Fashion in the 19th century

Les Arts Décoratifs

Birth of Haute Couture

The invention of Haute Couture
The Second Empire (1851-1870) oscillated between great luxury art and the creation of haute couture, and diffusion or even democratisation thanks to industrial progress. Benefiting from the economic and cultural development of Paris, nicknamed « the city of light », from the enthusiasm of foreigners for universal exhibitions, the strong demand for luxury goods reached an unprecedented level. An imperial couple lived a life of luxury where niceties followed one after the other, requiring a varied dressing room, adapted to every moment of the day.
Increased number of daily outfits
The increase in social activities required changing several times a day. A fashionable person may have needed four or five outfits. To begin with, when she did not have any obligations in the morning, after taking off her « bed robe », she wore a slip or an interior dress, for staying at home without a corset.

Engraved artistic fashion board, Worth's model (1875)

If she was to go out in the morning, a suit-dress in wool, cotton or linen according to the season, was worn, carried on a corset, that she would not take off until the evening.

Next, the visite dress, in silk, adorned with ruffles and trimmings, but without a neckline, was necessary in the afternoon. Sometimes, a tea-gown allowed you to receive friends for tea.

Engraved artistic fashion board, Worth's model (1875)

Finally, the evening dresses, which could have a low cut neck line, of two different kinds, the dinner or « petit soir » dress and the dress for going to the opera or a ball known as « grand soir », which is the mostly richly embroidered of the two.

Engraved artistic fashion board, Worth's model (1875)

The emergence of seaside tourism required yet more outfits, such as the « sea bathing gown ». Horse riding continued to require the riding gown. The diversification of the cloakroom was favoured by the great couturiers who, whilst also being artists, were traders none the less.

The transformation dress
Accordingly, women were obliged to follow dress codes related to the various activities of the day. The transformation dress was symptomatic of a hectic daily life but also of a desire to not spend too much.

Transformation dress (1870-1872)

Given the increase in the number of daily outfits, this dress is made up of a skirt with two matching corsages, one for the day, the other for the evening. Sometimes even three corsages : afternoon, « petit soir » and « grand soir » are cut from the same fabric as the skirt but differ in the depth of the low neckline, the more or less covering style of the sleeves and more abundant decorations.

Charles-Frederick Worth (1825-1895)
It is surprising that the activity that best symbolises Parisian fashion, haute couture, was invented by an Englishman. Only twenty years old, Charles-Frederick Worth, already experienced in the sale of fabrics, tried his luck on the continent. Employed by the <i>City of Paris</i>, where he met his future partner, and then at Gagelin, the young man quickly climbed the ladder. Determined to fulfil his ambitions, he chose a house in the future Opera neighbourhood, the nerve centre of Parisian luxury. There were already a good number of jewellers, fine linen and hosiery houses, seamstresses and suppliers of lace or sunshades. Luxury attracts luxury !

Engraved artistic fashion board, Worth's model (1875)

There are only a few Worth creations left, fashion engravings show complicated sets of pleats and stripes, roll-ups, several stages of skirts, spread over projected or wide turning hoop skirts.

Haute Couture
Mallarmé considers that Worth is « the author of the sublime daily festival appearing in Paris, Vienna, London or Petersburg ». With him, men began dressing in women's clothing. Worth invented everything, the « look-alikes », foreshadowing models, fashion shows and brands. Indeed, like a painter, he signed his work. With him, the couturier was no longer a supplier but an artist. In elegant salons, he received a prestigious clientele, the Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, the Princess of Metternich, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi), the Queen of Sweden, but also the wives of the contractors and bankers and mistresses. Models, presented during shows or private appointments, were redesigned and adapted with extreme care to the precise measurements of the clients. Pitching the presentation of his collections according to a seasonal calendar, cultivated the spectacular side of the business.

Evening dress, Worth (around 1875)

This dress, by the sheer size of its figure and its « tail », by the quality of its satin fashioned lift, characterises well the kind of ostentation sought out for evenings.

An organised trade, protected creations
Worth was emulated and the trade became organised with the creation, in 1868, of the precursor to the Chambre syndicale de la couture, and protected himself legally in order to protect his creations through copyright and artistic property rights.

Evening dress, Worth (1893-1894)

The term « couturier » was replaced in 1880 with that of « designer goods », « haute couture » was hardly used until 1910. The Haute Couture houses were also big businesses and sometimes, family businesses. As early as the 1870s, the Worth House employed more than a thousand people ; it continued through his sons, integrated into the house long before the death of the founder.

Towards the Belle Epoque
The increased posterior, accentuated with a fold, was abandoned at the end of the century. The Belle Epoque preferred a more slender silhouette and favoured a sinuous line, recurring in contemporary applied arts.

Transformation dress, Jacques Doucet (1900-1905)

This dress, was created by Jacques Doucet, in a house only four buildings away from Worth. It showed a new taste for light fabrics and evanescent colours. The asymmetrical character of the embroidery is inspired by the Japanese style which was, at the time, very in vogue.

Doucet had the intuition to hire two talented creators, Paul Poiret, who then went to work with Worth and then Madeleine Vionnet. These two dressmakers were at the origins of great upheavals, Poiret proposing removing the corset to his customers from 1907 ; Vionnet, initiating the bias cut in the 20s, which became the model to be copied in the 30s.

Fashion cycles accelerated in the 19th century, the appearance of the specialised press, the industrial revolution, and the creation of Haute Couture all contributed.

Born in France in 1858, Haute Couture is still present today, an exclusively Parisian appellation, legally protected. Inheriting 19th century know-how, houses are selected based on strict criteria and must fulfil obligations as to the number of employees, models, their design and their creation. They must always adapt exclusive models for women, on demand, presented during two annual shows.

Credits: Story

Text and choice of images: Corinne Dumas-Toulouse, Art historian and speaker at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Editorial coordination of the virtual exhibition: Maude Bass-Krueger, assisted by Alexandra Harwood and César Imbert

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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