Charles Frederick Worth & Early Haute Couture


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).


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.


Jacques Doucet

John Redfern

John Redfern

Emile  Pingat

An early portrait of Emile Pingat; Courtesy of Jacques Noel


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…


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!

Emile Pingat, THE Artistic Dressmaker In Paris

Lately, Emile Pingat has been a major focus here at Lily Absinthe. To us, it seems that history has largely ignored Pingat while giving exclusive focus to Charles Frederick Worth. While by no means do we mean to denigrate Worth’s achievements, we also feel that it’s worthwhile to also call attention to some of the other couturiers who today are less well known.

Just to give an example of Pingat’s reach, we found this little reference in the December 3, 1885 edition of the Marin County Journal, a newspaper that was published in San Rafael, California:

Pingat is considered the artistic dress-maker in Paris fashionable circles, Worth now playing second scissors.

Ok, maybe we’re reaching here but it’s interesting seeing a reference to Pingat, albeit a brief humorous one, in a small newspaper (granted that San Rafael is relatively close to San Francisco).

Just a fluke? Maybe not..consider this extract from the “Fashion Notes” section of the November 3, 1883 edition of The Pacific Rural Press, a newspaper that was published in San Francisco from 1871 to 1894:

A leading feature of the fashions of the season, as shown at the October openings, is that of combination costumes. Scarcely a dress among all those made by the great French dressmakers Worth, Pingat, Felix, and the rest is of a single fabric, the rule being the combination of brocade or fancy dress goods with plain material to match. This is the case especially with the fine woolens, the use of which is constantly increasing, and which will this winter be worn for everything except elegant reception toilets.

And just to further show Pingat’s reach, below is an an advertisement from the September 22, 1895 edition of the Los Angeles Herald:

Ad_Los Angeles Herald Sept 22 1895

Los Angeles Herald, September 22, 1895

Of course, one does wonder if the advertised garments were actually manufactured by the designers as advertised or were knock-offs… 🙂

While the above has been focused on Pingat, it does indicate that Parisian designers like Worth and Pingat had cachet even on the West Coast of the United States in much the same way that the names Dior, Lagerfeld, and Dolce and Gabbana (to name a few) have cachet today among fashion consumers.

The above is only a small sampling and as we find more references, we will share them with you. 🙂

And Never Say Never…More On Emile Pingat

When it comes to fashion, the phrase “never say never” definitely applies. No sooner had I posted my commentary on Emile Pingat’s use of  relatively simple designs, minimal trim, and overall elegant simplicity, I immediately came across an afternoon dress made by him from circa 1896 that seems to be the opposite and in fact looks like a hot mess: 🙂

Emile Pingat Afternoon Dress 1896

Emile Pingat, Afternoon Dress, c. 1896; De Young Museum, San Francisco (1998.170a-b)

However, upon reflection, there is a certain logic to that “hot mess”…First, the dress has relatively clean lines and restrained sleeves place this more towards the late 1890s when the leg-of-mutton sleeve craze had passed its zenith. but what is remarkable is that skirt is a striped black and white striped cotton velveteen covered by an overlayer of purple wool flannel that had a cut out art nouveau design. In some ways, the effect is reminiscent of the slashing found on Renaissance doublets.

The bodice continues the purple flannel overlay and black and white striped cotton and the sleeves are also done in the underlying striped fabric. The bodice is structured to give the effect of a jacket with an inset faux waist of  aqua panné velvet. Overall, the silhouette is fairly conventional except for the purple overlay with the cutout design.

However, as with many of Pingat’s designs, the focus is on the fabrics themselves and this dress is no exception with Pingat’s dramatic use of the wool flannel overlay. I only wish that there were more pictures available of this dress- it bears close examination. So in the end, while it may seem to be a bit over-the-top, it does fall firmly in the Pingat “school of design” in that the style’s effect is solely based on the fabrics speaking for themselves. 🙂

Pingat- Sometimes Less Is More…

When it comes to Victorian Era fashion and especially fashion of the period from 1870 through 1900, people have the idea that a dress with more trim and accents (i.e., “bling”) makes for a more elegant and opulent dress. However, this is not always the case and sometimes too much trim and accents can have the opposite effect with the end result being a mish-mash of details that ultimately do nothing towards creating a unified style or “look.” In some cases, we see little more than a fashion trainwreck.

However, this wasn’t always the case and often designers utilized more simple designs, relying on the use of the fashion fabric alone to achieve results. One example of this can be found with this 1880s dress designed by Emile Pingat that we found on the Augusta Auctions website:

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Dress Ensemble, c. 1880s; August Auctions

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According to the website, the dress is from the 1880s and we suspect that it was made sometime in the mid-1880s. Also, although the dress is described as having both a “day bodice” and a ballgown bodice, there was no picture of the ballgown bodice thus at a minimum, this dress was probably meant as a visiting or reception dress. However, that said, our interest is that there is no trim on this dress and it only uses the fashion fabric itself.

The vertical stripes serve to accentuate the length of the dress and give a nearly cylindrical appearance. Also, at the bottom, we see two layers of narrow knife pleating separated by ruching, all from the same fabric. Unfortunately, there were no pictures of the dress from the direct front and it’s hard to get a full idea of the bodice’s appearance but it’s evident that the strips on the fabric do accentuate the curves of the bodice. Although this dress looks fairly “plain,” the manipulation of the fashion alone does the work and gives the dress an overall sense of aesthetic uniformity. In short, “less is more”.

And here’s a view of the hem detail:

Emile Pingat 4

Now, admittedly, aesthetics and style are a very subjective matter and we all have our preferences but nevertheless, we see that designers utilized various methods to achieve their visions. While unfortunately we do not have a formal treatise on Emile Pingat’s design philosophy, it’s evident that he was flexible in his approach.

Many of Pingat’s designs involved clean lines and the use of the fashion fabric as the central focus. Here is another example that’s perhaps a bit more elaborate than the above example but still exhibits the same characteristics:

Pingat1 1885

Emile Pingat, Dinner Dress, c. 1883 – 1885; Smith College Historic Clothing Collection (1989.1.3ab)

Pingat2 1885

Rear View

What’s interesting here is that like this first dress above, Pingat uses only two colors as a combination only this time there are two separate fabrics, blue silk and white silk.

For a bit of contrast, let’s take a look at this reception dress from circa 1874:

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Emile Pingat, Reception Dress, c. 1874; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1938-18-12a,b)

In many respects, this dress is a precursor for the above two from the 1880s in that we see a blue and white striped silk overskirt combined with a solid blue silk underskirt and bodice. Also, we see white lace trim used to edge the overskirt and trim the bodice cuffs and front. Finally, we see white silk used along the hem and part of the underskirt for contrast. While we would expect an early 1870s to be somewhat elaborate with several layers of draped fabric, it’s sill relatively simple for the period.

Perhaps we’re reaching here a bit but it’s still interesting to consider the idea that Pingat tended to be more restrained in his designs and that he was firmly in the center- being neither too fashion forward or too regressive. Anyway, we hope you’ve enjoyed this excursion through some of Pingat’s designs. 🙂