It’s French Friday again, and again, we are diving back into the world of Charles Frederick Worth, the father of haute couture.
I am not an expert on fashion history, though I enjoy dabbling in it. The following is simply a silly idea that came to me as I was feverishly digging through Pinterest for all the House of Worth images I could find. There are biographies of him that probably explain exactly what exactly he did and why he did it.
My silly theory is this: Charles Worth produced greatness when he got bored.
I kinda sorta have proof.
Boring and Bored Worth
Okay, let’s start with his earliest dresses from the 1860’s.
Gorgeous designs, granted. Clever use of lines and fabric, granted. Boring, cookie-cutter lines of every other 1860’s gown? Absolutely.
Genius and Daring are the Cure
Now, assume that having had a modicum of success, Charles begins to feel a little confident, a little bold. He starts stitching his label into his dresses, but what’s the point of having a label that people talk about if you don’t give them a design to remember?
Now we get to the 1870’s, and Charles takes a couple of tentative creative steps forward, testing out trains, overskirts, and folding the fabric so it starts to form part of the structure of the dress itself.
You’re starting to get a different line for the bodice, pleats, and more options for mixing and matching fabrics and colors.
Look at this. Look at the incredible, bold use of asymmetry, draping, fabric mixing, texture, and lines. There’s example of example of his genius. His son Jean-Philippe would continue with some of the most iconic designs of the 1890’s. Take a look at my Pinterest board on the House of Worth to find more awesomeness.
Some of the final designs Worth senior did himself give us these striking gowns. The use of fabric, positioning, lace, and draping is astonishing, ground-breaking, and utterly bewitching.
I think you’ll agree with me that these examples of what happens when art, architecture, and fashion meet boredom and genius.
For the next few French Fridays, we’re going to be talking about the father of haute couture: Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895)
Okay, okay, small dirty secret: he was English. Fine. Points to the English for giving birth to him. But, take note, he moved to Paris to establish his fashion salon, and he became synonymous with FRENCH fashion forever.
I mean…look at that beret. The carelessly floppy neckcloth. The fur trim. FUR TRIM.
Only a man who is fully French in his soul could pull that off with aplomb.
There’s a lot of juicy history about his and his salon, like how he was the first to use live models to show his clothing to patrons, or how his salon became an exclusive society meeting place, or how he aggressively promoted himself by sewing a brand label on the clothing, and how he ended up couturier to queens, princesses, tsarinas, empresses, and any heiress who had any pretensions to social mobility.
But, let’s step away from all that and just take a moment to appreciate what made him so successful. Aggressive promotion will get you 98% of the way there, but there’s that 2% of talent that you need to not just succeed, but to be remembered.
The Art of the Zebra According to Worth.
Like I said, we’re going to look at several aspects of Worth over the next few weeks. Today, I want to start with the bold way he engaged with black and white.
Black and white has always been a striking combination. Diane de Poitiers, the noble mistress of Henri II, wore only black or white (or some combination thereof) after the death of her husband. It was a high impact style statement and stood out in a sea of blue brocades and red velvets.
Worth and his sons took black and white out of its post-Regency mothballs and worked them almost architecturally to create some of the most memorable gowns ever created.
Case in point, this iconic 1898 “ironwork” ballgown:
Here’s some amazing detail for you about the dress:
Or, if you prefer a white-on-black motif, you can enjoy this gem from 1896:
You know what they say: “like father, like son”? Well, Jean-Philippe Worth took over the mantle (see what I did there? Right?) for his father and continued to design for the House of Worth through the turn of the century, World War I, and the rising of the hemlines. It seems that Junior learned his lesson about the power of black and white with this beauty from 1898-1900:
Let’s just say that father and son had a talent for designing striking trains:
What? You don’t like your arms? You’d prefer something more covered up? Well, how about these amazing pieces from the 1880’s 1890’s:
Dining out and need to cover your black and white gown with something that matches in awesomeness? You’d literally be covered with these cloaks, dolmans, capes, and coats. Oh, and I totally think the evening coat is something that needs to come back.
I can hear you now. It’s easy to do something dramatic with black and white at night. Yet, he took on the challenge of making this combination stand out during the day as well.
Anyway. I know I’m forgetting some dresses, but you know what? You can find them on Pinterest, including on my board, House of Worth.
Don’t worry if you’re a fan of Pingat, Paquin, or Callot Soeurs, I’ve got them on my radar. There’s plenty of French Fridays to go around for all of them.