French Fashion Forefather

After reading Emile Zola’s La Curee (“The Kill”), I became most intrigued about the French Second Empire epoch. At one of the Vancouver Public Library periodic book sales, I spotted John Bierman’s Napoleon III and His Carnival Empire and lost no time in grabbing it.

In La Curee, I had read about the heroine’s lavish addiction to her “Worth” gowns. From Bierman’s interesting book, I came to know that Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman born in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England, was the grumpy couturier who was the craze of upper-class Europe during the French Second Empire. The most renowned of his customers was French Empress Eugenie, and it was the Austrian princess Pauline von Metternich who introduced Worth to her.

Though described by Bierman as an “unfulfilled, neurotic woman of limited talents”, Eugenie was nevertheless the woman who instigated a passionate fashion sense not only in ladies of the outgoing aristocracy, but also those in the up-and-coming bourgeoisie in post-revolution France.

“If the emperor’s example inspired Parisiens of all classes to new levels of sexual activity, Eugenie’s example gave similar impetus to another form of commerce for which Paris had long been famous: fashion. While disdaining sex, she was obsessed with clothes and coiffure and set the standard for all – from the haughty ladies of the old aristocracy, who disdained the parvenu court of the Bonapartes, to the grisettes in the neighborhood dance halls.”

Worth started out as a drapery maker in England and moved to Paris in 1846. Having teamed up with a wealthy Swede, Otto Bobergh, who acted as his financier, he opened a shop at 7, Rue de la Paix, Paris. Before long, the Empress became one of his admiring patronesses.

The Empress’s relationship with Worth was much like the mutually enhancing relationship between Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, in terms of augmenting each other’s fame, as Eugenie was fast becoming a fashion icon for the whole of France.

After being propelled onto a pedestal by the patronage of the Empress, Worth turned into a dictator in the world of fashion, treating his customers with utter disdain – they were not able to choose their own clothes; he would decide for them. He would usually hold fashion shows four times a year, during which he would display model dresses. Each of his patronesses would be allowed to pick one model dress, which would be sewn in the fabrics of her choice and tailored to her figure. But the ladies of Paris did not seem to mind his haughtiness and outrageous prices, as long as he was willing to dress them. At the height of his career, he did not deign to accept new customers unless they were introduced by an old client.

The zesty obsession with clothes, for better or worse, did bring into existence many grand department stores, like Le Bon Marche, La Samaritaine and Le Printemps, some of which have survived to this day. Critics, however, labeled such obsessive concern with outward appearance and embellishment as destructive and demoralizing, and as a reflection of the Second Empire’s predilection for style over substance. Indeed, the unabashed decadence and flagrant materialism of the era was the subject of excoriation in the works of many intellectuals of the time.

All said, the legacy left by Worth still blazed a trail for the numerous French designer houses that followed, which subsequently dominated the scene of European high fashion. His son, Gaston, actually founded the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1868, which was the precursor to the present day’s Federation Francaise de la Couture, du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode. The Federation is responsible for setting the dates and location of the French fashion weeks, for establishing industry standards on quality and on the use of the word “haute couture”. Those once disdainful French haute couture houses, which have now become the craze of an oriental nation, seem to have lost a little bit of their cool hauteur of yesteryears.