I've been writing about lesser-known contemporaries of Charles Frederick Worth since 2014 (see my first post on the subject, regarding Emile Pingat) in an effort to promote the knowledge that Worth wasn't literally the whole of the Parisian fashion world in the second half of the 19th century. But it wasn't until a recent question on the AskHistorians subreddit about Worth's innovations in the industry that I began to really reconsider his accepted position as a revolutionary who elevated the simple business of dressmaking into the completely new field of haute couture.
There are certain Worthian innovations that I can't question, because I don't have the resources to investigate them, and I've deconstructed the idea of assigning widespread stylistic changes to an individual designer in several of the posts on the myth of Chanel. But there are certain claims of earthshaking changes that really should be questioned, as they seem to be oversimplifications. Namely:
- That Worth was the first to use paper patterns
- That he was the first to add a physical label (in the form of a stamped waist tape) to a garment
- That previous dressmakers always visited the client's home, rather than having an establishment to visit
- That he began the practice of not working collaboratively with the client to design her gown
- That he was the first to provide fabric for the client's clothing
- That he was the first male dressmaker
Fashion plates have been used to show specific gowns from a specific dressmaker since the early part of the nineteenth century. For example:
|Journal des Dames et des Modes, January 1823|
|From Petit Courrier des Dames, March 1837; CCDL|
It's entirely possible that these plates and descriptions were drawn from gowns that dressmakers had made with significant input from customers, or that they were simply well-drawn illustrations that dressmakers paid to have their names put under. But I don't think it's possible to get away from the fact that these are designs advertised with the implication (or more than that, in the case of the textual descriptions) that a woman who wanted that gown could have it made by that dressmaker. Some top dressmakers, such as Mme Palmyre, were known to give multiple customers the same gown ("It is saddening to find three gowns at a ball whose appearance matches your own, it gives you the vapors," said one writer on the subject) - a phenomenon that could only occur if dressmakers were given design latitude, rather than every dress being a joint effort.
Looking at some of the establishments mentioned in fashion plates is telling. Magasin Violard was given ecstatic praise in Le Follet in 1844: "no maker is superior to Violard in the happy disposition of design, none equal it in execution where a feeling of true elegance without defect is noticed". (This is followed by praise of Mme Ferrière-Pennona and Mme Thiéry, dressmakers.) The December 1856 issue of the Moniteur des Modes described Pauline Conter, head of the workrooms at Maison Lhopiteau, as "an innovator par excellence"; the house offered gowns and ready-made novelties. This is something I've addressed in the past with Chanel - the fashion press nearly always celebrated the dressmakers and designers they mentioned, so it's important to take their effusive praise and insistence that one person is the best at a certain style of dress as just part of the normal rhetoric around fashion, even if the fashion house, like Worth, is now well-known.
In looking into some of these once highly regarded women, I found that Worth was far from the first male dressmaker - in the July 1843 issue of the Edinburgh Review, a book reviewer reported:
It has long and justly been a subject of complaint in England, that men are rapidly encroaching on the employments of women. Shopmen are now everywhere substituted for shopwomen, under the curious plea that the ladies prefer being served by young men. The same fatal system is silently operating in France. From the Physiology of the Tailor, we learn that men have taken to making shirts; and the author of the Physiology of the Grisette assures us that, within the last fifteen months, male dressmakers (modistes) have made fearful advances; though Victorine, Palmyre, Oudot-Manoury, and a few others, are still unshaken in their supremacy.However, as far as I can tell, he was the first male dressmaker to reach the top of the Parisian fashion world within the mid-century context: as Andrew Schroeder points out below in the comments, Louis Hippolyte LeRoy was making and trimming gowns for royalty and the aristocracy in the early 19th century.
|Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1837, showing two dresses by Mme Oudot-Manoury; VAM E.22396:348-1957|
But even apart from that - labels in hats can be found as far back as the 18th century, and shoes almost as far. While it did not become standard practice to label dresses until the mid-19th century, the concept of labeling an item with the maker's name and address was not an invention of that period. Worth was clever to adapt this practice to dressmaking, but it is not his concept.
Dressmakers before Worth also had their own showrooms where customers visited. Numerous sources describe such establishments before Worth & Bobergh opened: the main area of the dressmaker's shop would be decorated to impress the client and could hold the "confections" she might offer - ready-made items like caps, bonnets, chemisettes, fichus, cloaks, etc. - and Mme Oudot-Manoury's was even said to be "a small chamber full of the most lovely robes". Women who wanted to engage the dressmaker would come there in order to discuss what they were looking for in terms of cut and fabric, and while the woman in the linked dialogue was highly opinionated regarding her tastes, any woman could leave the trimming up to her dressmaker, if she wished. However, it was standard practice for fittings to be done at the customer's home by one of the dressmaker's assistants, at least in the higher levels of society, while Worth demanded that his clients continue to come to his salon.
The paper pattern has a complex history. Although commercial paper patterns sold on their own only began to appear at the end of the 19th century, the history of their use in the industry goes back at least to the middle of the 18th, when Garsault's Art of the Tailor [...] and Seamstress described how dressmakers would use paper patterns matching the measurements of their customers to cut out the fabric. Instructions on dressmaking almost a century later also described developing paper patterns of varying size to help cut out the basic pieces of a dress. (The same author implied in another work that such patterns might have been available for purchase.)
While Worth's reputation for artistry was certainly not unearned, it must be looked at within its proper context. Dressmakers before him were not all obscure women with no power - they had national and sometimes international renown, and their names were recognized as quality brands, commanding high prices and devoted followings. Like Chanel's, his name has benefited through the years from his contemporaries and predecessors simply being forgotten.