Charles Worth: The Man who Invented Haute Couture

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Charles Worth: The Man who Invented Haute Couture
Place Vendôme, Rue de la Paix, Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré – these streets are the epicenter of Paris’s high fashion industry. International designer names such as Céline, Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana sit cheek-by-jowl along some of the most exclusive shopping streets in the world. But behind the storefronts, the creators of these very desirable clothes are the inheritors of a fashion industry invented more or less single-handedly by one man in the 19th century. And not just any man: an Englishman, no less. Charles Frederick Worth was born in 1825 in a small village called Bourne in Lincolnshire, eastern England. His father was a solicitor but what should have been a comfortable middle class childhood for Charles was ruined by his father’s drinking and irresponsible loss of the family’s money. His wastrel behavior meant Charles was apprenticed to a printer at the age of 11. A year later he moved to London to work for the drapery store Swan & Edgar. It was during this apprenticeship that Worth learnt the skills of salesmanship and catering to affluent ladies, and no doubt developed his eye for color and fabric.  Engraved portrait of Charles Frederick Worth, fashion designer, aged 30 (in 1855). Author unknown/ Wikimedia Commons But Worth was ambitious and knew there was a wide world out there, and in 1846 he crossed the English Channel for Paris, where he found work with the prestigious silk merchant company Gagelin. Gagelin supplied the French Court with silks for court outfits as well as selling cashmere mantles and shawls, and Worth started to come into contact with the highest levels of French society. It was while working at Gagelin that Worth started to sew his own dresses, and once he had met his future wife and married her (another employee at Gagelin, Marie Vernet), she became his model. His gowns sold so well that Gagelin eventually allowed Worth to open his own dress department. Success came quickly: Worth’s gowns were displayed at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 and again at Paris’s Universal Exhibition of 1855. Three years later he felt sufficiently confident to open his own business in partnership with a Swede, Otto Bobergh. Aiming high from the start, the House of Worth opened in Rue de la Paix. It is said that success is built on hard work but that alone means nothing without a hefty dose of good luck. Worth’s dose of good luck arrived in the form of Princess Pauline de Metternich, wife of the Austrian Ambassador. She was a regular customer at Worth and it was while wearing one of his creations at a Court ball that she was noticed by the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, who enquired where it had come from. Immediately, Eugénie summoned Worth to see her and overnight he became her favored dressmaker. Her name became synonymous with Worth’s designs. In her memoirs, Pauline de Metternich ruefully noted “And so…Worth was made and I was lost, for from that moment there were no more dresses at 300 francs each”.
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Lead photo credit : Portrait of Charles Frédéric Worth by Nadar. Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine. Public domain

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.