Charles Frederick Worth

By The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Charles Frederick Worth, founder of the House of Worth, was a charismatic and artistically gifted Englishman who moved to Paris early in his career. Using his astute business sense, he capitalized on mid-nineteenth-century technological innovations such as the transatlantic steamship and the sewing machine. He was a primary force in transforming the French fashion system from a series of independent dressmaking shops into a major international industry. Worth founded his dressmaking establishment in Paris in 1858. Applying innovative organizational and procedural concepts to his business model, he established the blueprint for the future great French couture houses that flourished in the twentieth century. 

One of his most significant contributions was to change the perception of dressmaking from craft to art by raising technical and artistic standards and identifying himself as an artist with ultimate authority over all creative and technical processes. Paradoxically, in order to handle the volume of demand for his clothes as his custom business flourished, he devised the concept of using interchangeable pattern pieces that would become the foundation of ready-to-wear clothing production. Worth's sumptuous clothes were the gold standard for a clientele of royals, aristocrats, and social elites in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Ensemble Ensemble (1862–65) by Charles Frederick WorthThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ensemble, 1862–65

Worth opened his first business in partnership with Swedish businessman Otto Bobergh in 1858. At about the same time his designs caught the attention of Empress Eugénie. She soon commissioned Worth as exclusive dressmaker for attire worn at court. Scholars have noted that it was the simplicity of his designs relative to the overly frothy fashions of the period that attracted her. 

EnsembleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

While Worth initially presented pared-down versions of the prevailing tulle-swathed aesthetic, less fussy monochromatic styles were the mode by the 1860s. Here the elegance of line and broad surface of shimmering taffeta is enhanced by petaled self-ruffles that add texture rather than contrast. Worth's refinement is evident in the white satin ruffle facing revealed only with movement. The dress has a bare ball bodice, pictured here, and a more modest one for day. Garments with the Worth & Bobergh label are rare, as the partnership ended in 1870–71.

Afternoon dressThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Afternoon dress, ca. 1875

The unusual color combination and extraordinary patterned bodice fabric that cascades down the skirt back of the dress are its distinguishing features. Textile patterns such as this one with overlapping scallops, known as scale patterns, were part of the standard repertoire for Worth in the 1870s and 1880s. Yet the density and small size of this design and the textile's structural complexity suggest it may have been woven earlier in the century. Worth is known to have bought older unsold stock from the Lyon textile manufactories to incorporate into his models.

Afternoon dressThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Afternoon dress Afternoon dress (1888) by Charles Frederick WorthThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Afternoon dress, 1888

This two-piece dress is composed of a coat-like overdress with a fitted bodice and open skirt and a full skirt underneath. Single lengths of uncut fabric falling from the shoulders to the hem of the overdress account for its elegant lines. A Worth trademark, the edges of the fabric (selvages) of the open skirt are left exposed, rather than turned back, as was the norm in dressmaking. While most selvages are woven in sturdier yarns dissimilar in color, those on Worth's luxurious textiles were woven of the same color and quality. The exposed selvages served not only as a decorative device but also as a signifier of the high quality and expense of the custom fabrics.

Afternoon dressThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

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