The Fashion Insight 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 Century and early Twentieth Centuries.

Trending For February 1887- A Snapshot

The late 1880s saw the penultimate development of the bustle silhouette along with a variety of dress styles that incorporated this silhouette. The 1880s are especially well documented with the rise of the fashion press and while the styles portrayed often depicted idealized forms, they were rooted in reality. Moreover, the fashion press is useful for tracking shifts in trends and even while the late 1880s bustle style was in full flower, there were signs that this was not to remain the case for long as illustrated by the following comment from the February 1887 “Our Paris Letter,” a monthly column in Peterson’s Magazine describing the fashion trends in Paris, notes:

The diminution of the tournure, the falsely- so-called “dress-improver” appears to be definitely decided upon. Worth is using all his powerful influence in that direction, as he dislikes very much the ungraceful stiffness imparted to the upper portion of the toilette by its undue dimensions. The newest articles of this description are composed of ruffles of hair-cloth- the genuine “crinoline”- and the sides are simply laced together underneath, neither steel springs nor whalebone being used in the rubric. The most stylish toilettes have simply a silk cushion, stuffed with horse-hair, set just in the back of the skirt-band, and three rows of steel springs are set in the lower part of the skirt to hold it out. This is merely a return to the combination which was in vogue before the present- or, rather, the recent- exaggeration of his detail in feminine dress.

From the above, it would appear that the the sharp, angular “shelf bustle” was on its way out, at least in Paris, and bustle pads with steel springs were going to be the new thing. As for other trends, let’s take a look at this fashion plate from the February 1887 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Petersons_Feb 1887

Peterson’s Magazine, February 1887

The above plate is described as follows:

FIG. I. – VISITING-DRESS, OF YELLOWISH GREEN CASHMERE. The back of the skirt (which falls in straight folds) is made of plain cashmere. The front drapery is of India silk of the same color, figured with red palms. A wide ribbon sash, of the color of the cashmere, and striped crosswise with emerald-green velvet, is tied in long loops, and forms panels at the sides. The full bodice is of the figured silk. The extremely stylish jacket is of emerald green velvet, faced with silk the color of the back of the skirt, and is ornamented with large buttons. Hat of yellowish – green felt, trimmed with ribbon of the same color and a red bird, and faced with emerald-green velvet.

The Directoire style jacket with its wide lapels definitely sets this out apart from more conventional day dresses.

FIG. II. – WALKING-DRESS, OF DAHLIA-COVERED SPOTTED CLOTH. The underskirt is of velveteen. The upper skirt laid to fall in wide plaits, and is shorter in front than at the back. The drapery at the back is short at the top, but falls in jabot-plaits almost to the bottom of the skirt. The close-fitting jacket is braided, and trimmed with gray fox-fur The muff is of the material of the dress, decorated with a bow of ribbon. Hat of purple velvet, trimmed with a yellow bird.

This one interesting in that it takes the jacket style to an outdoor style with the fur trimming. It’s unknown if there was a waist or under-bodice for wear indoors.

FIG. III. – WALKING-DRESS. The long cloak is made of fawn-colored striped cloth. The sleeves are very long at the back, wide, and trimmed with velvet. A band of velvet passes over the shoulders, and narrows at the waist. High collar of the velvet. Bonnet of red plush, with white plumes.

This one appears to be a cloak with extremely wide sleeves.

FIG. IV. – VISITING -DRESS, OF OLIVER-GREEN-COLORED SILK AND STRIPED VELVET. The under part of the skirt and side panels is made of the striped silk and velvet. The full front and back drapery is of plain olive-green silk. The bodice is also of the plain silk, laced, and the little close-fitting jacket is of green velvet, with elbow-sleeves, and trimmed with green jet-bead passementerie. Hat of olive-green velvet, trimmed with green feathers and a white bird.

This seems to be a fairly standard style but it’s really hard to tell from the fashion plate what exactly is going on. The description is very interesting and the fashion plate doesn’t do it justice which is very unfortunate.

FIG. V. – HOUSE-DRESS, OF POPPY-COLORED SILK. The underskirt is made of cream -colored silk, striped with red velvet. The overskirt opens on the right ride, and is faced with cream-colored silk, brocaded in red velvet. The plain red silk is arranged diagonally, in full plaits, oil the skirt, It is draped far back on the left side, and in loose folds at the back. The bodice opens over a cream-colored diagonal-plaited vest, and is trimmed on the right side with a velvet revers. Velvet collar.

While this is termed a “house dress,” this is a pretty loose definition and would easily work as a afternoon/visiting dress suitable for wear at social occasions. The bodice is executed in the a jacket-bodice style with wide lapels/revers running down the length of the bodice. Overall, in terms of style, one still sees the late 1880s bustled silhouette but it looks somewhat more restrained in this particular fashion plate. Of course, this being a fashion plate, some license is to be expected so perhaps one should not read too much into it; one must also consider other evidence such as original photographs and extant original garments. Nevertheless, it is still interesting and gives a hint of what is coming in the 1890s.

