Fashion Wizard, Honey Badger, Icon: Charles Frederick Worth

Charles Frederick Worth was the visionary behind the House of Worth. But how much about him do you know?
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1 – It’s time for #ThreadTalk & we are all about Charles Frederick Worth.

From poverty in Lincolnshire to the opulence of rue de la Paix in Paris, Worth challenged Victorian sensibilities & defined haute couture.

Part wizard🧙‍♂️, part honey badger🦡, 100% 🧵#ThreadTalkicon.

2 – We know fairly little about Worth, not just his early days, but his intimate life.

We know his work, of course. But there are precious few letters or correspondences to build upon. Which is curious given Victorian tendencies to novelize just about anything.

A photograph of Charles Frederick Worth in his later years, draped in fur and velvet, with a silk tie and vest. He wears a velvet beret, has a thick mustache. The image is in black and white and dates from the 1880s. Image: public domain.

3 – What we do know is that by the age of 12, Worth was already in London working w/textiles & they changed his life.

I consider that moment an artist meeting their medium, & it was certainly the era to do so (see the swatch book below). By 21, he moved to Paris with just £5.

A textile sample book dating from the 1830s, filled with dozens of floral samples in rectangles. Each square has different floral motifs. This kind of book would have been in the possession of a salesman and brought to women to choose their dresses. From the Met Museum, public domain.

4 – Worth found employment at the fashion house Gagelin, where he met his future wife & lifelong business partner Marie Vernet (L).

The young Englishman was an anomaly among the French, but he became their chief salesman and helped propel the house to great notoriety.

5 – With Worth, Gagelin soared. His talent for spectacle that changed the game: live models, fashion shows, & he even gave models prizes.

Now, fashion becomes a living, breathing event–to see and to be seen–for women in Paris and beyond, so long as they pay. But he wants more.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - Two women in a city setting, one in a lilac dress with self coloured ruchings, tassels and matching capelet, with blue shawl, the other in a green flounced dress with a black mantle trimmed with deep lace flounces. Both in flower-trimmed bonnets.

6 – By 30, Worth was a household name & at 37 he parted ways with Gagelin to start his own fashion house with Otto Bobergh, called Worth & Bobergh.

Their collaborations are often monochrome, but vividly darted, cut, and folded, like this lilac dainty from the Met that I 💜

A lilac-hued gown with scalloped edges and a typical dropped shoulder design, lace cap-sleeves, and layer cake style. Narrow waist, darts at the waist as well, trimmed in yellow. But there are lots of little things happening all over the place that make it rather exceptional. Met Museum, public domain.

7 – The partnership did not last, though you can see hints of the future in the color combinations like this lovely collab from 1866-1868 that’s currently at the PHL Museum of Art. Bobergh did well for himself and returned to Stockholm & Worth’s star continued to rise.

A tan and pink gown, less of a flounce than the last one. The contrasting colors bring to mind porcelain and court colors. There are bows and trim work along the edges, and it's taffeta. So it would make quite the sound when it's on the go. From the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

8 – And this is where we take a pause. Because to our contemporary eyes, none of this seems odd.

But then, didn’t even have a word for this occupation. Worth started his own salon. And saw women. And he TOUCHED THEM. With his bare hands.

Even in France, it was scandalous.

"Quand je vous dis que c'est une robe de chez Worth, je reconnais la touche." ("I told you it was a dress from Worth's. I know the look."). Cartoon by French illustrator Bertall (1820-1882) showing two ladies at an art museum. "Worth" is the fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895).

9 – (Male) contemporaries deemed Worth “man-milliner”–not a complimentary at all. As Dr. Abigail Joseph explains in her fabulous article “A Wizard of Silks and Tulle” (which is central to my thread) they use othering terms outside the masculine, horrified at his occupation.

The Worth salon on rue de la Paix, public domain. A tall Paris building with lovely iron wrought balconies and high windows. Black and white photograph.

10 – See quote from Larousse, via Dr. Joseph: “let us leave to feminine hands… the delicate cares of an industry which requires, we know, fairy-like fingers, not the build of an athlete, to be practiced properly and above all decently.”

