Textiles in the House of Worth

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

While there were several other talented dressmakers operating in Paris from the 1870s, Charles Frederick Worth in his commanding role was largely influential in determining the changing fashionable silhouettes of the late nineteenth century. Motivated by economic and business realities, he designed these silhouettes, which required prodigious amounts of yardage, as much to support the French luxury textile industry based in Lyon as to satisfy fashion's inherently fickle nature. The most outstanding features of Worth's garments are the luxury and sheer beauty of the textiles, which he often commissioned specifically from the Lyon manufactories. Exhibiting a refined sense of color and proportion, his artistry is evident in the balance he achieved integrating the textures and patterns of the textiles with the cut and surface decoration of the garment. When working with a single fabric, he maximized the impact of a pattern by matching up the motifs at the seams in a way that formed an expanded variant of the original design.  The Worth formula of using beautiful textiles in artful and refined combinations as the basis of design was carried on by all of Charles Frederick's descendants, who continued to run the House of Worth through the mid-twentieth century.
"Tulipes Hollandaises" (textile), 1889
Entitled "Tulipes Hollandaises," this stunning textile was produced by the Lyon manufacturer A. M. Gourd & Cie at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, where it won the grand prize in the Lyonnaise textile section.  With a three-foot pattern repeat, it is one of the most costly fabrics produced at that time and can be said to be among the last of the great silk masterpieces of the Victorian era.  Worth's design for the garment respects the supremacy of the fabric. Constructed with minimal seaming, the loose fit allows for an uninterrupted vertical drape that maximizes the impact of the large repeat. 
Evening ensemble, 1893
Japonism became a prevalent theme in fashion and the arts starting in the 1880s.  Here individual petals of chrysanthemum, the flower that has symbolized the Japanese throne since the eighth century, are so expertly designed and woven as to capture the implicit pull of gravity as they fall through the air.  In a first-rate amalgamation of the antique and the new, Worth chose the large puffed sleeve with close-fitting arms typical of 16th-century high fashion as surrogates for the prevailing leg o'mutton style. 
Ball gown, 1898
In Japanese iconography the butterfly is a symbol of young womanhood and marital happiness.  Capturing the essence of youthful beauty, the pattern of this textile was woven to the specifications of the skirt, so that the butterflies could be arranged in an overall design planned for its shape and dimensions.  Size graduation of the motifs establishes a depth of space, into which the glittering rhinestone-studded butterflies flutter upward and disappear.
Evening coat, ca. 1900
Historical borrowings from sixteenth-century England constitute the decorative pattern and cut of this evening coat designed by Charles Frederick Worth's son. A long-stemmed variation of the Tudor rose, heraldic symbol of the Tudor family that ruled England throughout the century, is woven in black velvet against a cream satin ground. The design is repeated on the bodice and sleeves in black-on-black appliqués and again in sequins at the neck. The unfitted style, showcasing the textile, and the rufflike stand-up collar interpret outerwear worn at the time. In a House of Worth hallmark, the textile pieces are matched up at the back seam to form an enlarged variant of the pattern.
Evening coat, 1901
Comparable to a negative image, the pattern of this grand textile gleams in satin from the depths of the velvet pile rather than in relief against a voided ground, which is more often the norm for patterned velvets. In a perfect union of planar and three-dimensional design, the coat is constructed of four lengths of fabric, which are joined to create a different pattern from each viewing perspective. By 1901 wraps of dark hues and weighty textiles like this one were quickly going out of fashion. Lighter-weight fabrics in pastel colors replaced them.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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