Paris Haute Couture

In 1847, after struggling to find work and learn the language, Worth gained a position as a selling clerk at Maison Gagelin-Opigez et Cie, purveyor of luxury silks, shawls and mantles (capes). The young man demonstrated a flair for designing, using the firm’s materials and became a highly business valuable asset. In 1855 Gagelin-Opigez were awarded the prestigious first prize at the Exposition Universelle for a lavish court train that Worth had designed.

Following his marriage to fellow worker Marie Augustine Vernet (1825-98), Worth designed dresses for her to wear to work. They attracted admiration from clients who enquired if they might order similar models for themselves. Worth’s moment had arrived and – at the peak of France’s Second Empire – it was altogether timely.

By 1857 Worth had acquired the knowledge and possessed the creative talent to start his own business. He entered into a partnership with Otto Gustaf Bobergh (1821-81), a colleague from another company, who provided the financial capital required. They rented first floor premises at 7 rue de la Paix, a quiet residential street in central Paris, with an initial staff of 20 workers. It was not long before this street was to become the most famous fashion address in the world. Worth furnished the premises along the lines of a private residence to ensure maximum comfort for his clients. And, it is for this reason that elite fashion firms became known as ‘houses’.

Although translated literally haute couture means fine sewing, implicit is a supreme quality of innovative design and top-level craftsmanship. It is widely accepted that Charles Frederick Worth was the first haute couturier. Before Worth, it was highly unusual for a man to design dresses for women. Traditionally, women had purchased fabrics and trimmings and then discussed their style requirements with their female dressmaker. In contrast, Worth supplied all materials and offered a complete clothing service, providing clothing and accessories for all occasions.

Worth had forged good working relationships with textiles manufacturers whilst at Maison Gagelin-Opigez et Cie and invited them to make special production runs of unique fabrics for his collections. He worked especially closely with the silk weavers in Lyon and collaborated with them on the designs, including reviving historical patterns. Worth was also responsible for ordering the production of fine, lustrous silk satin which has, ever since, became a mainstay fabric for luxurious evening gowns.

The couturier recognised that as clients were in the country in the summer it would be advantageous to present his spring/summer collection in January. He was thus the first fashion designer to create and present collections and to show them in advance of the season for which they were intended.

From the outset, Worth distanced himself from any association with trade and industry and presented himself as an artist. And he made this explicit by his choice of dress: donning a velvet beret, fur trimmed coat and floppy neck tie, his style was likened to the famous painter Rembrandt. Worth was a creator and arbiter of taste. He dictated the styles that his clients wore and this was unprecedented.