Some Fashion Theory From Maison Worth

During his lifetime, Charles Worth was extremely wary of journalists and rarely gave interviews. When questioned during those rare interviews on the nature of fashion, his answers were vague and provided little insight as to his thought processes as a designer. However, upon his death in 1895, his sons were somewhat more forthcoming about Maison Worth’s approach to fashion and in particular, Jean Worth who managed the design side of the house. In an interview by a one Marie A. Belloc for Volume I (November 1896-April 1897) of The Lady’s Realm, Worth comments on the nature of fashion, stating:

It would be impossible to lay down any general theory or rule, so much that is indefinable and so many hidden influences go to the making of a mode—especially nowadays, when many marvels of colouring once reserved to painters and artists are within the reach of every intelligent artisan who cares to spend his Sunday afternoon at the Louvre, or who can afford a seat in the upper gallery of the Opera. Take, for instance, the rainbow effects that were lately the only wear among the Paris populace. No doubt Loïe Fuller and her serpentine dance were responsible to a great extent for the sudden interest taken in prismatic colouring; but the Japanese had, of course, long delighted in these multi-coloured effects, and the French eye had gradually become accustomed to rainbow variations. The famous American dancer simply crystallised floating impressions, which had long been with us.

As far as who sets fashion, Worth goes on to explain that:

There can be no doubt that certain élégantes, who have the courage of their convictions and a belief in their own charms, can impose whatever style of dress suits them best on the world at large. For instance, a beautiful woman with a long neck wears a high collar, and all her plain friends follow her example. A notable leader of Fashion gets tired of narrow skirts, and appears suddenly in a full round jupe. Her appearance creates a sensation, and the next day, those women who have seen her in some public place or on some official occasion, wearing with grace and effect what appeared outré and old fashioned, follow her example.

Seems pretty basic but he’s tapping into the psychology of human nature in that there are some who are leaders and others who are followers and it’s the leaders who determine the next big thing in fashion (which was, no doubt, also good for Maison Worth’s bottom line).

In regard to changing fashion styles, Worth notes that:

 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. Of course, there are certain people who can wear anything and look well…

Worth goes on to note that color is one of the most important part of any design and especially how it relates to the individual:

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…

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.

Throughout this interview, the theme of color can be seen and there’s no denying that it’s a powerful concept, especially influencing fashion. At the same, Worth also notes that people are resistant to change and will only do so when a fashion leader (i.e., fashion influencers) decides to make a change.  It’s also interesting that both Worth senior and junior  sought to bring about color combinations that were harmonious to each other as well as the individual client. Below are just a few examples:

Worth, Tea Gown, c. 1890 – 1895; Royal Ontario Museum (969.223)

Worth, Day Dress, c. 1874; Rhode Island Institute of Design Museum ( 2005.89.12)

Worth, Ensemble Dress, 1893; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.620a–e)

Worth, Evening Gown, 1887; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1094a–g)

Worth, Reception Dress, c. 1877 – 1878; Cincinnati Art Museum (1986.1200a-c)

Worth Day Dress, c. 1875; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1100a, b)

Throughout the late 19th Century, Maison Worth utilized just about every possible color in varying combinations and for the most part, they seem to work. Stay tuned as well delve into more fashion theory according to Maison Worth

To be continued…

 

Aesthetic Dress & Reaction…

The Aesthetic Movement, and more specifically Aesthetic Dress, arose in response to the predominant fashions of the Victorian Era and as such, sought to replace challenged convention in advocating for less structured and confining fashions. Of course, as with all fashion movements, there’s always friction between competing trends and styles and this is captured somewhat subtly in this 1881 painting by William Powell Frith:

William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881

This painting is a somewhat of a who’s who of British society and many notable people are depicted:

The annotated version…

For our purposes, what’s notable are the two groups of people in the front wearing aesthetic dress. Oscar Wilde is included with the right aesthetic dress group, speaking about the artwork. Also, behind the right group is a group of men reacting negatively to Oscar and his group. The painting was meant to be a caricature in that Frith had little regard for aesthetic dress nor Oskar Wilde, one of the aesthetic movement’s most vocal advocates. Frith explains in My Autobiography and Reminiscences, Vol. 2 (pp. 256-27):

Seven years ago certain ladies delighted to display themselves at public gatherings in what are called aesthetic dresses; in some cases the costumes were pretty enough, in others they seemed to rival each other in ugliness of form and oddity of colour. There were — and still are, I believe — preachers of aestheticism in dress; but I think, and hope, that the preaching is much less effective than it used to be. The contrast between the really beautiful costumes of some of the lady habituées of our private view, and the eccentric garments of others, together with the opportunity offered for portraits of eminent persons, suggested a subject for a picture, and I hastened to avail myself of it. Beyond the desire of recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress, I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him. He is supposed to be explaining his theories to willing ears, taking some picture on the Academy walls for his text. A group of well-known artists are watching the scene.

