Charles Frederick Worth, the Empress Eugénie and the invention of Haute-Couture
On a cold, snowy night in December 1859, Charles Frederick Worth and his wife, Marie, chanced to stroll near the imperial Tuileries Palace. Approaching the rue de Rivoli, they paused to watch a procession of elegant carriages make its way to the palace courtyard. They discovered that Princess de Metternich, the wife of the newly appointed Austrian Ambassador to Paris, was to be presented that evening at court. Worth only got a glimpse of the Princess, regal and blazing with diamonds in her state coach, but he was immediately struck by her distinction and grand manner. Her great position and growing reputation for good taste made her the perfect candidate for a scheme the budding couturier had been formulating. The Princess would soon hear of Charles Frederick Worth...
A few weeks later, Marie Worth was pacing nervously at the Austrian Embassy, waiting to be introduced to Mme de Metternich and show her sketches and drawings of her husband's most attractive creations. "I opened the album," wrote the Princess in her Souvenirs, "and what was my surprise to find on the front page a charming dress, on the second page a perfectly ravishing dress! Immediately I sensed an artist..." Mme de Metternich ordered a couple of dresses, agreeing to the modest cost of three hundred francs, and offered to wear one of Worth's gowns to the next court ball at the Tuileries. Thus began the House of Worth, the first Haute Couture establishment.
Charles Frederick Worth was born on 13 October 1825, in Bourne, Lincolnshire. His father was however a drunk who mismanaged the family finances, causing his mother to send him (aged 12) to London to become an apprentice and to learn the dress goods trade. It is believed he taught himself the art of dressmaking by studying portraits at the National Gallery. In 1845, he suddenly left for Paris where he found employment as a salesclerk with Gagelin and Opigez, a well-known shop which specialized in fabrics and various dress supplies such as shawls, silks, and cashmeres.
In those days, the world of fashion was dominated by individual dressmakers, always women, who created outfits according to their wealthy client's wishes. Worth quickly felt trapped by this system and, after 1851, managed to convince his reluctant employers he too could design dresses. Never before in the world of fashion had a man undertaken such a task. Soon, Worth had his pretty young wife, Marie (a fellow employee he had just married) wearing his creations. At the 1855 Paris World Fair, he was to win the "first-class medal" for his original design of a court train.
In 1858, Worth left Gagelin and Opigez to open a business at 7 rue de la Paix in partnership with Otto Bobergh. In December 1859, he was still hoping for a breakthrough when he took that walk to the Tuileries. Thanks to Princess Metternich, things were about to change for the better.
Within a couple of days of Marie Worth's visit to the Austrian Embassy, the court dress ordered by the Princess was ready. Only one fitting was needed, and Mme de Metternich confirmed she would be wearing the dress at the forthcoming ball. It was made of white silver-threaded tulle, trimmed with daisies half-hidden by diamonds in the shape of wisps of wild grass and tightened at the waist by a belt of white satin.
The ball at which Mme de Metternich wore the dress was one of the three given by Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie at the Tuileries Palace during the Parisian winter season. Whilst for most guests entrance into the Tuileries was an arduous task - long line-ups of carriages, both Rue de Rivoli and along the Seine could be seen from the Place de la Concorde and guests had to wait sometimes up to an hour before their coach could enter the palace's main courtyard – the Metternichs had no such problems since because of their position at Court they were admitted to the Tuileries via the private apartments of Napoleon and Eugénie. And as members of the diplomatic corps, the Metternichs had places to the right of the crimson velvet imperial dais.
At nine o’clock precisely, the emperor and empress made their entrance, slowly progressing towards their chairs, nodding, and smiling. The Empress Eugénie, dressed in “white trimmed ivy,” in fact, white tulle with garlands of fresh flowers in her hair, covered with diamonds, was the centre of attention. In 1860, at thirty-two, she was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Georges Sand claimed that all men were in love with the empress. But perhaps one of the nicest compliments was written by an English journalist, George Augustus Sala: “the beauty and grace of [Eugénie’s] form seem to reflect […] the kindness and tenderness of her heart.” In 1867, the Princess de Metternich recalled that the empress was “attired in a white gown spangled with silver and dressed with her most beautiful diamonds. She had carelessly thrown over her shoulders a sort of burnous of white embroidered with gold, and the murmurs of admiration followed her like a trail of lighted gunpowder.” According to another eyewitness, the American Lillie Moulton, Eugénie outshone every other woman present. “I was completely dazed by her loveliness and beauty. I can’t imagine a more beautiful apparition than she was. Her delicate colouring, the pose of her head, her expressive mouth, her beautiful shoulders and wonderful grace make a perfect ensemble.” Once she had reached the imperial dais, the empress would turn and deeply curtsy three times, to the right for the members of the imperial family in attendance, to the left for the diplomats and to the centre for the general audience.
Eugénie had taken a liking to the young and vivacious Princess Metternich, and on that night when the empress noticed her dress (so the princess recounts in her memoirs) the following conversation took place: "May I ask you, Madam," she enquired, "who made you that dress, so marvellously elegant and simple?"
