Thursday, March 20, 2014

Charles Frederick Worth Dresses at the Met (1870's-1900's)

Good morning!

DO NOT. WISH TO BE. AT WORK. TODAY. I rallied my spirits this morning hoping that feeling better about feeling better would make me actually feel better...uh, wrong. I'm bespectacled, feeling lousy, and down in the mouth about it, let me tell you guys. What will cheer me? Hopefully, lunch at the food truck with fellow downtown worker Kelsey and looking at so-good-they're-literally-in-a-museum late 19th century couture. CAN THIS BE THE CURE. I sure hope so!

Folks, the evening and day dresses of Charles Frederick Worth.

One of my favorite idle moment things to search, third after Etsy/Ebay and Google Books, are online museum holdings. There was a time when you would have to probably look up an obscure exhibit catalog to see exactly what the Metropolitan Museum of Art had up its sleeves in terms of its textiles collection, but not any more! It's 2014, and when I looked up the name of this extremely influential early dress designer, 78 full color listings populated the search results. I was interested in seeing more of the designer's work after reading about him in the in-DEE-spensible fashion reference text Couture: The Great Designers, by Caroline Rennolds Milbank. After coming across this in NPL's holdings, you'd better believe I've spent a lunch hour or ten pawing through the full color photos and biographies of some of the most influential modistes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What's neat about the digital archive? Any dress includes several views on a mannequin as well as on living person-- how great a gig would that be, by the way, to get to model incredibly rare, museum-piece dresses for the institution itself? You can also click on any dress to download a high resolution, large format image of the garment. The dress above is an "afternoon dress" from around 1875, and while the smaller photo does give you an idea of the pleating, the fringe, the unusual neckline, the beautiful colors...look how much better this effect comes off in the inset I took from an enlarged photo:

The bodice, man! That is where it is AT. Look how the mottled gold-and-navy-blue print almost mimics bird feathers in a visual texture I would like to wear RIGHT. NOW. See how the buttons fade into the pattern and how structured the top is. Isn't it an absolute pleasure to see these textiles in color? I know I say it all the time, but take a moment to ponder all the nineteenth century daguerrotypes you may have seen or cabinet cards or even fashion illustrations in black and white magazines...and then imagine them in these bird of paradise colors. Unreal, right?

Charles Frederick Worth is notable in fashion history for being the first dress designer to really define the idea of a "fashion house" where the clothes were trendsetting rather than trend-following, and the designers artists rather than simple tradespeople. After two decades as an apprentice and later salesman in the textile industry, Worth joined with a wealthy business partner in 1858 to open his own outfit, Worth et Bobergh, in his adopted home of Paris, France. With the success of his designs on Princess de Metternich, a fashion-conscious member of Princess Eugenie of Austria's court, he was launched as a major voice in dress making in France. His wife, Marie Worth, a former model at one of the shops Worth worked for in the 1840's, served as both a muse to her husband as well as his best advertisement. "In time," the Couture book mentions in its entry on Worth, "Marie Worth's wearing of a new style in public was enough to ensure its acceptance." Remind me in the next life to come back as a dressmaker's inspiration-- imagine the c-l-o-t-h-e-s this man must have made for her!

While the appliques on the skirt in the dress were the first thing that caught my eye, look at the gorgeous detail in the got your got your got your silk, your velvet...and that little embellished belt! The Met site mentions that fashion of this period was influenced by 1700's dress in the lace collars and cuffs. I love that even then fashion ouroboros'd itself, with cyclical revivals of past trends.

Another example of those 18th century sensibilities returning to 19th century clothing, look at this day dress, and all the beautiful little lace ruffles down the front, at the collar, at the sleeve. There's so much personality to this dress without even a girl to show it off, just on the mannequin's form...think of what this would look like on a living, breathing belle époque girl!

Speaking of, if you've seen it, don't these dresses remind  you of the costuming in possibly the most sumptuous period piece movie of all time, Scorcese's cinematic take on Edith Wharton's masterpiece, The Age of Innocence (1993)? I must be some kind of classic lit masochist, because I love to read Edith Wharton and Thomas Hardy in spite of how deeply, hyperventilatingly upset I get about their tragic plot trajectories. In the movie form, at least I can drown some of my dashed romantic hopes for the characters in all the beautiful, beautiful clothes from that last gasp of extremely formal daily wear. Look at this dress the near perfect Michelle Pfeiffer wears as the Countess Olenska in the movie. Set in the 1870's, this 1877 gown would have fit in perfectly with the other pieces!

Last but not least, this knock-yer-eye-out show stopping cape. Almost 150 years old, and look at the colors!

The Met caption on this dramatic cape is interesting, as I hadn't even considered how difficult it would be to manufacture the textile itself. Check it out:
Worth was constantly interested in supporting the textile industry as evidenced in this cape, which is designed to showcase its textile to the extreme. The textile itself has a repeat which is over three feet long making it stunning but also making it extremely difficult to weave. The dramatic fabric, "Tulipes Hollandaises," was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris and won a grand prize. The tulips have an aggressive dynamic quality about them with the brilliant, vibrant colors against the deep black background consistent with the seductive femme fatale sensibility of the 1880s and 1890s.
The more you know! You can read more about Worth and his famous fashion house here on the Met website.

So! Had any fashion labels turn your head lately? How do these antique clothes hit you-- dreamy and romantic or impractical and uncomfortable? What's your favorite movie for costumes and day dreaming? Let's talk!

That's all for today but I'll see you back here tomorrow for Photo Friday. Be good! Til then.


  1. Did you know that it was considered vulgar to wear your Worth dresses right out of the box? They were put away to "mellow" for a couple of years.

    1. Did you read "To Marry and English Lord"? I checked this out just after I heard about not wearing the dresses from you and it mentioned that very thing, not wearing your dresses for a certain time, in the first chapter! I thought, "Mrs. Leapheart was exactly right!" (as if I ever doubted you, haha). I would have to be vulgar and wear it right away-- I am so bad about instant gratification!

  2. You're not the only classic lit masochist! I love Edith Wharton and Thomas Hardy, too (The House of Mirth and Tess of the d'Urbervilles especially)!

    I used to love drawing dresses like these as a kid...they remind me of the books I read as a kid (a lot of them were set in the 19th century).

    1. Aren't they dreamy? And any time you'd sketch something that looked particularly out there, dollars to doughnuts there was something authentic to the time that was even weirder! I love the imagination of these dresses.

      And I'm glad you're a fellow lit nerd!! The ends of those books always leave me pulling my hair but it's worth the ride!

  3. Extraordinarily cool.

    Lisa, can I ask, do you know Earthe Kitsch? More importantly if she's coming back? Miss her wit.

    Loving yours as always. :-)

    1. Hi Beverley, thanks for reading! I don't know when Miss Kitsch is returning to the Ranch, but she does post relatively regularly as a contributor to No Pattern Required (and is still as funny as ever!). You can check it out here .



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