A 5-Minute Guide to the House of Worth

Something wonderful happened to the world of fashion during the second half of the 19th century.

Beautiful gowns were no longer the exclusive privilege of the aristocracy …

The splendour of the Royal Court
The splendour of the Royal Court

… but were available to anyone with the wherewithal to display their finery on the boulevards, in the opera houses, and in café society.

The Boulevard at Night, in front of the Theatre des Varietes by Jean-Georges Béraud, 1883
The Boulevard at Night, in front of the Theatre des Varietes by Jean-Georges Béraud, 1883
The Staircase of the Opera by Louis Beroud
The Staircase of the Opera by Louis Beroud
La Patisserie Gloppe au Champs Elyssées by Jean-Georges Béraud , 1889
La Patisserie Gloppe au Champs Elyssées by Jean-Georges Béraud , 1889

It was a time to “see and be seen”.

Woman with Opera Glasses by Frederik Henrdik Kaemmerer
Woman with Opera Glasses by Frederik Henrdik Kaemmerer

And who was responsible for this change?

None other than the English entrepreneur Charles Frederick Worth, “the father of Haute Couture”.

Charles Frederick Worth. At ages 14, 30, and 69
Charles Frederick Worth. At ages 14, 30, and 69

Born in Lincolnshire, England, Charles Frederick Worth spent his early career working for department stores and textile merchants in London.

Besides learning all there was to know about fabrics and the dressmaking business, he would spend hours in the National Gallery studying historical portraits.

Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785
Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785
Mr and Mrs William Hallett (“The Morning Walk”) by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785
Mr and Mrs William Hallett (“The Morning Walk”) by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785

It was this time in London that would inspire his later works.

As the center of world fashion, Paris beckoned, and Worth found employment with the prominent textile firm Maison Gagelin, soon becoming a leading salesman, then dressmaker.

Quai du Louvre by Claude Monet,1867
Quai du Louvre by Claude Monet,1867

Establishing a reputation for himself and winning commendations at the expositions in Paris and London, news of Worth’s skills caught the attention of the Empress Eugénie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III of France.

Appointed court designer, Charles Frederick Worth’s success was all but guaranteed.

Portrait of the Empress Eugénie (1826-1920) by Franz Xaver Winterhalder, 1853, wearing a gown designed by Worth
Portrait of the Empress Eugénie (1826-1920) by Franz Xaver Winterhalder, 1853, wearing a gown designed by Worth

Soon after, he opened his own design house in Paris at 7 Rue de la Paix—first in partnership with Otto Bobergh and later as sole proprietor.

The House of Worth and Haute Couture were born.

House of Worth, 7 rue de la Paix, Paris, and Paris and Biarritz salons
House of Worth, 7 rue de la Paix, Paris, and Paris and Biarritz salons

Haute Couture is the fusion of fashion and costume.

It is wearable art.

And wealthy women of the 19th century would pay handsomely for it.

With seemingly endless social engagements, clients changed dress up to four times a day, some purchasing their entire wardrobes from Worth.

Elegant Soiree by Jean-Georges Béraud
Elegant Soiree by Jean-Georges Béraud

The House of Worth was known for showing several designs for each season on live models.

Clients would select their favorites and Worth would tailor-make gowns with elegant fabrics, detailed trimmings, and superb fit.

By the 1870s, Worth’s name frequently appeared in ordinary fashion magazines, spreading his fame to women well beyond courtly circles.

I told you it was a dress from Worth’s. I know the look.

I told you it was a dress from Worth's. I know the look

Combining colors and textures using meticulously chosen textiles and trims, House of Worth produced works of art.

That so many examples have survived in such good condition is testament not only to the popularity of Worth among wealthy patrons but also the quality of textiles insisted upon by Charles Frederick Worth.

What better way to celebrate the extraordinary House of Worth than the dulcet tones of Claude Debussy.

This is one of Worth’s earlier designs when he was still in partnership with Otto Bobergh under the name Worth and Bobergh.

Skirts of the 1860s were wide, full, and bell-shaped, supported initially by multiple layers of petticoats and later by crinolines made from graduated hoops of cane or steel.

1862. Evening ensemble. Silk. metmuseum
1862. Evening ensemble. Silk. metmuseum

As the 1870s got underway, the shape of skirts changed, with flatter front and sides and the fullness pulled back and supported behind by a “bustle”.

1875. Afternoon Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1875. Afternoon Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1877. Dinner Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1877. Dinner Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1878. Two-Piece Day Dress. Silk faille and brocaded silk lampas weave trimmed with lace, silk satin, and beads. philamuseum
1878. Two-Piece Day Dress. Silk faille and brocaded silk lampas weave trimmed with lace, silk satin, and beads. philamuseum
1878. Reception Dress. Silk, linen. cincinnatiartmuseum
1878. Reception Dress. Silk, linen. cincinnatiartmuseum
1882. Evening Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1882. Evening Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1883. Afternoon Dress. Dark blue satin; dark blue satin brocaded with bouquets of coral pink to rust colored roses and white stemmed flowers; petal pink chiffon; rust satin. Credit MCNY
1883. Afternoon Dress. Dark blue satin; dark blue satin brocaded with bouquets of coral pink to rust colored roses and white stemmed flowers; petal pink chiffon; rust satin. Credit MCNY
1887. Ball Gown. Silk, glass, metallic thread. metmuseum
1887. Ball Gown. Silk, glass, metallic thread. metmuseum
1888. Evening Gown. Silk, beads, metallic. metmuseum
1888. Evening Gown. Silk, beads, metallic. metmuseum

As the 1880s came to a close, the lines of skirts transitioned away from the bustle to form a clearer shape, but the sleeves swelled to enormous proportions, earning them the nickname “elephant sleeves”.

