The Worth of a Dress

published march 8, 2023 | written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Photo of the intricate House of Worth Dress, with black chiffon and lace appliqués.

Nowadays, when you think of haute couture, you’re apt to think of Chanel, Dior, or Givenchy. They’ve been staple names for over 50 years; you’ve seen them in movies, tv shows, runways–perhaps you own a bag or a perfume with one of the names. But who came before them? Who was the pioneer in French high fashion? Who started haute couture as we know it?

These questions all lead to Charles Frederick Worth. Born on October 13, 1825 in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England, Worth was already cut out for the fashion world, working as an apprentice and clerk for two textile merchants in London. While he worked, he also had a passion for studying historic portraits, visiting the National Gallery often, where these paintings would later influence his work. 

At 20, Worth moved to Paris, taking with him his knowledge of textiles he learned while in London. Finding work with Gagelin, a company that sold textiles of many forms, Worth became successful, eventually creating a dressmaking department within the firm. From there, his designs won awards and were promoted at the Great Exhibition in London and the Exposition Universelle in Paris. 

When Napoleon III reigned over France as Emperor, he had plans to contemporize the country. With budding designers paving the way, this was the perfect way to secure Worth’s place as his own kind of an emperor in the textile industry. Worth incorporated luxurious and ornate materials along with design elements, such as fit and form, which he studied in the dresses of historic portraits of the National Gallery, to create his own vision that was fit for the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. 

In 1858, Worth opened up House of Worth, his own textile firm. From there, and after intense self-promoting, he became known as “the father of haute couture,” with his name plastered all over in fashion magazines. His fame grew, as did his following, and women flocked to Paris to visit House of Worth to deck out their entire wardrobes. 

The empire that Worth built for his firm grew and grew over the years, so despite his passing in 1895, his sons, Gaston-Lucien and Jean-Philippe, who took over following his death, maintained the vision and level of excellency their father had instilled in the company. 

Jean-Phillippe in particular, born in 1856, emulated his father’s eye for design and work. So, it is with his father’s legacy that he created many designs–one of which we have in our collection! Made between 1904-1906, the dress features incredibly unique design elements like the appliques of velvet floral designs, printed floral on lace, and hand-made paper sequins. 

As Bar Harbor was in its height of fashion and popularity as a summer getaway, it’s no wonder that the Parisian haute couture designs made its way here; the nation’s richest elites demanded glitz, glam, and the latest fashions, many of which came from Paris, so it made sense to showcase one’s wealth here! 

If you’d like to see the Worth dress on display, we invite you to join us on opening day, May 26! In the meantime, if you’d like to be kept up to date on latest happenings and want to know what’s coming next for us before anyone else, consider becoming a member, where we send out monthly e-newsletters! Until then, see you next week!