Who Started Haute Couture?


This House of Worth court presentation ensemble was worn by the American Emily Warren Roebling for an official presentation to the czar and czarina of Russia. All things fashion aside, Warren Roebling was a brilliant mind. Not only did she earn a law degree in the late 19th century, she also worked as an engineer on the landmark Brooklyn Bridge. DRESS: Court presentation ensemble, silk, metal, cotton, leather, 1896, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons

It's hard to imagine Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, designing her own dresses. But that's what all women did as recently as the 19th century, royalty and pauper alike. Then Charles Frederick Worth arrived on the scene and created haute couture — literally translated, it means high dressmaking — and the fashion design industry was born.

Dressed, a brand-new HowStuffWorks podcast devoted to the history of fashion, explores pioneering designer Worth and the founding of haute couture in its inaugural episode. The podcast is hosted by fashion historians April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary.

Haute couture (pronounced "oat koo TER") refers to garments created for a specific client. Fashion houses such as Chanel and Christian Dior are official haute couture establishments because they meet specific requirements, which include designing made-to-order clothes for private clients via more than one fitting, having a full-time staff of at least 15 and presenting collections of at least 50 original designs to the public twice annually.

Worth came up with the idea of fashion designers, and fashion houses, in the middle of the 19th century. An Englishman born in 1825, Worth worked for textile merchants as a young adult, where he learned all about fabrics and dressmaking. He eventually decamped to Paris, where he secured a job with Maison Gagelin-Opigez et Cie, a company that sold luxury textiles. Itching to design his own garments, Worth approached management with a novel idea: Create a new department within the company dedicated to designing and producing dresses and allow Worth to be the designer.

It doesn't sound shocking today, but management balked. Dressmakers were not well-regarded back then, and male designers were virtually unheard of. But eventually, in 1851, they agreed. Soon, the Dressed hosts say, Worth was heralded as a talented tastemaker, and clients sought his opinion on fashion.

A portrait of Charles Frederick Worth, a founding father of haute couture
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1858, Worth left Gagelin and together with Otto Bobergh opened his own company, the Parisian-based House of Worth. His designs typically featured lavish fabrics and trimmings, as Jessa Krick from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute notes. Not surprisingly, he also obsessed over proper fit. Soon Worth, who considered himself an artist, began insisting clients accept his vision and designs, even if they disagreed. Although some deemed him a bit of a tyrant, clients acquiesced, and the profession of fashion designer, as we know it today, was born.

Worth dissolved his partnership with Bobergh in 1871 and the House of Worth was solely his. By this time, he counted Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, as one of his patrons. Her influence helped boost his career, and eventually he was dressing other prominent women of the day, including famed stage actor Sarah Bernhardt and opera star Nellie Melba. The Englishman's contributions to the field also include being one of the first fashion designers to sew his name into garments and to create maternity wear.

When Worth died in 1895, sons Gaston-Lucien and Jean-Philippe took over the operation. At first business was good, but the powerful House of Worth began losing its footing during the 20th century. The House of Paquin acquired the business in 1950, and by 1952 the Worth family was formally out of the business when Worth's great-grandson, Jean-Charles, retired.

But the House of Worth wasn't quite dead. The business was bought and sold several more times over the years, resuming couture operations in the late 1960s and again in the early 2010s.

Many of Worth's garments are still around today, and fashion buffs can see them at museums all around the world, including The Costume Institute, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as at London's V&A Museum and the Museum at FIT.

Listen to the full Dressed episode to hear even more about this haute couture pioneer and meet surprise guest Hylan Booker, lead designer for the iconic fashion house in the late 1960s.


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