DRESSED —Founding Father of Haute Couture: Charles Frederick Worth | How Stuff Works Podcast
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AC: With over 7 billion people in the world, we all have one thing in common. Every day, we all get dressed.
CZ: Welcome to Dressed: The History of Fashion, a podcast where we explore the who, what, when of why we wear.
AC: We‚Äôre fashion historians and your hosts, April Calahan‚Ä¶
CZ: And Cassidy Zachary.
AC: We‚Äôre going to start at the beginning. Not the very beginning, but a beginning because, for a podcast dedicated solely to the history of fashion, we would be remiss to not begin with one of fashion‚Äôs great nexus points and that is the birth of the luxury fashion industry known as haute couture. On our inaugural episode of Dressed, we will discuss the life and legacy of the man many consider to be the father of haute couture, Charles Frederick Worth. Now the star of the House of Worth may already be familiar some of you, and if that is the case, please continue with us because today‚Äôs journey is going to take us to some surprising places including the lesser known history of the African-American designer who is at the helm of the House of Worth during the late 1960s.
CZ: Our journey begins well over 100 years earlier, however, with the birth of Charles Frederick Worth in 1825. Based in Paris, Worth built a reputation as an internationally coveted fashion designer during the 19th century. His designs were worn by European royalty, the American nouveau riche, glittering stars of the stage, and the high-class courtesans who were thrilled to launch Worth‚Äôs most daring designs when his society clientele was not. It is by no accident, then, that we launched this podcast during Paris Fashion Week because many sartorial roads lead back to Worth. It can be argued that he is the first true fashion designer and we will explore how many of his innovations continue to have a lasting legacy in the way contemporary haute couture and luxury clothing is made today. And, while the m√©tier of haute couture is readily associated with Paris fashion industries, Worth was, in fact, British.
AC: He was born in 1825 in a market town of Lincolnshire County, England, the youngest child of William Worth and Marianne Quincy. His father was a lawyer and, at one point, the family was fairly well-off, but that didn‚Äôt necessarily mean that Charles enjoyed a carefree childhood. His father was a heavy gambler, a bit of a rake, and eventually abandoned his wife and his five children. This left Marianne in a very precarious place. Her social standing at the time of her marriage was considerably higher than that of her husband‚Äôs and, in order to provide for her children, she took a governess position with relatives. Circumstances would further dictate that several of the Worth children died prematurely and Charles was forced to leave school, age 11, and sent off to work for a printer.
CZ: Child labor laws were oh so different in the 19th century, were they not? Only around the time of Worth‚Äôs birth were laws passed that limited the amount of hours children under 16 could work per day and that was limiting it to 12 hours a day. Twelve, April.
AC: That‚Äôs crazy. Perhaps this helps me to understand why young Worth hated this job. He disliked it so much that, by the age of 12, he had already set his sights on London. There, he spent his formative years, gleaning much of his aesthetic education from frequent museum visits. Eventually, he ended up in the employ of an established mercer, initially working as a cashier.
CZ: Now we should probably take a brief digression into the nature of buying clothing at this time in order to define the term mercer, which was also a profession known as a draper. A mercer was a purveyor of textiles and trimmings and an invaluable source of the necessary supplies for the creation of one‚Äôs wardrobe. At this point in history, the concept of ready-to-wear clothing that we‚Äôre all so familiar with today, so clothing that you could go and buy off the rack and take home immediately upon purchase, this did not exist, so women made their clothes themselves at home or they hired a dressmaker. Prior to the 1850s, the period when sewing machines became a mass-produced product, all items of clothing were made by hand. After spending his teen years in London, Worth relocated to Paris in 1845. Now he‚Äôs in his early 20s, but it was really a struggle at first. He did not speak French, he had little money, and there were periods where he even went hungry. But he did quickly learn and he became fluent in French, although it would be remarked later in his life, after decades in Paris, that his English accent was quite pronounced.
AC: Eventually, Worth found employment at the revered Parisian mercer, but this time, he was a sales assistant. The company was a purveyor of luxury textiles, so fine silks, imported cashmere, lace, and they also sold a few ready to wear garments, particularly cloaks and mantles that were easier to mass produce because they didn‚Äôt require a precise fit. Worth would assume a somewhat novel role in the company when he proposed to his bosses a new department that would vastly increase profits. The company was already successful selling the materials to make dresses, but why not allow Worth to design them and hire a staff of dressmakers to make them up in-house? This would bring in more revenue and the profits would only go up. The owners of were initially resistant to young Worth‚Äôs ideas. They were worried that the fine reputation of their establishment would be sullied by an association with dressmakers. This was not a profession held in particularly high regard during the first half of the 19th century. During the 18th and 19th centuries, some female dressmaker‚Äôs made so little money that they were forced to turn to prostitution to make ends meet, so this occupation of dressmaker, it didn‚Äôt garner the same respect that a fashion designer does today.