"An Englishman, Madam, a star who has arisen in the firmament of fashion," the Princess replied.
"And what is his name?"
"Well," concluded the Empress, "please ask him to come and see me at ten o'clock tomorrow morning."
“He was made, and I was lost," wrote Princess Metternich jokingly, "for from that moment there were no more dresses at three hundred francs each."
The next morning, Worth cockily arrived at the Tuileries, not wearing the required evening dress of “black coat, white cravat and batiste shirt cuffs fastened at the wrists with golden buttons,” but rather everyday clothes with a beret on his head. He was shown into the private apartments of the Empress, located on the first floor, overlooking the gardens.
The moment was a historic one. Though the Empress had never been obsessed with fashion - “The goût of the Empress for luxury and toilette has often been the subject of much passionate exaggeration,” recalled one her ladies; and the Emperor often mocked her far too simple tastes – nevertheless in the new age of mass-media, she knew her position at the apex of society would come to be scrutinized. She was going to have to take her role as arbiter of fashion seriously. As a result, she colluded with her husband in the creation of her own stylish image and, by extension, that of the Second Empire. It was a matter of political necessity if anything to affirm the power and magnificence of the Bonaparte dynasty.
It would be wrong however to imply that before this moment Eugénie lacked style and taste. To reach her dressing-room where the audience was to take place, Worth had to pass through the three main salons of the apartment, respectively decorated in blue, pink, and green. Furthermore, the furniture she had chosen was a mixture of genuine 18th-century pieces with comfortable, contemporary overstuffed chairs. This novel approach to interior decorating was entirely due to Eugénie.
Eugénie received Worth in her spacious but sparsely furnished dressing-room, with its revolving mirrors, its dressing-table covered with white lace and blue ribbons, and a lift, ingeniously hidden by the ceiling, via which the empress's dresses were brought down from the storage room above. Here too the ensemble was clear evidence of a woman of elegance.
During their interview the Empress, who dressed very simply when she had no public duties, told Worth that she initially required one evening dress. And the English designer was pleased to discover the sovereign was not against changes. Together, he thought, they would revolutionize the world of fashion.
Soon, Eugénie was ordering all her outfits from Worth, from court dresses, right down to elaborate street clothes and “masquerade” costumes.
This represented a great deal of worked for the designer because Eugenie, while on public duty, changed gowns several times per day. And no lady of substance was to appear at court functions wearing the same dress twice. And the penalties for breaking this unwritten law were harsh. The American fashion bible, Godey’s Lady’s Book, in April of 1869, recounted how the wife of an American banker from New York had been “notified by the master of ceremonies of the Empress Eugenie that the permission formerly granted to [her] to appear at the Monday evening receptions of the Empress has been withdrawn. The cause: unbecoming dress at the last soirée in the Tuileries.” Indeed, large amounts of fashionable clothing were required by all those wishing to spend time at court. Lillie Moulton, a young American invited to the imperial residence of Compiègne in 1866 noted in her memoirs that an invitation received “twelve days [previously …], gave [her] plenty of time to order all the dresses, wraps and everything else [she] needed for this visit of a week to royalty”.
Regularly, the couturier, accompanied by members of his staff, visited Eugénie at the palace, discussing new models and designs. They were not always in agreement, but the designer's ideas usually prevailed. “Worth never wanted to change his own ideas, and it was almost impossible to get him to agree to a modification or change in one of his toilettes […]. As a rule, it was the sovereign who gave way.” Another anecdote on relations between Worth and the Empress was recorded in Worth’s obituary in Harper’s Bazaar of 25 March 1895. In an effort to help the silk-weavers of Lyon, Worth is said to have brought Eugénie a dress made of heavy Lyons woven brocade. "I won't wear it," she declared. "It would make me look like a curtain." Worth, who was described as having a “peculiarly low-toned voice with a broad north-country accent and very quiet manners,” argued and called on the Emperor who happened to be there for support. Eugénie gave way to “the tyrant of fashion,” as she nicknamed her now favourite designer.
Neither Eugénie nor Worth liked the crinoline, still all the rage, but they knew they could not dislodge it just yet. Instead, Worth came up with gradual changes which, for the most part, the Empress embraced wholeheartedly. In 1862, Eugénie was seen at the races, one of the smartest events of the year, without a shawl, something unheard of for a society lady, let alone the Empress. She may not have been bold enough to make such a move had it not been for the Princess de Metternich who felt it was a real pity Worth’s elegant creations should be hidden under a shawl or a cloak. Their arrival caused a sensation. The fashionable world followed quickly suit, and the streets of Paris were soon buzzing with ladies without shawls. In 1867, during a State visit to Salzburg, the empress boldly wore a dress (specially designed by Worth for the occasion) which did not entirely cover her feet. The next day, the Austrian press was full of comments on the new style introduced by the Empress of the French. Soon, the leading Parisian fashion magazines detailed Eugénie's latest move, spreading the news as far as the United States. In its “Chitchat on Fashions” column, Godey’s Lady’s Book reported on every novelty the Empress introduced, whether it was a new colour, such as the “Empress blue” or a new “à l’Imperatrice” hairstyle. Portraits of Eugénie were on display in shop windows everywhere in Europe and in North America, as if she was their patron.
