Firsts in Fashion: The first designer

by Casey Ludick

“Your Honour, you of all people should understand the importance of being first… I have no choice but to be the first…. Your honour, out of all the cases you're gonna hear today, which is gonna make you the first.” - Mary Jackson; Hidden Figures “The Importance of being first” 2016, portrayed by Janelle Monae.

The above quote is taken from the movie Hidden Figures (2016); which focusses on the three black women who helped the United States of America win the Space Race. Making them the first to reach the moon. Although the speech delivered by Monae is about race and female advocacy, it is ultimately about the importance of being first. Since being a pioneer in a field is so important, lets talks about firsts in fashion. The first fashion designer to be specific. So, let’s talk about Charles Frederick Worth.

The House of Worth in Paris at 17 Rue de la Paix, 1894. This photographer is unknown.

Worth is responsible for the way the fashion world works today in many ways but is often forgotten. Charles Frederick Worth and his successors are nearly never mentioned in the credits for being the inspiration behind some of the biggest designers in the world or acknowledged for his contributions. Worth was the first Parisian fashion designer and is known in fashion history as the father of haute couture.

Charles Frederick Worth was born in Lincolnshire, England on October 13th, 1825 - before child labour laws existed - and had begun apprenticing for two textile merchants at the age of 11. Working in this position proved useful though, because he gained an incredible understanding of fabrics as well as the business of supplying dress makers. This experience was paramount to his success as a designer, but it was the time he spent visiting the national gallery in London that inspired his creative genius.

In 1845, Worth relocated to Paris and found work at Gagelin et Opigez a year later in 1846. Gagelin et Opigez was another textiles company where Worth learned where to find the best fabric and trims, but more importantly working on fabric displays for the company allowed Worth to discover his love for design. Worth became so good at designing dresses for displays that the company owners opened a small dressmaking department for Worth to manage. In 1858, Worth left Gagelin et Opigez to start his own business with a partner. However, Worth’s status as a British Parisian designer didn’t take off until he had a very important endorsement.

Image taken from depicting Empress Eugenie wearing an original Worth gown painted Franz Xavier Winthalter.

Worth’s success was linked to the reinstatement of French royalty post-Marie Antoinette and the cake debacle, because of his link to the new empress. The house of Worth gained traction because the luxurious crinoline gowns reflected the elegance of the 19th century, these designs earned him the patronage of Empress Eugenie de Montijo. Eugenie’s patronage bolstered the House of Worth’s reputation well into the 1860s. Furthermore, Worth had become known for his use of lavish fabrics, his use of elements of history and for his attention to the female form. These design characteristics made Worth the most famous designer and dressmaker in the West, aiding in his vision for the fashion industry.

Worth was the first designer to establish “take what you get” business plans for his customers. This set him apart from dressmakers who relied on their clients designs to create. Worth then changed the way he displayed clothing in that he used his wife as a model. Once his brand had taken flight, he had begun employing women to model his clothing at exhibitions at the fashion house. At these fashion exhibitions Worth would display a variety of works, introducing the first fashion shows. Potential clients would view them, select their favourite pieces from the line up and Worth would have them tailor made for each customer. This aggressive self-promotion earned Worth the title of “father of haute couture” or “the first couturier”.

By the 1870s, Worth partnered with newly invented fashion magazines and essentially became a Western household name. This drew women from all over Europe to Paris, to Worth’s fashion house to purchase entire wardrobes, and Worth fell in love with American customers. Although the time of European royal patronage had worked well, American “royals” from new money worked better. American “royalty” quickly became the Worth family’s favourite customers because they were willing to buy no matter the cost. This was so different in comparison to the European strategic spending style.

Alice Vanderbilt in “Spirit of Electricity” by Worth. Source: Museum of the City of New York.

Worth changed the path of high fashion, in that he made high fashion available to everyone. Worth sold his designs to department stores and individual customers who couldn’t afford his actual works in order to make his brand more accessible. He is basically the reason Miranda Priestly could give that speech on “cerulean” and “stuff” because without high fashion it would have taken a lot longer to pass through the fingers of a normal mortal man. Worth retired in 1890 leaving the fashion house to his sons Gaston-Lucien and Jean-Philippe Worth.

As the creative director and designer for the House of Worth, Jean-Philippe continued to design in his fathers aesthetic but is mostly overlooked as his father’s successor. Jean-Philippe, however, did leave a mark on the fashion industry as well. Jean-Philippe fostered alliances with jewelers like Cartier and Swarovski during his time as Worth II. These partnerships led to the creation of embellished designer gowns - the forefathers of embellished clothing we see today. Jean-Philippe’s work was overshadowed by his fathers work and he was never noted for his work under the Worth name. So, after his retirement, The House of Worth was passed down to Jacques Worth, Charles-Frederick's grandson.

Jacques launched Les Perfumes Worth as a separate company and produced over 20 different perfumes between 1924 and 1947. The problem was that the company was now facing more competition than ever post WW2 because of the onslaught of designers breaking out on the scene, including Christian Dior. So due to financial troubles, the House of Worth was taken over by the House of Paquin in 1950 while still under direction by Jacques. It was passed out of the families hands in 1952 when Roger Worth, the last of four generations of Worth designers retired.

“The Lily Dress” a worth original Gown, in the 1890s. It was worn by Countess Grufelhe, Palias Galiera.

The House of Worth closed for good in 1956, and most of Charles-Frederick Worth’s legacy can only be seen in the way clothing is made and sold today. His actual sketches and gowns are displayed in museums worldwide including the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and others. These displays of historic dresses inspired many 20th and 21st century designers including Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, John-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood.

Over the years, the House of Worth was revived and the designers who took over produced a spring collection. But this was 2010, and so 19th century elegance was far too much for the Paris Hilton/Fifa World Cup/Waka Waka era. So, that was the absolute end of Worth. Even in the end though, Charles-Frederick Worth and his successors all made notable changes to the fashion industry including what fashion is.

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