Charles Frederick Worth at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ball gown, ca. 1872
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Gift of Mrs. Philip K. Rhinelander, 1946 (C.I.46.25.1a–d)

The silhouette suddenly deflated in the 1870s, from a broad dome to something more akin to a right triangle. This silhouette developed in part because of the need to absorb the voluminous skirts, which had been worn over the domed cage crinoline. The solution was to pull the excess fabric behind and create a bustle which was elaborated with trimmings and supported with steel or cane hoops that projected backwards from the body. The waistline during this period was still in approximately natural position, but the torso overall had taken on a new shape in the advent of the spoon busk. Curved outward over the abdomen, the spoon busk allowed the fullness of the belly to be expressed below a compressed waist. The rounded lower torso in combination with a supported bust above formed a curvaceous hourglass silhouette.

Worth rarely scrutinized or adapted forms from the East. More often, he was an instrument of a Western taste that was projected globally via imperialism; for instance, 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. But in this unusual example from his oeuvre, he emulated Middle Eastern enamels. The 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.

Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Silk, glass
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Shepley, 1953 (C.I.53.63a,b)

Lavish textiles were not only used for evening wear in Worth’s designs, as this day dress of cut and uncut voided velvet attests. The ensemble also provides an example of Worth’s practice of incorporating elements of historic dress in his designs. The large scale of the pomegranate and floral motif follow the style of Louis XIV textile patterns. The bodice and overskirt, made in one piece and worn over a separate skirt, is known as a polonaise, a modified version of an eighteenth-century style popularized by Marie Antoinette. A day dress like this would have been appropriate for walking or making social calls. The back of the polonaise has been expertly draped to accommodate the bustle worn by fashionable women in the 1880s.

Evening dress, 1893–1900
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Gift of James A. and Mary Elizabeth Kingsland, 1994 (1994.462a,b)

In addition to day and evening fashions for upper-class society women, Worth also created clothes for special occasions, such as the as-yet-to-be-identified fancy-dress ball to which this dress would have been worn. Composed of a separate bodice and skirt executed in shocking pink and black taffeta with paste buttons, machine lace trim, and pleated silk chiffon fichu, this gown illustrates the fashion for eighteenth-century revival, a popular theme for extravagant costume parties of the period. The narrow sleeves of the garment, along with the double-breasted masculine tailoring, imitation cut-steel buttons, lace fichu, and open front skirt, refer to fashionable women’s styles of the 1770s.

Evening dress, 1898–1900
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)

Gift of Eva Drexel Dahlgren, 1976 (1976.258.1a,b)

A superb example of dressmaking from the House of Worth, this dress exhibits the aesthetic of the last years of the nineteenth century. The fashionable reverse S-curve silhouette of the dress and the dramatic scroll pattern of the textile reflect the influence of the Art Nouveau movement. The striking graphic juxtaposition of the black velvet on an ivory satin ground creates the illusion of ironwork, with curving tendrils emphasizing the fashionable shape of the garment. In order to achieve this effect, the textile was woven à la disposition, with the intent that each piece would become a specific part of the dress. With this technique, the design of the fabric is intrinsic to the design of the dress.

vening dress, 1925
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, glass, metallic threads
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.20a–c)

Charles Frederick Worth’s two sons, Jean-Philippe and Gaston, carried on the high standards of design and technique at the House of Worth following the designer’s death in 1895. By the 1920s, a completely different, slim boyish silhouette had emerged as the new fashion, as the simple shape of this dress illustrates. Constructed with a minimal amount of seaming and shaping, the chemise dress suggested the body was flat in front and back, with no discernible articulation of the chest, waist, or hips. The lavish ornament of this example, however, provides a clear link to earlier examples executed by Charles Frederick Worth. Side slits and the shortened hemline reveal glimpses of gold lamé. The use of this opulent fabric for both the underdress and lining of the train, as well as the intricate beadwork, recall gowns made by the House of Worth in the previous century.

Evening dress, ca. 1887
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Silk, glass, metallic thread
Gift of Mr. Orme Wilson and Mr. R. Thornton Wilson in memory of their mother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949 (C.I.49.3.28a,b)

Evening dress, 1892
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, crystal, metallic threads
Gift of Mr. Orme Wilson and Mr. R. Thornton Wilson in memory of their mother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949 (C.I.49.3.25a,b)

Both of these evening dresses provide examples of the quality of dressmaking for which Charles Frederick Worth and the House of Worth were renowned among society women worldwide by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Both feature lavish textiles and ornamental embroidery picked out in metallic thread and glass or crystal beads. Textiles for dresses such as these were often woven or embroidered à la disposition, as separate pieces designed to become specific parts of the dress, such as a center front skirt panel. Significant design details, such as the beaded stars at the hemline of the dress on the left (C.I.49.3.28a,b) and the asymmetry of the skirt drapery, differentiate Worth gowns from the countless imitators of the period.

Fancy dress costume, ca. 1870
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Cream and blue silk taffeta, gold metallic, white silk tulle

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Designated Purchase Fund, 1983 (2009.300.1363a,b)

In late nineteenth-century Europe and America, invitees to elaborate costume balls went to great lengths and expense in planning their “fancy dress” attire. Those who could afford it commissioned the House of Worth to manifest their fantasies. This rare costume is in fact an authentic Turkish woman’s ensemble, heavily embroidered in gold by Turkish artisans, that was refashioned at the House of Worth into the form-fitting silhouette of the 1870s. The voluminous drawstring pants retain their original form, but the formerly loose bodice was completely remade, presumably at the behest of the client, and the embroidery artifully integrated into the new cut of the garment. It was not uncommon for couture clients of the era to commission custom designs using fabrics or decorative trims they had purchased themselves, often during their travels.

Fancy dress balls originated in London and Paris in the early eighteenth century as masquerades held in public spaces and developed into more structured indoor events in the nineteenth century. Costumes evoking what was perceived as the “exoticism of the East,” especially Turkey, were a perennial theme of choice, culminating in Paul Poitier’s famed 1002nd Night Ball of 1911.

Wedding dress, 1898
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, pearl
Gift of Agnes Miles Carpenter, 1941 (C.I.41.14.1)

Employing a textile design that mirrors itself from selvage to selvage, this dress is pieced into a perfectly symmetrical image at the center front. Impeccable finishing details such as this distinguish the couture garment from the countless products of the ready-to-wear market that flourished in the mid- to late nineteenth century as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The use of the textile pattern to emphasize the woman’s fashionable hourglass silhouette, achieved with the help of a steel-boned corset, further demonstrates the mastery of dressmaking technique at the House of Worth, as do the tiny handstitched cartridge pleats at the shoulder that create voluminous sleeves. The design of this sleeve, broad at the upper arm and fitted at the lower arm with the sleeve extending over the back of the hand, refers to sixteenth-century dress styles.


About jackikellum

Jacki Kellum is a Fine Artist, a Designer, and also a writer. For one of her graduate programs, she wrote her thesis on William Blake. Like Blake, much of Kellum's work is about childhood and lost innocence. Also like Blake, Kellum strives to both write and illustrate her work. .
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