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.

Worth Ballgown 1898

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

John Redfern

John Redfern

Emile  Pingat

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… 🙂

Almost Ready For Costume College…

Isincerely apologize for things being quiet here but I have been in hibernation for the past few weeks furiously working on a series of presentations that I will be giving at Costume College. Why the last minute rush? Well, unfortunately life has a habit of getting in the way and with our relocation and all, time has been at a premium. Costume College is an annual three-day costuming arts convention sponsored by the Costumer’s Guild West and it covers all periods and genres.

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Last year, I gave a presentation on American military uniforms entitled “US Army Uniforms, 1915 – 1918” and I had such a fun time with it that I decided to give an expanded version this year and this is scheduled for Friday July 28. But wait, there’s more…

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On Saturday July 29, I will also be giving presentations on Paul Poiret, entitled “The King of Fashion: The World of Paul Poiret” which will give an overview of his early career. Also, I will be presenting “Haute Couture: The Early Years” where I give an overview on the rise of haute couture during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries (1870 through roughly 1905) both in terms of designers and the various styles.

Stay tuned for more!

Black- Not Just For Mourning

Mourning wear was a major element of Victorian clothing, governed by elaborate protocols that dictated style, color, and material. Naturally, the use of the color black was central in mourning wardrobes and early on, the color was for the most part co-opted for this express purpose. However, by the end of the 19th Century, we see some relaxation of the “rules” and the color black started to make it’s appearance in more everyday wear and especially with evening wear. Below is just one example that was created by the House of Worth sometime in the 1897 to 1899 time frame:

Worth Evening Gown c. 1897-99

Worth, Evening Gown, c. 1897 – 1899; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy (00000113)

Worth Evening Gown c. 1897-99

Three-Quarter Rear View

The use of the term “evening gown” is a bit misleading in that this dress would have worked either as an evening dress (any event that was not a ball) or a ballgown. The sleeves are relatively restrained, lacking the gigot silhouette. The bodice has a deep wasp-waist and the skirt has a minimal train. Although it’s hard to see with the lighting, the skirt front is decorated in two patterns of jet beading using a vine motif. For the skirt back,  we see beading on an overlayer of net. The bodice front is also decorated with floral bead patterns that extent to the neck line. Along the front neckline, the black fabric has been cut out so as to create the appearance of leaves rising up on their own combined with a lighter silk/net inset. To complete the look, there’s a strip of ivory/cream lace running along the rear neckline.  Overall, the beaded black fashion fabric combined with artful cutting has created a very dramatic effect using a minimum of color- this dress definitely depended on the ambient light to create its effect.

As with many of the examples we find online, there always seems to be a lack of information and close-up pictures. We would have been very interested in seeing the details of the beadwork and the bodice inset panels. So, there it is- black can be used in ways that are by no means limited to mourning so why not give it a try? 🙂

1890s Designs- Doucet

While the House of Worth was the leading fashion house during the late 19th Century (and 1890s in particular), it was by no means the only fashion house- there was also Doucet, Pingat, and Paquin, just to name a few, and each was in constant competition with each other. In today’s post, we’ll be taking a look some of Worth’s competitors and illustrate their “take” on 1890s style.

Doucet Ballgown c. 1898 - 1902

Jacques Doucet was one of Worth’s leading competitors and like Worth, he utilized a number of marketing techniques that are now standard in the fashion industry to include dressing celebrities (and especially actresses). Doucet’s creations tended to have a softer silhouette, utilizing large quantities of lace, tulle, and chiffon as well as metallics and lame.

Doucet Ballgown 1898 - 1900

Doucet, Ballgown, 1898 – 1900; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3275a–c)

Doucet Ballgown 1898 - 1900

Three-Quarter Front View

The above ballgown, made sometime between 1898 and 1900, is made from what appears to be a silk chiffon backed by layers of lame. Unfortunately there are no close-up pictures available- it would be very interesting to have a close look at the fabric. With the exception of some tulle at the top of the bodice and leaf garlands on the shoulders, there is no trim and the dress relies on the richness of the materials themselves.