The motivation for making this painting could simply be attributed to his simple dislike of Oscar Wilde (often referred to as “the apostle of the beautiful”) but it also reveals a reaction towards aesthetic dress and the aesthetic movement whose ideas ran counter to the structured realist painting style that was predominant in Victorian Britain.  It certainly strikes us as modern readers as seemingly much ado about nothing- aesthetic dress was pretty innocuous and with it’s emphasis on unstructured movement, it did offer an alternative for women.

Liberty & Co., Day Dress, c. 1890s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1986.115.2)

Ultimately, what we found compelling here is that we see a trend and a reaction before us in an explicit way and it’s interesting to watch the conflict develop. As a fashion trend, aesthetic dress didn’t last long; fundamental changes in women’s wear was another 20 years or so off with visionaries such as Paul Poiret. However, it’s a good illustration of how fashion trends and their reactions are often rooted in cultural conflicts. We hope to explore these ideas some more in future posts.

You Learn Something New Everyday…

It’s funny how one can be so focused on examining an image for a specific detail that you  completely overlook something that’s glaringly obvious with another detail. In a post we published yesterday, we cite various examples about how color can also be expressed through a pattern on a fabric as well as with a solid colored piece of fabric. One example that we used was this one:

Day Dress, c. 1880; The Museum at FIT (P92.21.1)

On the surface, this dress appears to have the standard silhouette appropriate for the 1878-1881 time frame with it’s princess line. But, it was pointed out to us by one of readers that the dress has a high train  and underlying bustle that firmly puts in the late 1880s. Since we were so intent on the fabric itself, we didn’t stop to look very closely at the pictures, especially with the rear views:

Back Bodice Close-Up

Looking at the rear views, we noticed that the train was definitely NOT late 1870s/early 1880s. Rather, it appears that the extreme train characteristic of the late 1880s was created by the use of what appears to be a simple overdrape of fabric combined with swagging the front skirt and combining it with a underskirt. It’s a complicated and awkward arrangement. Here it is broken down:

When we first looked at the pictures, we originally thought that perhaps the dress wasn’t staged well by the museum staff- it does happen. But on closer examination, we realized that no, this was dress was designed to accommodate a later 1880s style bustle.

So what’s the story? We wished we knew but we can offer some theories. First, we believe that given it’s tightly sculpted cylindrical silhouette and princess lines, this dress started life sometime in the 1878-1881 time frame and was later modified (clumsily) to fit the late 1880s style. But…the fact that the fabric completely matches would suggest that maybe this was made in late 1880s. The princess line wasn’t unknown during late 1880s but it doesn’t show up a lot except with tea gowns and “house” dresses. Also, for a conversion there is a lot of extra work that was put in that really wasn’t necessary with the double layer front skirts. In the end, it’s hard to tell but we tend to lean towards the dress having been made in the late 1880s. It’s probably not the what we’d readily call “haute couture” but then again, garments during this era had quite a lot of variation in the construction quality (like every era…). It’s certainly an interesting riddle and we thank our reader for pointing this out to us. 🙂


Postscript:

After some further consideration, we have to conclude that this dress is truly a product of the Mid-Bustle (aka Natural Form) Era and that it was staged incorrectly for museum display. To us, the biggest giveaways are the functional vertical row of buttons running down the back and the tightly square-off shelf in the rear. First, the button row is consistent with the princess line silhouette- after all, there has to be a way to put on and remove the dress- and this would completely interfere with a proper late 1880s train and bustle. Finally, note that the button row extends out flat on the shelf- this is something that looks awkward and unnatural (and not found on any originals garments or patterns that we’ve examined. The upper rear of a later 1880s dress was more like this:

