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!

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…. 🙂

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:

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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:

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

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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. 🙂

More Pingat…

Fashion often draws upon the past for inspiration and this was especially true during the late 19th Century. Like Doucet, and others, Emile Pingat often drew inspiration from 18th Century designs, using them as a backdrop for his own unique style in which he blended elaborate decoration with exquisite fabrics:

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Promenade Dress, Emile Pingat, c. 1885; Shelburne Museum (2010-75)

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Close-Up Of Front

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Three-Quarter Rear View

The bodice is a polonaise with vest that provides a feminine version of an 18th Century men’s coat and waistcoat. The cutaway style of the polonaise provides for displaying the vest’s gold bullion embroidery to its best advantage and it complements the elaborate embroidery running down both revers of the polonaise. The jewel toned claret colored velvet of the polonaise and skirt provide a deep background for the ivory white vest and combined with the gold embroidery, the look is sumptuous yet not overdone.  Further embroidery is used on the side pocket flaps and the back of the polonaise with restraint and claret is allowed to show through clearly.

Pingat employs the velvet polonaise/skirt/vest combination again in this creation that was made a little later circa 1888, only this time in green tones:

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Pingat, Promenade Dress, 1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.7758a, b)

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Rear View

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Right Side Profile

Here we see a polonaise and skirt constructed from a deep bottle-green velvet combined with a vest of a lighter shade of green. The embroidery appears to be a combination of gold bullion and another shade of light green that complements the polonaise, vest, and skirt. As with the first example, the embroidery is used with restraint, mostly trimming the front revers, rear, and side pockets of the polonaise. Colorwise, the first dress provides more of a contrast while the second dress works more in a single color pallette.  For both of the above dresses, large expanses are unadorned with just the velvet showing. Overall, the effect is elegant and sumptuous but restrained.

The above is just a small sampling but it demonstrates Pingat’s mastery of design in that his combinations of fabric and decorate treatments are carefully contrived for maximum effect- nowhere does it feel like he simply piled on fabric and trim as often was the case with Worth. Finally, while many believe that today’s fashions are completely divorced from the past in terms of inspiration, such as not the case as with this design from Dior:

As it is often said, nothing is really new in fashion. 🙂