However, Doucet’s designs were not always so “simple”. Here we see one of Doucet’s more iconic work, a ballgown made sometime in the 1898 – 1902 time frame:

Doucet Ballgown c. 1898 - 1902

Doucet, Ballgown, c. 1898 – 1902; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3274a, b)

Doucet Ballgown c. 1898 - 1902

Side Profile

Doucet Ballgown c. 1898 - 1902

Rear View

Here once again we see the fabric itself as the central focus of the dress style only this time there is an elaborate floral pattern created by leaves and foliage appliques on a gold lame background backed by what appears to be a silk chiffon underlayer. The upper bodice and sleeves are lace the overall effect is of shimmering gold.

So what about day wear? Here’s one example:

Day Dress Doucet c. 1890

Doucet, Day Dress, c. 1890; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC10445 2001-4AC)

The fashion fabric for this dress is a silk crĂŞpe de chine with a stencil print pattern of bamboo stalks and the sparrow motif has been hand-painted separately. The fabric was most likely made in Japan for the export market and is an excellent example of the Japonisme theme that was often utilized by fashion designers during the 1880s and 90s. One again trim is minimal, limited to the hem, sleeves and collar finished off with a silk chiffon fichu.

However, designers could also works against type as with this ballgown that Doucet made sometime around 1890:

Doucet Ballgown c. 1890s

Doucet, Ballgown, c. 1890; Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina (1998.13A-B)

Doucet Ballgown c. 1890sDoucet Ballgown c. 1890s

Doucet Ballgown c. 1890s

Close-Up of Bodice

Doucet Ballgown c. 1890s

Rear View

The use of black and white stripes, artfully cut and blended together (especially on the bodice) reads “modern”, something we would expect to see from the 1950s. The black and white chevrons on the skirt front are especially bold and they immediately draw the eye. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information about this dress (at least from what I could tell from the museum website) and it raised some interesting questions in regard to provenance- it reads so differently than the majority of Doucet’s work that we almost wonder if this is a dress that’s been mislabeled- it certainly bears further study.

Although we can see two different approaches to design by Worth and Doucet (with a bit of overlap), it’s evident that there was an increased emphasis on making using the dress itself as a canvas for creating the design’s major effect. By this time, the use of trim is completely secondary and does little to distract the eye from the main attraction of the fabric design and this can be especially seen with Doucet’s two very different ballgown designs.

We hope you have enjoyed this post and stay tuned for yet more…. 🙂

More Worth 1890s Style…

To continue the theme of yesterday’s post, we present some more examples from the House of Worth as it relates to 1890s style and using of the whole dress silhouette as a canvas for the fabric pattern with a minimum of extraneous trim. We begin with an afternoon dress made in 1896:

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Afternoon Dress, Worth, 1896; Museum of the City of New York (49.125.1A-B)

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Close-Up Of Back Bodice

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Side Profile

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Once again, we see the entire dress as a canvas for silk floral brocade pattern fashion fabric along with an inset faux waist in the front. Compared to most Mid-1890s dresses, the sleeves are somewhat restrained and we don’t see much of the characteristic gigot sleeve effect (although this may be due to the staging of the dress in the museum display).

Below is one more example, in this case a dinner dress made someone between 1890 to 1895. Here we see the characteristic open bodice, lined on both sides with shirred tulle and sleeves cut close to the arm. The lapels and sleeve cuffs are trimmed with beading and the same shirred tulle as on the front of the bodice. Overall, the trim is fairly minimal and acts as a counterpoint for the main decorative effect- the floral pattern on the skirt. The flowers themselves are large and they trace their way up the skirt at several points. Visually, the skirt comprises the largest area and as such, provides the perfect canvas for display.

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House of Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1890 – 1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (31.37a-b)

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Rear View

The above two dresses are just a few of the many examples of using the skirt as a canvas for decoration and while this style was fairly common, it was by no means the only style during the 1890s nor was it exclusively used by Worth. In the future, we’ll be featuring more from the House of Worth from the 1890s as well as works from some of its competitors. Enjoy!