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Thursday, May 31, 2018

The House of Worth:
Designer Fashion in the Gilded Age

Today there are countless dress designers who have successfully made a career of dressing the rich and famous.  Names like Armani, Dior, Chanel, Gucci, and Valentino are commonly muttered by artists and entertainers walking the red carpet.  However, if one were to ask the most elite women in Gilded Age society about their gowns, the vast majority of answers would be the same...the House of Worth.

The House of Worth was the preeminent designer of luxury clothing in the Gilded Age.  Based in France, the company was created in 1858 by Charles Frederick Worth.  Many consider Worth to be the father of haute couture fashion.  He was born in England where he worked as an apprentice for textile merchants before relocating to Paris in 1845.  While in Paris he worked for Gagelin, a firm that sold textiles and ready made garments.  He soon became their leading salesman and was allowed to open a small dressmaking department for the company, which won awards for his designs.  After he opened his own shop in 1858, Worth appealed to Parisians who had a new demand for luxury goods with the restoration of the royal house and the reign of Napoleon 3rd.  When Napoleon's wife, the Empress Eugenie, admired and then began to wear Worth's gowns, his success was assured.

Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895)
This Englishman helped turn Paris into the fashion capitol of the world. Not only did Worth design and tailor clothing, he also aggressively promoted his business and his "brand."  He broke tradition with the standard procedure of a dressmaker visiting a client's home and instead clients visited his salon where he promoted his creations with live mannequins.  Clients would often select variations of these designs that were then tailor-made to their size.  He had a system of many interchangeable pattern components that utilized the sewing machine for most of the work. By 1871 he employed 1200 people because so many wealthy, socially-ambitious women went to the house of Worth every year to buy all of their clothing for the year including morning, afternoon, and evening dress, nightgowns and tea gowns. His sons took over the business after his death in 1895 and it continued to flourish during the Gilded Age with the sons creating some of the fashion house’s best work.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an excellent collection of House of Worth gowns and looking at some examples is a great way to trace the evolution of fashion during the 1880s-1920s.

One of the most prominent features of women's gowns in the 1870s and the 1880s was the bustle.  The bustle is a framework built up inside a dress that allows more fullness and supports the drapery in the back.  The style was something promoted by Worth who desired to stimulate the silk manufacturing industry in France. The bustle skirt used a tremendous amount of fabric and really showed off their refinement and luxury. The bustle often had supports including metal hoops, horsehair, and down.  The afternoon dress from 1872 and the walking dress from 1885, shown here, are excellent examples of bustles on dresses designed by Worth.

Afternoon Dress, 1872, House of Worth

Walking Dress, 1885, House of Worth

By the 1890s, the bustle was no longer in fashion and skirts were reduced in size.  The preferred silhouette of a woman was an S-curve, which was something that a new style of corset made possible. The corset that women wore to help create the S – curve pushed the bust forward and the hips back.  This black evening dress shows the drastic difference in shape from dresses with a bustle.
At this time, black became a very popular color for women and it was not only suitable for the mourning period. As you see in this photo, black was often combined with floral patterns to add some contrast and detail to the gown.

Evening Dress, circa 1898-1900, House of Worth

The enduring influence of the House of Worth and the timeless elegance of Worth's designs are illustrated by these two gowns below.  The photo on the left shows an exquisite dress from 1898 which reflects art nouveau’s influence on fashion with the curved lines.  The photo on the right is a Valentino designed dress from 2013 that was inspired by the Worth gown from 115 years prior.
House of Worth Evening Gown (left) & Valentino Gown (right)

As we moved further into the 20th century and the Gilded Age began to wind down, dresses continued to use less fabric and the silhouette became straighter. We can see the dress below does not have a train and the waist is not nearly as cinched as the dresses from the late 19th century.

Evening Dress, 1911, House of Worth

Fashion in the 1920s is a whole subject unto itself because the silhouette changed completely and instead of showcasing curves, the shape was completely flat.  It was flat in front and flat in back with no difference between the bust, waist, or hips. This particular dress had a back panel that served as a faux train, but it was merely paying homage to a previous style and not common. Dresses in the 1920s allowed a greater freedom of movement and soon thereafter hemlines started inching up.

Evening Dress, 1925, House of Worth

Worth also created costume gowns to be worn at fancy dress balls.  Oftentimes, ball guests would dress in fashionable styles from bygone eras or even as actual historical figures.  His most infamous costume dress was worn by Mrs. Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt at Alva Vanderbilt's fancy dress ball in 1883.  Alice decided to attend the ball as an electric light, giving a nod to the technological advances of the era.  The gold and silver accouterments on the dress made her stand out from the rest.  This dress was donated to the Museum of the City of New York by her daughter and can sometimes be seen on display.

The House of Worth was most successful during the Gilded Age, but after that era ended, they faced more competition and they did not have the same command of the haute couture market.  When Charles Worth's great grandson retired in 1952, the family involvement ended and the house shut down all couture operations in 1956.  Today we are just thankful that many of these beautiful creations have been saved and preserved by institutions like the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of the City of New York!


  1. Happy to found this blog. I have some facts related to this blog and I would like to share with all its readers. Definitely it is going to help everyone and aware people with some more knowledgeable points.

  2. Thanks for sharing, it looks great!

  3. Is it true that the New York elite didn't wear their new Worth dresses until a year or two after? I am having trouble researching this.