Who was Charles Frederick Worth?
Charles Frederick Worth was an English fashion designer credited with revolutionizing the business of fashion. He was the founder of the House of Worth, one of the foremost fashion houses of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and was well-known for his popularity with the European royalty. An innovative designer and as astute marketer, he is considered by many fashion historians to be the father of haute couture. Raised in an impoverished family in Lincolnshire, Worth was pushed into working at a young age. As a young boy he moved to London to become an apprentice at the department store of Swan & Edgar in Piccadilly. Soon more jobs in textile stores followed and he eventually moved to Paris where he began making dresses himself. His creativity and expert skills earned him many clients in no time and he became a well-known name in dress-making. The ambitious young man established his own company, House of Worth. One of his dresses caught Empress Eugenie’s attention who made him her official dressmaker. This royal patronage made his fashion house a highly successful one which started attracting wealthy female clients from not just Europe but also from America. By the end of his career, the father of haute couture had shifted the day-to-day control of House of Worth to his sons who continued their father’s legacy.
Childhood & Early Life
Charles Frederick Worth was born on October 13, 1825, in Lincolnshire in England, to William and Ann Worth. He was couple’s one of the only two children who survived to maturity.
He hailed from a family of lawyers and attorneys. His solicitor father was, however, an alcoholic who ruined the family finances and abandoned his wife and children in 1836. His mother was now forced to clean houses to support the family, and Charles too was forced to find work despite his young age.
Aged 11, Charles became an apprentice in a printer’s shop. A year later, he moved to London and found work as a bookkeeper for the yard goods firm of Swan & Edgar. Here he began learning about textiles as the company supplied ladies with fabric yardage that would be taken to a dressmaker to create gowns and other garments.
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Charles Frederick Worth moved to Lewis and Allenby, famous London silk merchants, where he became more aware about fashion and textiles. Blessed with a creative mind, he was also drawn to art galleries where he observed the clothing of past eras.
In 1846, he moved to Paris, France. He was a pauper and spoke no French, yet he was determined to make it big in the fashionable city. After struggling initially, he was appointed as a sales assistant at Gagelin-Opigez & Cie, a prestigious Parisian firm that sold silk fabrics to the court dressmakers.
It was at Gagelin that Worth began sewing dresses. His simple yet elegant designs caught the attention of the store’s clients and his employers let him open a dress department in the store which became popular in no time.
Over a period of time his creations helped to expand Gagelin’s business. In addition, he displayed prize-winning garments at both The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and the Exposition Universelle in Paris four years later which helped to build Gagelin’s international reputation.
Worth requested a partnership in Gagelin but was refused. Undaunted, he broke off from the company and decided to launch his own business. He teamed up with a young Swedish business partner, Otto Gustaf Bobergh, and the duo set up a business called Worth and Bobergh in 1858.
Worth had a keen eye for aesthetics and created dresses out of luxuriant and lavish materials with intricate borders and trimmings. He also made many innovations to women’s clothing. He reformed the highly popular trend, the crinoline, and designed a skirt with an ankle length hemline.
His business was successful from the very beginning and attracted several high-profile clients including Princess Pauline von Metternich, who was married to the Austrian ambassador to France. She bought a dress from him which caught the attention of the fashionable Empress of France, Eugenie.
The empress was so impressed by Worth’s designs that she made him the court designer and her official dressmaker. In addition to the empress, he also had numerous other royal clients, including Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The royal patronage allowed him to charge exorbitant rates for his dresses which made him exceedingly wealthy.
Worth ended his partnership with Bobergh in 1871 and the business now came to be known as House of Worth. Wealthy and socially ambitious women from not just Europe but also America were drawn to his creations. Some American women even travelled to Paris to get their entire wardrobe made by Worth.
Along with the women of high social standing, his dresses were also popular with the leading performers of the day like Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry and Jenny Lind. His frequent clients also included the likes of the Astors, Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts.
Worth’s two sons joined the business in 1874 and eventually became more active in the management of the House of Worth. During his later years Charles Worth turned over the business to his sons who continued to run it successfully.
Charles Frederick Worth founded the House of Worth, a French house of high fashion that specialized in haute couture and ready-to-wear clothes. One of the foremost fashion houses of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it boasted of a prominent clientele that included Empress Eugenie and leading performers of the day like Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry and Jenny Lind.
Personal Life & Legacy
While working at Gagelin, he fell in love with Marie Vernet, one of the company’s models, and married her. They had two sons. His wife was a constant source of support and played a major role in helping him establish his successful business.
He suffered from several health problems during his later years and died of pneumonia at the age of 69 on March 10, 1895.
This 19th century English fashion designer was the first one to use live models to display his creations to clients.