Ew, David. Tempest, designed for Worth.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - This design was possibly created by Jules Marre for Charles Frederick Worth. It is an extremely theatrical design with the skirt decorated with the rigging of a sailing-ship sinking in stormy seas. The skirt also has rocky crags depicted around the hem, and wind heads blowing on the upper part. A cloak of stormy black tulle layered over blue tulle suggests storm clouds and torrential rain, and the wearer wears a coral necklace. Her pose and angry expression embody the vengeance of the tempest which caused the destruction of the ship against the rocks.

11 – So they have to come up with a word for what he is. There is just the word couturiere–a woman’s occupation.

So he becomes a couturier & he does not give any effs b/c he’s making art. And 💵💵💵. And dresses like this. And he has barely passable French. Because LOL.

Worth rarely scrutinized or adapted forms from the East; in this unusual example, he has emulated Middle Eastern enamels. More often, he was an instrument of a Western taste that was projected globally via imperialism. He is said to have created 250 dresses on commission from Empress Eugénie for her appearances at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1868. This gown was worn by Mrs. William De Forest Manice, the donor's grandmother, at both the French and English courts during the reigns of Napoleon III and Queen Victoria. When worn on such occasions, the dress had a detachable brocade train, since destroyed. A pale green silk with layers of striped lace, and a black bow. Met Museum.

12 – Worth’s clientele was as famous as they get, including Empress Eugenie herself (below).

Once she turned his eye to him, dresses that once might have been a few 100 francs were 2,000+ much to the chagrin of all the other dressmakers who did not take kindly to the Anglais…

Empress Eugenie in a Worth court ensemble of white and green satin. It is pretty straightforward compared to his later work, but certainly paved the way for his freer work later on. Public domain.

13 – So. The honey badger.

Worth was… well, opinionated? He had vision, or as we might say today, absolutely no filter. And he was a noted control freak.

Consultations were in his Paris salon–with the only exception being Empress Eugenie.

A classic purple Worth gown, all in subtle shades of the hue. A snatched waist, as they say, with 3/4 sleeves and lots of fringe. Contrasting white buttons, and a low neckline. Bustle in the back, but the lines are in angles. Starting to see the real asymmetrical stuff happening for Worth here. Public domain, Met Museum.

14 – No matter the company, he behaved in a way we might consider rather cliche: sitting in silence as he stared, appraising the woman’s form, then muttering about colors and patterns, legs crossed, cigar in hand, half in a dream, awaiting inspiration.

Dark purplish red silk with tulip figure; bodice with long V in lower center front, elbow-length sleeves, peplum tabs lower center back, neck and sleeves trimmed with ruffles and lace, front and sleeves trimmed with repeat of cone motif in dark colored beads and metal braid; skirt center front panel of red ribbed silk with same embroidery as bodice and red silk and colored bead fringe; most of fullness of skirt and soft pleats and puff center back, train edged with dark red silk pleated ruffle. Boston MFA, public domain.

15 – Dr. Joseph: If Worth was not quite a sinister, “evil aesthete,” he was a very dictatorial & often unpleasant one… he was a “most pronounced poseur” whose “affectations were extravagant almost to grotesqueness. At times he was arbitrary, brusque, and even brutally rude”.

Illustration from Paris Herself Again in 1878–9 by george Augustus Sala (lon-don: Remington, 1880): 511 - via Dr. Joseph's essay

16 – But it worked.

Women flocked to Worth from around the world, & Americans were some of his favorites because they paid well. To meet the demands, he began using patterns to base dresses on–essentially the beginnings of pret-a-porter. (1870 here)

Purple silk faille skirt trimmed with cream-colored lace embroidered with black chenille yarn; skirt front made of white silk faille with supplementary warp patterning. Purple silk faille evening bodice trimmed with cream and black net lace attached to the skirt. Purple silk faille day bodice trimmed with black and cream net lace; center front made of white silk faille with supplementary warp pattern with buttons. Two detached purple silk faille bows. Boston MFA, public Domain.

17 – Worth became so popular that Marie and Charles’ two sons (Gaston & Jean-Philippe) got in on the business & carried on some of the work.

But in case you thought we were going to go a night without horrendous colonialist crap, here’s JP being an appropriative turd! 🤮

18 – Was Worth queer? Dr. Joseph explains we only have the ephemera to judge, but that his queerness certainly exists in his occupying of these spaces outside the norms, & his relationship to form, fabric, & luxury. I have more thoughts…

Yellow silk brocade, cream silk crepe, silk net, chenille, magenta silk velvet, glass faux pearls, and seed beads - another classic Worth shape, with that snatched waist -- this time with a long train. From the Museum at FIT.

