By Sabrina Cardoso, Style Editor
Charles Frederick Worth is known today as “The Father of Haute Couture”. Born in 1825 in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England to William and Ann Worth. He was one of five siblings, with only himself and his brother William surviving to maturity. His father left the family in 1836 after ruining their finances and left Charles’ mother impoverished and without any financial support. At the tender age of 11, Charles was sent to work at a printers shop and a year later he moved to London to become an apprentice at the Swan & Edgar in Piccadilly department store. In 1844, Charles moved onto working with another British textile store called Lewis & Allendy, and by 1847 he was working in Paris as a sales assistant at Gagelin-Opigez et Cie.
In 1855, Gagelin-Opigez et Cie won first prize at the Exposition Universelle for a court train that Worth had designed. His marriage to Marie Augustine Vernet is where the wonder of Worth began as he started designing dresses for his wife to wear to work. In 1865 Worth partnered with Otto Gustaf Bobergh, a young Swedish business man, and set up with first shop, located at 7 Rue de La Pax in Paris.
In 1852, Napoleon III restored the royal house in France. Napoleon and his wife, the Empress Eugenia wanted to make France the jewel of Europe In 1860, Worth designed a ball gown for Princess de Metternich and his business took off from there. The Empress Eugenia of France saw the gown and demanded an appointment the next day. Worth soon became the official fashion designer for the royal court. The patronage from the Empress assured from 1860 onward.
Before Worth, female dressmakers would design and sew for women, not a man. Worth also supplied extensive fabric choices and an expertise in tailoring. He was known for creating gowns from lavish fabrics and trims, he added historic elements and his attention to how to fit a garment properly was renowned. Worth created one-of-a kind garments for his special clients such as the Empress but he is especially knows for creating garments that were shown on live models and patrons could chose and order their garments. All garments were tailor made in The House of Worth workshop. By the 1870’s, Worth would appear regularly in fashion magazines which spread his name outside of the circles of court and Worth became a household name. Even though Worth was not the first designer to work in the way that he did, he was the one who aggressively self-promote which earned him the titles of “the first couturier” and “The Father of Haute Couture”.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in the 1870’s and the Prussians invaded France, Worth shut down his business for a year. The following year he reopened, servicing clients with maternity wear, sportswear and mourning garments. During the Siege of Paris, which took place between September 1870 and January 1871, Worth turned his store into a military hospital. The war ended when Napoleon III was captured and the second Empire fell.
The 1880’s saw the House of Worth hosting two fashion shows a year and also brand extensions through franchising of fashion plates and patterns. Charles Worth passed away at 69 years of age on March 10, 1895 of pneumonia. His sons Gaston and Jean inherited the business and carried it through the turn of the century until their deaths in 1924 and 1926, respectively.
Even though Charles had died, the House of Worth was well established and it saw to most success during the years of the 1890’s through the early 1900’s. During these years, customers were ordering 20 -30 gowns at a time. By 1897 costumers were placing orders by mail and by telephone as well as by visiting one of the branch stores in London, Biarittz in Southwestern France and Cannes. In 1900, Worth once again displayed garments at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Worth had been features at the exposition in previous years.
The great fashion dynasty finally came to an end in 1952 when Charles Frederick Worth’s great-grandson, Jean-Charles, retired from the family business. In 2010, the House of Worth was revived with the first House of Worth Couture collection designed by Giovanni Bedin for the 2010 spring/summer collection.
Many of the Worth gowns survive today and are part of museum collections around the world. The Met and at the Albert and Victoria Museums are just two that Worth gowns have been donated too. You can visit The House of Worth website at
California native Sabrina Cardoso has dressed for almost every century with her wide knowledge of historical fashions and participations in period reenactments (you can find her starring as Mary Fleming, cousin of the Queen and head lady-in-waiting across many local Scottish Guild events). She also runs Timeless Elegance, an insightful Facebook Page featuring historical archives on beauty and fashion.