Haut couture has always been an extremely personal experience for the client and this was especially true during the late 19th Century. Garments were designed to precisely fit the individual and constructed of the finest fabrics and trim; one could not help think that the garment in question had been exclusively designed for the client from the ground up. However, the reality was quite different: underneath all the exquisite fabrics and glittery trim were the garment’s basic structure- a structure that gave a particular garment its shape and that structure was based on common pattern pieces. The fabrics and trim might change from garment to garment but their basic structure utilized the same slopers or basic pattern blocks that could be modified as needed for a particular client and style (De Marly, Diana. Worth: The Father of Haute Couture. Holmes & Meier, 1990).
The House of Worth was generally acknowledged as the leading couture houses in Paris (and by extension, the world) and as such, its designs reflected this. However, underneath all the exquisite fabrics and trims, the dresses made by Charles Worth often used the same basic pattern blocks (albeit modified for the individual client). It’s often all too easy to get lost in all the exquisite details found on Worth dresses and especially with ball and evening gowns. For example, let’s take a look at these two ball gowns:
Worth, Ball Gown, c. 1895 – 1900; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1290a, b)
House of Worth, Ballgown, 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1324a, b)
Both of the above gowns were made during the late 1890s and both have the same silhouette and share identical lines. Only the fabrics and trim change. Here’s another pair of evening dresses made during the mid 1890s:
Worth, Ballgown, c. 1894; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC4799 84-9-2AB)
Worth, Evening Dress, c. 1895 – 1896; Metropolitan Museum of Art (35.134.2a, b)
Similarities could also be found in a variety of dress styles:
Worth, Dinner Dress, 1897; Costume Museum of Canada
Worth, Evening Dress, c. 1897; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.638a, b)
Worth Day Dress, c. 1875; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1100a, b)
Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1877; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.69.33.3a, b)
Surface treatments might differ (i.e. smooth fabric versus ruched fabric) and trains an sleeve lengths and trim can vary but at the root, these dresses share many of the same internal structural components. When one thinks about it, it only makes sense- while haute couture may have only been worn by a narrow segment of the market, within that specific market segment there was a heavy demand and it could only be met by utilizing various industrial production practices. Of course, the client was blissfully unaware of this, their only concern was getting the desired garment. In short, one could term it “mass production luxury goods” which is almost a contradiction in terms.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this little insight into what was going on underneath the dress, so to say, and we hope to be making more posts about this in the future.