1889. Evening Dress. metmuseum
1889. Evening Dress. metmuseum
1892. Dinner Dress. silk satin with woven chrysanthemum pattern; large velvet gigot sleeves; lace decoration on cuffs and collar. KCI
1892. Dinner Dress. silk satin with woven chrysanthemum pattern; large velvet gigot sleeves; lace decoration on cuffs and collar. KCI
1893 Evening Ensemble. Silk, linen, metal. metmuseum
1893 Evening Ensemble. Silk, linen, metal. metmuseum
1893. Evening Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1893. Evening Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1893. Ensemble. Silk, jet, metal. metmuseum
1893. Ensemble. Silk, jet, metal. metmuseum
1894. Ball Gown. silk brocade with tassel pattern; two-piece dress with gigot sleeves; silk taffeta bow at breast; silk chiffon decoration at hem of skirt. Credit KCI
1894. Ball Gown. silk brocade with tassel pattern; two-piece dress with gigot sleeves; silk taffeta bow at breast; silk chiffon decoration at hem of skirt. Credit KCI
1894. Afternoon Dress. Silk faille set of bodice and skirt; silk lace and velvet bows at neck and cuffs; apron-shaped overskirt with silk fringe at front. Credit KCI
1894. Afternoon Dress. Silk faille set of bodice and skirt; silk lace and velvet bows at neck and cuffs; apron-shaped overskirt with silk fringe at front. Credit KCI
1895. Ball Gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1895. Ball Gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
“Lily Dress” evening dress, black velvet with application of ivory silk in the form of lilies, embroidered with pearls and sequins, 1896. © L. Degrâces et Ph. offre/Galliera/Roger-Viollet
“Lily Dress” evening dress, black velvet with application of ivory silk in the form of lilies, embroidered with pearls and sequins, 1896. © L. Degrâces et Ph. offre/Galliera/Roger-Viollet
1896. Wedding Dress. Silk, pearl. metmuseum
1896. Wedding Dress. Silk, pearl. metmuseum
1898. Evening Dress. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1898. Evening Dress. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1898. Evening Dress. Silk, cotton, metal. metmuseum
1898. Evening Dress. Silk, cotton, metal. metmuseum
1898. Evening gown. Silk. metmuseum
1898. Evening gown. Silk. metmuseum
1898. Ball Gown. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1898. Ball Gown. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1898. Evening Dress. Silk, rhinestones. metmuseum
1898. Evening Dress. Silk, rhinestones. metmuseum
1900. Ball Gown. Silk, cotton, metallic thread, glass, metal. metmuseum
1900. Ball Gown. Silk, cotton, metallic thread, glass, metal. metmuseum
1900 Evening Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1900 Evening Dress. Silk. metmuseum
1900. Evening Dress. Pale green silk chiffon and velvet; S-curve silhouette; appliqué of plant pattern; sequin and cord embroidery with water's-edge pattern. Credit KCI
1900. Evening Dress. Pale green silk chiffon and velvet; S-curve silhouette; appliqué of plant pattern; sequin and cord embroidery with water’s-edge pattern. Credit KCI

House of Worth gowns were worn by the very wealthiest of clients.  The dinner dress (below left) was worn by the wife of the great American banker J.P. Morgan, Jr.

At night, the stars in the evening dress (below right) would twinkle as the wearer moved and the light caught the different textures.

1900 & 1905. Silk, rhinsetones, metal. metmuseum
1900 & 1905. Silk, rhinsetones, metal. metmuseum
1900. Ball Gown. Silk. metmuseum
1900. Ball Gown. Silk. metmuseum
1901. Tea Gown. Silk. metmuseum
1901. Tea Gown. Silk. metmuseum
1902. Evening Dress. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1902. Evening Dress. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1906 Peignoir. Silk. metmuseum
1906 Peignoir. Silk. metmuseum
1910. Tea Gown. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1910. Tea Gown. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1911 Evening Dress. Silk, metal, glass. metmuseum
1911 Evening Dress. Silk, metal, glass. metmuseum
1916. Evening Dress. French. silk metal, rhinestones. metmuseum
1916. Evening Dress. French. silk metal, rhinestones. metmuseum
1918 Dinner Dress. Silk synthetic. metmuseum
1918 Dinner Dress. Silk synthetic. metmuseum
1925. Evening Dress. Silk, beads, metal thread. metmuseum
1925. Evening Dress. Silk, beads, metal thread. metmuseum
1930s Evening ensemble. Silk, plastic. metmuseum
1930s Evening ensemble. Silk, plastic. metmuseum
1940s. 'Féminité' dress and Ensemble. Silk, synthetic, beads. metmuseum
1940s. ‘Féminité’ dress and Ensemble. Silk, synthetic, beads. metmuseum

Charles Frederick Worth passed away in 1895 and The House of Worth remained in operation under his descendents but faced increasing competition from the 1920s onwards, eventually closing in 1956.

The House of Worth brand was revived in 1999 but failed to compete successfully in Haute Couture.

Read more:
20 Romantic Dreamscapes from 19th Century artist Frederic Edwin Church

The Tragic Story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

John Atkinson Grimshaw — Painter of Moonlight

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