19 – I also read Worth as neurodivergent, likely autistic. I know it’s hard to diagnose someone of another era. But I also live with an autistic person who saw a car at 18 months, & has never been the same. Reading this was like reading my son’s life through a different lens.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Day dress consisting of a bodice and skirt of dark green wool and red-ground silk brocade with a floral pattern. The bodice is waist-length, panelled with satin and edged with black moiré ribbon. It is trimmed at the back with a made-up bow with long pendant ends. The dress fastens at the shoulder over a boned green silk bodice lining. The sleeves are long with a high pleated shoulder. Collar and cuffs are faced with gold beaded tulle.

The skirt has a slightly draped front, with the back flared and arranged in deep pleats. It is mounted over a green silk petticoat, and boned and taped to a bustle shape at the back. The skirt fastens at the back with hooks and eyes. It may have been altered and have lost a side panel. A machine-woven label 'WORTH PARIS' has been stitched to the waist tape.

20 – Queer, neurodivergent, whatever he was, Worth was an icon, and singular.

After a life of working at breakneck pace, suffering migraines, & ill health, he passed away the master of a fortune & an empire of fashion, at 69. (Day dress, dinner bodice:c. 1875)

Silk faille with silk satin, silk velvet, embroidered appliqué, sheer pleated silk, silk fringe, and artificial flowers - Chartreuse gown with fringe at the bottom, falls of red roses, and a yellow train. PHL museum of art.

21 – So, some dresses. Let’s begin with this Worth & Bobergh number that is 100% Belle’s dress from Beauty and the Beast. You can’t convince me otherwise.

I mean. 👀 I adore yellow dresses. And this one is so yummy. It dates from between 1866-68, silk satin, silk tulle.

Designed by Charles Frederick Worth, English (active Paris), 1825 - 1895. Label Worth & Bobergh, Paris, 1857 - 1870 - essentially a layer cake made into a dress, but saffron yellow. Off the shoulder, typical mid-19th century Victorian design. From the PHL Museum of Art.

22 – How about a dolman in a color so vivid the photo looks broken? The further in Worth’s career, the bolder he gets with his colors, but he has always loved contrast. And I love the way this looks ancient and yet modern. A conceit he’s always loved (the new old/old new). c 1885

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Charles Frederick Worth - Ladies dolman of scarlet brocaded cut and uncut silk velvet. The dolman has a figured design of black banded shield shapes, the borders are filled with a beige and scarlet flower scroll, and the beige centre is voided with scarlet satin with a black interlaced stem pattern. The ground is covered with an interlaced floral pattern.

23 – This afternoon dress is in my 🎵jewel tones🎵so you know I’ve got to share it with enthusiasm. This is more practical, but I adore it all the same. You see Worth’s real architectural strengths here: lines and shapes, color blocking, pleats. Stunning. 1874.

An afternoon dress of dark navy and pale green underdress. It has lace at the collar and cuffs. The overdress has little pleated squares at the hem. The underdress is pleated along the bottom. The top looks almost like a Spenser coat. Met Museum, public domain.

24 – I luuuuurve orange. And IMHO, we don’t see enough of it. This may be a JP dress, but it’s hard to tell because the Met needs to… focus a little on their copy vs. their pasting. Ahem.

I think this is silk velvet? The black bows? Heaven. 1889.

An orange afternoon gown in orange, fitted like a suit. Lace blouse with a jacket style bodice over a matching orange skirt, lightly flared. Black asymmetrical bow on the chest; black bow at waist, and at elbows. Met Museum, public domain.

25 – Speaking of ephemeral. This dress dates from the height of Worth’s time at the helm, 1877. And it’s an effing masterpiece. Snatched waist, layers of satin, that cascading lace, the brocade.

This is a dinner dress. I would ruin it before I got to the table, TBH.

26 – This blue. I mean. It’s THE BLUE. We’re talking silk taffeta. We’re talking mounds. We’re talking walking sculpture here, folks. This is no longer a dress, this is art. And it’s early for Worth, too: 1872.

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on June 7, 2021.

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