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Day dress

Organza, silk chiffon, machine-made lace,

Worth, Paris, France

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British-born Charles Frederick Worth opened his Paris fashion house in 1858, establishing the foundations for the modern haute couture industry. It earned him the nickname ‘the father of haute couture’.

An arbiter of taste, Worth was one of the first to sign his clothes with a designer label, establishing the concept of the fashion designer as artist. He also developed a system of pattern pieces that enabled a near perfect fit with fewer fittings.

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In the mid-19th century, it was de rigeur to wear white for court occasions. But it was also considered a political mistake to appear twice in the same dress. Faced with the task of making different white dresses season after season, Worth became skilled at designing variations on a theme. It naturally evolved into designing whole collections, the very basis of today’s industry.

Worth made visiting the couture house a social event in its own right – a place to see and be seen. After his death in 1895, his son Jean-Philippe took over designing for the house. Like his father, Jean-Philippe sought inspiration from paintings by the Great Masters. His designs – like this day dress – continued the house’s tradition for elaborate artistic gowns with intricate trimmings. They also reflected the growing taste for Art Nouveau, mirroring the scrolling lines and curlicues found in decorative arts in the early years of the 20th century.

Social Culture

As a favourite of the French style icon Empress Eugénie, Worth became the go-to designer for high society occasions. Many British clients travelled to Paris to purchase their wardrobes from the house. His label bore the royal crest and he made almost all the clothes for the members of the Empress’ court, as well as for other European royalty.

Who wore it

Eugenie, Empress consort of the French, wears a Worth creation in her official portrait

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Who wore it

Mary Victoria Curzon, Baroness Curzon of Kedleston, wears her famous Peacock dress. It was created in 1903 for a celebration honouring the coronation of Edward VII.

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Worth’s success had as much to do with the associated status of his designs as it did with his innovations. He is credited with contributing to the mid-century popularity of the crinoline and with pioneering the princess line dress, masterfully cutting the bodice and skirt in one piece.

Craft Skills

Haute couture is a handcraft industry creating exclusive, made-to-measure garments for individual clients using the finest luxury fabrics. It is regulated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne and membership is strictly by invitation only. Eligibility is dependent upon a number of factors: a house must employ a minimum of 20 staff and must show at least 25 outfits (it used to be 60), twice a year.

Today, the couture industry is still shrouded in secrecy. Couturiers are tight lipped regarding their clients and the cost of their creations. What we do know is how labour-intensive the pieces are – it takes two people two weeks to make one suit all by hand, while a wedding gown can require more than 1,000 hours of work.

Each sequin, bead, feather or pleat is sewn entirely by hand by specialists, such as the embroidery house Lesage or the feather specialist Lemarié. These specialist craft houses are kept alive purely by the demands of haute couture. In the late 1990s, Chanel began to buy these houses to ensure their survival.