Chanel, Dior, Balenciaga, Valentino, Versace — There are some fashion houses whose names are synonymous with high-class style. In the late 1800’s, the top name in fashion was Worth. At its peak, the House of Worth was known globally as one of the most luxurious luxury dressmakers, and aspects of the company still survive to this day.
The House of Worth was established in 1858 by Charles Worth, in partnership with Otto Bobergh of Paris. Worth had a long history of working in the fashion industry, beginning at the age of twelve with London’s Swan & Edgar, where he was exposed to the most luxurious of fabrics and the lavish tastes of the rich and powerful. The designer’s headquarters was a short distance from the National Gallery, where Worth found most of his inspiration for his later design work.
In 1845 he left Swan & Edgar and worked for a few months as a silk merchant before landing in France and taking a position at Gagelin magasin de nouveautés, a luxury fabric and accessory shop, as a salesman. His previous apprenticeship was a tremendous asset to him. He experimented with his sales technique, experimenting with new ways to introduce new products to customers. He began to use one of his coworkers, Marie Vernet, as a model to showcase new shawls and other accessories to clients, and eventually began designing dresses for her in order to further showcase the store’s product.
Worth was an outlier in dressmakers at the time. Unlike most designers and dressmakers of the time, Worth was a man. His designs were elegant in their simplicity and perfectly tailored, and eventually he started to receive commission requests for his original designs. Rather than creating entirely new sketches from scratch every time, clients would come to Charles and select from pre-existing designs, which would then be altered to their individual measurements and stylistic requests
Eventually Worth was granted a small dressmaking shop on the store premises. Marie continued to act as his model and the couple were married in 1851. They worked very well together, with Worth designing new dresses frequently for Marie, which she would wear both at the Gaglin where they both continued to work, and at varying events around paris. Inspired by her style, Worth would then be flooded with a rush of new dress orders, a tactic that continues to be used by luxury brand designers today.
Gaglin was sold shortly after and was renamed Opigez and Chazelle. Seeing the popularity of his designs, the new owners decided to enter a selection of Worth’s embroidered silk dresses in the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, which won a gold medal in the “upper clothing” category, exposing his designs to the upwards of six million people who came to see the exhibition.
They were similarly successful when they entered Worth’s “court train dress” in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. This design was unique for its time, with the long train draping from the shoulders rather than the waist, and featured a great deal of elaborate embroidery.
It was this acclaim that finally allowed him to start a fashion house of his own. It was a small firm at the start, only employing around 20 seamstresses. He often made house-calls to clients, bringing Marie with him as his model.
One of his most notable commissions before the opening of his own house was the trousseau of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III of France. Napoleon’s vision for France was a grand one, implementing modernizations that brought a boom to the national economy and made the city one of the crown jewels of Europe. This increase in financial stability in turn inspired an increased desire for luxury goods that had not been seen in France since before the Revolution. Eugenie’s style set the bar at court and even having seen he work at events in the past, name an exquisite lilac ball gown worn by Valerie Feuillet, she was reluctant at first to engage the services of a man as her designer.
Determined, Charles sent Marie to the home of Princess Pauline de Metternich, the wife of the Austrian Ambassador to Paris at the time, armed with some of his best sketches. Princess Pauline immediately ordered two dresses from him and promised to wear one of Worth’s designs at the next ball at the Tuileries Palace. The beautiful white tulle gown that he designed for her was a stunning success, and the Princess details the Empress’s interest in it in her memoirs, Souvenirs de la Princesse Pauline de Metternicht.
The next day, Worth was summoned to the Palace. Soon after she became his benefactor and eventually there was not a single item in her wardrobe that he hadn’t designed.
Her patronage, along with the sheer volume of commissions that poured in afterwards, allowed him to expand operations until he was the employer of over 1500 seamstresses. He was also known to loan certain designs to wealthy clients, just like designers today do for events like the Academy Awards.
From there he went on to design both costumes and personal wardrobes for some of the leading performers of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtree, and Nellie Melba. His impeccable attention to fit combined with the luxurious fabric he worked with and the elements of historic dress that inspired many of his creations set his designs, he was especially sought-after for one-of-a-kind ensembles for wedding gowns and masquerade dresses. Other clients included Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra of England, Maria and Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia, Empress Maria Aledandrovna, Queen Alexandrine of Denmark, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Later on he also clothed such illustrious American families as the Vanderbilts and the Astors.
Some of you may recognize this dress. It looks like it might have been the inspiration for Christine Daae’s “Think of Me” dress in the Phantom of the Opera movie in 2004.
As a designer, Worth was a visionary. He invented the “princess seam” dress that has no waist seam, and introduced the bustle that rendered the crinoline and hoop-skirt obsolete. He was one of the first designers to allow publication of his designs in magazines, and he released patterns of his designs so that they could be legally duplicated across the world. He also helped to found what would eventually become France’s governing body of fashion, La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
He was also a brilliant self-promoter, and to this day he is known as “The First Couturier” and the “Father of Haute Couture”. As his reputation expanded, his designs began to appear in everyday fashion magazines, exposing his work to the world outside of celebrities and nobility. Those with the finances to do so would even make the trip from America to have a full wardrobe made for them. This included not only extravagant morning, afternoon, and evening dresses, but more casual “undress” styles of tea dresses and nightgowns that were only worn within the home.
Charles Worth ended his partnership with Bobergh in 1871.
After Charles’ death in 1895, his song, Gaston-Lucien and Jean-Philippe took over the running of the business, carrying on their father’s legacy of unique and lavish designs. Charles’ grandson Jacques Worth expanded the business into perfumes and fragrances. Their first release, Dans la Nuit, was designed by perfumer Maurice Blanchet, and glassmaker Rene Lalique was commissioned to design the bottle. The scents released were so successful that their perfumerie sector eventually split off into its own separate business, Les Perfumes Worth, which launched almost two dozen fragrances between 1924 and 1947.
The House of Worth continued to be family-operated until 1950, when they were taken over by the House of Paquin. Jean-Charles Worth, great-grandson of the original Worth founder, continued with the company until his retirement.
The company ceased production of couture designs in 1956. From there it changed hands a few times times in the following decades. Les Perfumes Worth was eventually bought by the Société Maurice Blanchet and was eventually became part of International Classic Brands in 1992, and was later bought by Lentheric in 1999.
That same year, entrepreneurs Dilesh and Hitesh Mehta resurrected the House of Worth brand, consolidating the intellectual properties from the original company’s remaining family and corporate descendants into a single body. They also brought on Giovanni Bedin, formerly a designer for Karl Lagerfeld and Thierry Mugler, as their lead designer, who premiered their new collection for the Spring/Summer 2010 season. A ready-to-wear line was introduced a year later under the Courtworth label.
The attempts to re-enter the couture sphere were unfortunately unsuccessful, and the Worth brand ceased its couture production again in 2012. The perfume line, however, remains in production. Dans la Nuit was reformulated and re-released in 2000, as was Je Reviens in 2005. A spin-off of that sent, Je Reviens Superbe was released a few years later, accompanied by two new scents, Joyeause Retour and Courtesan.
Aside from its continued role within the contemporary fashion world, the House of Worth remains a staple of Victorian Era-centric historical literature, and is particularly popularly referenced within the Steampunk genre.