The House of Worth, or the birth of Haute Couture

Wedding dress worn by Annie Cottenet Schermerhorn for her wedding with John Innes Kane, on December 12, 1878. Museum of the City of New York, © 2011 David Arky

It is an extraordinary book that Chantal Trubert-Tollu, the great grand daughter of Charles Frederick Worth has just published with Françoise Tétart-Vittu, a costume historian. The House of Worth, 1858-1954 tells the story of four generations of fashion designers and it is mostly the history of a hundred years of Paris society through fashion.

Afternoon dress in purple faille and fuchsia satin, ca 1876. Collection Museum of the City of New York, © 2011 David Arky

Born in Bourne, Lincolnshire, Charles Frederick starts working for a printer at 11 when his father leaves the family. At 12, he is sent to London where he works for a novelty store, Swan & Edgar which imports fashion from France. He will stay there for seven years and his passion for couture is born.

Actress Lillie Langtry in 1882 wearing a Worth dress, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

The youngest of five children, he is soon considered as the successful adventurer of the family and his uncles help him establish himself in Paris in 1846. This is just before Napoleon III takes over the country and the court will be a perfect piedestal for Worth‘s success. Always inspired by painters whom he discovered at the Royal Academy in London and at the Louvre, Worth starts designing on the right bank near the Palais Royal galleries, the center for shopping at the time on rue de Richelieu and then at 7 rue de la Paix.

Gaston Worth, Opera coat in black and white velvet with a Tudor rose motif, 1900

He marries a beautiful young woman, Marie Vernet who works in the same fashion shop as he, Gagelin. She will become not only his model and muse, but also his best saleswoman among the ladies of the court, Mélanie de Pourtalès and Princess Pauline Metternich. It is thanks to the latter  that Empress Eugénie establishes Worth as the court couturier. Winterhalter will feature his dresses and keep them forever in our minds with his group portrait of 1855.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Eugénie with her ladies in waiting, 1855, wearing a white dress with purple ribbons made by Worth for Gagelin

When he dies in 1895, Gaston and Jean Philippe, his two sons, take over and make the house of Worth even more famous, and modernise it into the 19oo’s style. Their alliances with the Cartier family and Lalique for the perfume, enable them to reign over Paris society. They also start a collaboration with Swarovski and invent the word Strass for cristal diamonds. This poor English boy from Lincolnshire had conquered the French court and his sons perpetuated his name with enormous talent and ambition.

Comtesse Greffulhe’s famous Byzantine dress in silver lamé embroidered with gold threads and pearls, worn at her daughter’s wedding to Armand de Gramont at the Madeleine in 1904

Only the second world war could destroy this amazing house which was sold to Paquin in 1954 and the London shop is closed in 1967, thus erasing the name from the fashion world. Today, the perfumes are owned by Dilesh Mehta.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Portrait of Empress Elizabeth from Austria, 1865, dress attributed to Worth

The book with a foreword by Christian Lacroix, is published by La Bibliothèque des Arts in Lausanne in French and Thames and Hudson in English. (59€)

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