In 1868, Worth and Eugénie decided that the crinoline had had its time and together agreed upon a new design that was to change women’s silhouettes for the next decade. The new dress was to be straight and narrow in the front, hugging the figure, with an over-skirt at the back to form a bustle. The Empress and the Princess de Metternich wore such a dress at a ball. The success was instantaneous.
Worth received an order for over a hundred gowns from the Empress in 1869 as she and a large retinue were to travel to Egypt for the official opening of the Suez Canal. The visit was of primary diplomatic importance and Eugenie was determined to look her best to represent the glory of France and the imperial regime at a time of growing political unrest at home. Worth got to work, and the dresses were delivered to the palace in time for the Empress to leave for the Middle East. Eugénie was delighted; her favourite couturier had surpassed himself, using gold and silver interwoven with silk and tulle to design breathtaking outfits, including a superb “toilette de ville of straw-coloured silk covered with white lace.”
For years now, Eugénie had used her public appearances to promote her favourite designer. The great State balls, the more intimate receptions at the Tuileries, the races at Longchamp served the same function as today's runway fashion shows. The Paris of the Second Empire attracted many affluent foreigners who would witness and report first-hand on the evolution in the art of dressmaking. Many of them found their way to the Tuileries, multiplying the effects of Eugénie's influence.
By 1868, as a direct result of the Empress’s patronage, the House of Worth had become the epicentre of good taste and elegance. Fashion had been transformed forever. The first novelty introduced by the designer was the house itself. Visitors were greeted at the door by well-mannered young men in frockcoats. After ascending the grand staircase covered by a thick red carpet and lined with exotic plants, Worth's wealthy clients were shown to spacious and light drawing rooms located on the upper floors. The first room, sparsely furnished with chairs and glass-cabinets, only contained white and black silks. A second room, called the rainbow room, displayed silks in all colours, and a third contained fabrics such as velvet and plush. Then came the actual showroom where all the latest creations were on display against a wall of mirrors. Good-looking young women stood at their stations, ready to put on a dress upon request and model in front of the prospective buyer. The last room, called the Salon de Lumières, was lit artificially, thus offering the client the opportunity to try on the dress of her choice in an environment similar to what she might expect at an evening party.
Another innovation, by which Worth laid the foundations of the world of Haute Couture as we know it today, was his decision to use new distribution techniques. As early as 1855, he agreed to sell some of his most original "models" to foreign buyers with the right to distribute them commercially wherever they wanted. Worth creations could therefore be easily found all over Europe and, by the mid-1860s' had reached the American market. "My business is not only to execute but especially to invent," he once said. "My invention is the secret of my success. I don't want people to invent for themselves; if they did, I should lose half my trade."
Worth was also the first to use labels on his clothes, and he soon realized the benefits of marketing and branding his designs so that they could attract a larger clientele. His designs were to make a visible statement about the client’s style, elegance, modernity, and wealth. “I thought it was best to make a good impression at the start, so I put on my prettiest gown,” wrote Lillie Moulton. “If one could see the waist band, one would read Worth in big letters.” Thus, successful creations would be repeated at the end of the season and sold as ready-made costumes which could be acquired in all the major department stores of Paris, London, or New York.
Exports also became an essential aspect of Worth's success. Department stores as we know them today were then in their infancy but were spreading rapidly. In Paris, both Le Printemps and La Samaritaine, Parisian landmarks to this day, opened in 1865. In London, Harrods was already well established and New York's “Marble Dry Goods,” “Cast Iron Palace,” owned by Alexander Turney Stewart, had opened their doors in the vicinity of Broadway. Buyers made regular trips to Paris and brought back the latest Parisian fashion which was immediately put on display and copied. As a fashion editor noted, in 1870, “English ladies are now beginning to find how pleasant and convenient it is, as well as relatively cheap, to buy ready-made costumes, and these are now kept on an extensive scale in all London, as in all Paris, magasins de nouveautés.”
The days of traditional dressmaking, dominated by women were gone forever.
The House of Worth survived the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870, but Charles Frederick came to miss his close collaboration with Empress Eugénie. The absence of Court life changed the very nature of fashion, and Worth's activities soon turned towards exports, making the whole business all the more impersonal. "He became rather melancholy,” wrote Le Gaulois in Worth’s obituary, “after the fall of the Empire, and he would sometimes speak regretfully of the passing away of true elegance and the traditions of court. ‘Women are dressed by their ladies’ maids,’ he would say sadly. Every year, faithful to her memory, he would send to the empress in exile a large bouquet of Parma violets tied with a mauve ribbon signed in gold embroidery with his name."
Charles Frederick Worth died on 10 March 1895, rich and celebrated. "The boy from Lincolnshire beat the French in their own acknowledged sphere,” wrote The Times. He set the taste and ordained the fashions of Paris, and from Paris extended his undisputed sway over all the civilised, and a good deal of the uncivilised, world." But he had done more than that. With the help of the Empress Eugenie, he had created Haute-Couture.