some time. Specifically, going back to reign of Louis XIV, royal patronage driven by the consolidation of the monarchy as the supreme ruling power in France combined with France’s growth as an economic, military, and cultural power served as a catalyst for the development of the textile industry and the needle trades. All the right elements were in place and over the next 300 years a thriving garment began to develop, spurred by patronage both by the Crown and nobility (as they sought to remain in good graces with the King).

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By the mid-19th Century, industrialization served to further spur the growth of the textile and needle trades (can you say sewing machine?) and the ground was fertile for a man like Charles Worth. Worth transformed a relatively decentralized industry composed of many individual dressmakers working in small establishments into a large-scale industry employing hundreds, if not thousands. Worth consolidated fabric procurement with production (before this, it was customary for clients to bring their own fabrics to the dressmaker). Also, for marketing, he employed the technique of having his clients choose from a series of sample models, modeled by an army of pretty young women; the client would make a selection and a custom garment would be created. The model was intended to give the client an idea of the final product- often, the fabrics and trim would vary to the individual client.

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What also makes Worth unique is that in 1860 he was able to secure the patronage of the Empress Eugénie and this cemented his reputation; as the center of the French court, the Empress set the styles and naturally everyone of importance wanted to emulate her.

With the demise of the Napoleon III and the Second Empire, Worth was forced to seek expanded markets- no longer did he have a guaranteed client base founded on royal patronage- so he was forced to seek a wider client base. Worth was ultimately successful in this endeavor and by the time he died in 1895, he had clients on all seven continents.

In many ways, the demise of the Empress’s patronage was the best thing for both Worth and haute couture in general in that it pushed couture out to a wider audience and stimulated greater design/style creativity- styles were not determined by the whim of a few people but rather transferred the power to the designers (and ultimately their clients). It also helped couture to reach a wider audience and facilitate the diffusion of fashion.

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House of Worth, Ballgown,, 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1324a, b)

 

Of course, Worth wasn’t the only couturier- there were many others. Some of Worth’s leading contemporaries were Jacques Doucet, Emile Pingat, John Redfern, and Jeanne Paquin- all fascinating as designers. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of information out there on many of these designers and they’ve become almost forgotten.

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Jacques Doucet

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John Redfern

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An early portrait of Emile Pingat; Courtesy of Jacques Noel

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Jeanne Paquin

The above is only a very broad sketch of the topics that I covered in my presentation and I felt that it went pretty well. For the future, I may narrow my focus a bit but nevertheless, it wasn’t bad for a first outing. Stay tuned for more… 🙂

The Tissot Shipboard Dress

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Lately, James Tissot has been a major source of inspiration for some of my designs. Check out the brunette. Pretty curves, cotton batiste gown is weighed down with a hem of pleats, ruffles, ruches, and two huge silk sash bows in the back. When I realized I had an original bonnet like hers…well, you get the picture. 🙂 Below are a few pictures of my take on the Tissot shipboard dress:

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Bonnet is original, complete with cobalt silk ribbons and silver medallions

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Gown is completely hand finished, except for construction seams. It’s weightless, my corset is heavier than the gown!

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So I forgot to prune…

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That’s just a brief overview of  the dress. I’ll be posting more in the near future. 🙂

And Presenting Paul Poiret!

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Yesterday was a big day for me, giving two new presentations at Costume College. The first presentation was entitled “The King of Fashion: Paul Poiret, The Early Years”, a survey of Paul Poiret as a couturier/designer during the years 1898 through 1914. Researching for this presentation was not the easiest and it seemed to raise more questions than answers. Poiret was certainly a force in fashion during the years from 1906 through 1914 and although he continued to work intermittently through the First World War and into the 1920s, it was never quite the same.

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One of the most interesting aspects in researching Poiret was that he was not only a fashion designer (dictator, as some critics would charge), but he was one of the first “lifestyle designers” where they worked in all aspects design to include perfume, shoes, furniture,  rugs, textiles, and even interior design.

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Poiret’s designs and his claims were sometimes questionable, if not controversial and nowhere is this more evident when in 1905-1906 he set out to introduce styles that ran counter to what was in fashion at the time. Most notable was his advocating a Nouveau Directoire style based on draping rather than carefully constructed flat patterns. This meant flowing fabrics, cut into rectangles and seamed with straight seems. The precisely tailored, form-fitting styles characteristic of the early 1900s were rejected in favor of loose, flowing lines and this meant the elimination of the corset as a major foundation garment.

Corset Before and After Poiret

From s-bend corset to…

The s-bend corset was a complete abomination to Poiret, declaring that women had been turned into “decorated bundles” who believed that they must hide their bodies under layers of fabrics. Poiret characterized the corset’s demise as “liberation”:

It was in the name of Liberty that I brought about my first revolution, be deliberately laying siege to the corset.

But if there was to be no corset, what then? Poiret is largely silent on this subject and I was unable to uncover anything definitive except that it women were now to wear a form of girdle and bra that functioned as a “corset light” but was flexible enough to allow a full range of movements. It’s an area that could definitely needs further research.

Turning to Poiret’s Nouveau Directoire style, it was definitely a reaction characteristic of fashion change. Below are some illustrations from a catalog that Poiret put out in 1908:

And here are the dresses themselves:

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The above is just a small part of what I presented and I hope to present a revised and improved version for next year’s Costume College. I will say that the presentation was a pleasure to give although I wound up ending early (better than running over, I guess) but that’s OK. Stay tuned for more. 🙂

 

Adam’s Atelier Returns To The Western Front: US Army Uniforms, 1915 – 1918

With great relief, I am pleased to announce that we’ve successfully completed my presentation on American military uniforms entitled “US Army Uniforms, 1915 – 1918” at Costume College. Costume College is an annual three-day costuming arts convention sponsored by the Costumer’s Guild West and it covers all periods and genres. With the success of last year’s presentation, I decided to do a repeat performance and my proposal was accepted. Since 2017 is the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into the First World War, I felt that this would be a very timely and appropriate subject.

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The presentation was aimed at a general audience and designed to provide a basic overview of US Army uniforming of the First World War Era. The toughest part is that it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of the various details of the various uniform items and lose sight of the men who wore those uniforms- the men who underwent  what was probably the most stressful part of their lives. That’s something that’s not easily captured in a presentation some 100 years after the fact but I believe that we did a fairly convincing job of at least providing an overview.

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I was aided by a good friend of mine from Co. G, 364 Infantry, a living history group that’s part of the Great War Historical Society (of which I am a member of) acted as a live model and was also kind enough to bring a number of original items from his collection and that went a long way towards bringing the history directly to the audience. It was an excellent supplement to my Power Point presentation (Power Point seems to be a necessary evil these days).

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Overall, it seems to have been a success and I hope to able to make this presentation in the future. I am considering expanding the scope of the presentation to include female uniforming- that’s an area that could use further research. More importantly, I think that adding female uniforms would help connect with the audience, especially since it’s predominately female.  🙂 I look forward to further work in this area.

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And Going “Over There”…US Army Uniforms, 1915 – 1918

Finally, the big day is here and I am off to give my presentation on US Army Uniforms, 1915 – 1918 at Costume College. I have a ton of information and the able assistance of a friend of mine who has kindly volunteered to loan me some original artifacts for display. So we’re off and I’ll have more later. 🙂

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