Turning to fabrics, one sees the velvet and velveteen being used and combined with silk and cashmere for winter day wear. This is to be expected, considering the time of year. The only exception to this is the house dress in Figure V. Finally, based on the above descriptions, computer color-matching, and some subjective guess-work, below are some of the more dominant colors:

While the above is by no means an exhaustive overview of fashion in 1886- 1887, it is helpful as a means of determining what sort of fabrics, color, and silhouette should be employed in designing a late 1880s day dress that is suitable for fall or winter. The key points to keep in mind are that the fabrics used were of heavier weights (although nowhere near upholstery or curtain weight) and colors tend towards the darker tones. We hope that you have enjoyed this little window into the styles of early 1887 and while fashions moved slowly during the 1880s (as compared to today), they were still moving, let by fashion leaders such as Worth.

Out Of The Gilded Age…

Today the theme is burgundy velvet and what better way to show it off than in an evening dress by Worth. 🙂 Better yet, we have both the dress AND a portrait of the individual that it was made for! The itself was made by Maison Worth around 1898 and belonged to Edith Kingdon Gould, the wife of railroad tycoon George Jay Gould and is on display at Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York; Lyndhurst had belonged to the Goulds at one time and is now a museum belonging to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Worth, Evening Dress, c. 1898; Lyndhurst Mansion, Tarrytown NY

The evening dress is interesting in that it’s a relatively simple style, unadorned by any trim or decoration (if you don’t count the fur stole she wears with the dress in her portrait). Overall, the effect is very restrained, reflecting Ms. Kingdon-Gould’s status married to a wealth railroad tycoon (she had been an actress prior to marrying Gould). And now for the portrait itself:

Théobald Chartran, Portrait of Edith Kingdon Gould, c. 1898

Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information available in regard to the dress or the portrait- they were part of an exhibition at Lyndhurst that’s ended. This dress provides a fascinating snapshot into a bygone era made more interesting in that the dress style is very restrained when compared with some  of the more over-the-top designs of the era.

Parisian Fashions- Trending For Spring 1890

Fabrics are a major part of fashion and often are the center of focus of a dress design. In terms of style, a fabric could be said to consist of three elements: 1) the fabric’s specific type and construction; 2) the fabric’s decoration (i.e. does the fabric have some sort of decorative motif or is it plain?); and 3) the fabric’s color. This is illustrated in this commentary from the April 1890 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

In the way of dress materials, the newest is a gauze with wide woven stripes in a fabric much more transparent than the ground of the material, these stripes being figured in large patterned designs in the thicker stuff. The effect thus produced is very pretty, and, when the gauze is made up over a colored satin underskirt, the toilette thus composed will be charming.

As for silks, brocades were definitely a thing:

The newest silks are brocades, having very small sprays of flowers in their natural colors scattered over a black ground. Some of the designs are very tasteful as well as novel, and especially one representing a single stalk of the fuchsia with its pendent blossoms, and another showing one of the crimson clover. These floral designs are repeated on the foulards of the season- snowdrops or ears of wheat being represented on the black grounds, and fuchsias on cream-white or pale silver-gray.

Here are some fashion plates from Peterson’s that help illustrate this a little:

Peterson’s Magazine, March 1890

Peterson’s Magazine, May 1890

And here are some extant examples of garments that incorporate one or more style elements noted above:

Worth, Ballgown, 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.68.53.11a, b)

Sara Mayer & A. Morhanger, Da Dress, c. 1889-1892; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.270&A-1972)

Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1890-1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.636a, b)

The above examples are only a small sample but they serve to underscore some of the fashion trends that were underway during the later 1880s/early 1890s. In future posts, we hope to further document this most interesting period of fashion transition.

Parisian Color Trends For Fall 1889

Color is a major element in fashion styles and, as with style in general, it’s constantly in a state of flux. The situation was no different during the Nineteenth Century and while there was no entity like Pantone to constantly monitor the color trends, they were still noted. In the October 1889 issue of Peterson’s Magazine, it was noted that:

The newest color of the season is a rich deep shade of chaudron-red, which has been christened Eiffel-color, after the famous tower of the Exhibition. It is supposed to be of the same hue as the red-painted iron-work of that stupendous edifice, since its tint has been mellowed and modified by the weather. Green, except in the dark-emerald shade, has gone entirely out of vogue. Yellow, in the warm golden tones, will be a good deal used for trimmings,

Probably the most interesting comment is about “chaudron-red” which is a mash-up of French and English for “cauldron red” (or Eiffel Red) and it describes the original color that the Eiffel Tower was painted when it was first erected for the parish Exhibition of 1889. The original paint was meant as a protective coating and had a copper-red color because of its active ingredient, iron oxide, which gives the paint its protective quality, preventing rust to the steel that made up the Eiffel Tower’s construction (even to this day, iron oxide paint is used for treating steel beams). So what did this look like? Probably something like this:

Interestingly enough, recently, when it’s time to repaint the Eiffel Tower in 2021, it has been suggested that it be repainted in the original chaudron-red, similar to the shade depicted above. So far, the French Ministry of Culture has not made a decision…

Besides “Eiffel Red,” it’s noted that green is completely out except in a dark emerald shade, perhaps along these lines:

And for yellow something like these:

And now well things together with some examples of the above colors at work, starting with this evening dress from Maison Worth:

Worth, Evening Dress, c. 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.59.20)

James McCreary & Co., Visiting Dress, c. 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail of Cuff

Both of the above dress examples incorporate many of the colors noted in Peterson’s although we must note that there are also plenty of examples where other colors were used; in fashion there’s never any absolutes, just broad generalizations. We hoped you have enjoyed this brief excursion into trending colors of 1889 and stay tuned for more in the future. 🙂