Also, the earlier dress style emphasized a cylindrical silhouette that was decorated with a second skirt that swagged in both front and rear. With this example, it appears that all of this was undone and stretched out to accommodate the late 1880s bustle. Below are some examples:

Three-Quarter Rear View

Rear View

This has been a fascinating exercise in figuring out the style and time frame based on dress style and how that can be misleading when an extant original isn’t displayed correctly. Of course, we could also be dead wrong but I seriously doubt it. 🙂

And For A Little More Victorian Style Color…

As a follow-up to our previous post on harmonizing colors, we offer some more thoughts on the subject of color and Victorian style. Generally speaking, dresses could take one of two basic forms when it came to color: all one solid color (i.e. monochromatic) or combinations of two or more colors. The concept of the one-color dresses is pretty straight-forward:

Day Dress, 1877; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.2432a, b)

Day Dress, European or American, circa 1885; Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum

Liberty & Co. (attributed), Ballgown, c. 1880s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.155)

Maison Truffert, San Francisco, Evening Dress/Ball Gown, c. 1894 – 1896; Augusta Auctions

Worth, Ball Gown, c. 1896; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982.299a, b)

But the use of a single color could also take the form of a patterned fabric:

Day Dress, 1885; V&A Museum (T.7&A-1926)

Day Dress, c. 1880; The Museum at FIT (P92.21.1)

Day dresses were more likely to be found in one color than ball gowns and evening dresses but in either case, using one color tended to give a somewhat flat look to the the dress so often lace trim, patterned material such as embroidery, or some other decorative effect was utilized to counter this. Below are several examples of this:

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

Worth, Ballgown, c. 1894; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC4799 84-9-2AB)

Day Dress, c. 1880s; Fashion History Museum Ontario

Lace was often employed to add dimension and depth:

Day Dress, c. 1894 – 1896; FIDM Museum (S2006.870.22AB)

In some cases, dresses employed a combination of plain and patterned fabrics, all in the same basic color such as with this dress:

Day Dress, c. 1885; Walsall Museums (WASMG : 1976.0832)

More common in dresses was the use of a combination of colors which usually took the form of different colored fabrics for the under and over skirts or the bodice and hem:

Worth, Ensemble-/Reception Dress/Evening Bodice, c. 1877 – 1878; Cincinnati Art Museum (1986.1200a-c)

Day Dress, Mid 1890s; Augusta Auctions, Museum of the City of New York Deaccession.

Bourdereau Veron & Cie, Place de la Bourse, Paris, Day Dress, c. 1893; Kent State University Museum (1983.1.207 ab)

Often, stripes and/or patterns were also employed in the color combination:

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

Here’s a couple examples of more complex use of color combinations. In the dress on the left, solid light and dark blue are combined with a patterned fabric that’s also predominantly blue. On the right, red with floral embroidery is combined with solid colored white/ivory lace.

In this example below, a solid black underskirt is combined with a bodice/overskirt of dark green striped black silk with floral appliques. Black beading and feathers further accentuate the color combination:

Reception Dress, c. 1890; Goldstein Museum of Design (2013.004.012)

Outer garments could also provide an added element to the color combination as with the figure on the left with a wine/burgundy-colored mantle with celadon trim that matched the solid celadon-colored dress. The figure on the right demonstrates  a combination of ivory-colored lace and solid pink:

Color combinations could even take the forms of stripes and patterns:

Day Dress, c. 1875; Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum

And probably one of the most dramatic uses of two colors can be found with this ball gown that utilizes just stripes:

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

Pops of color could also be used as part of a color combination. In the example below, an ivory-colored front under bodice and center underskirt grabs the eye:

Worth, Day Dress, c. 1890 – 1893; Kerry Taylor Auctions

And on a larger scale, the use of the red as a color pop goes a long way towards making this evening dress an eye-catcher:

Worth, Evening Ensemble Dress, 1893; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.622a–c)

The above illustrations gives only a small hint at the combinations and methods that were employed in utilizing color and it’s clear that while pure colors (e.g., one colored fabric with another) could be employed in combination, the combination could also take the form of striped or patterned fabrics, lace, and/or other trims in various colors. More importantly, it’s not just about layer colors, but it’s about layering colors in varying textures and luster to create a garment that projects depth and ultimately a life of its own.