Though born and raised in England, Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) became the first world famous French fashion designer. He was also the first to create and employ the principles of design and fashion that would be called "haute couture," or "high fashion." Worth not only designed clothes for much of Europe's nobility and many American millionaires, he also introduced many modern changes in the ways clothing was designed, made, and sold.
Worth was born in 1825 in Lincolnshire, in the east of England. His father was a lawyer who had lost most of his money gambling, so young Charles was forced to go out to work when he was only eleven. He worked for many years at a department store, then at a company that sold fabrics. Through his sales experience he learned about what women wanted and needed in clothing and fashion. He wished to become a dress designer, so at the age of twenty he took a job with a fabric firm in Paris, where he could study design while he worked. It was there that he introduced his first new idea of offering dress design to customers at the fabric company. For the first time, ladies could get the whole dress, design and fabric, at the same location.
Before Worth began his design career, dresses had been made by dressmakers, and designs had been created by the customer and the dressmaker, who got ideas from looking at pictures of popular dresses. Worth was one of the first designers to come up with his own ideas, based on his knowledge of women's needs. Soon he started his own company. The wife of the Austrian ambassador bought a dress from Worth that attracted the notice of the Empress of France. Worth became the court designer, and was soon making dresses for the royalty of Russia, Italy, Spain, and Austria. Famous and wealthy Americans such as the Vanderbilts and the Astors also came to the House of Worth for special gowns, making Worth the first celebrity fashion designer.
Worth used beautiful and luxurious fabrics for his dresses, and he trimmed them with rich decoration, such as fringe, lace, braid, and tassels made of pearls. His many important contributions to design included an ankle-length walking skirt, shockingly short for its time, and the princess gown, a waist-less dress that hung simple and straight in the front while draping in full pleats in the back.
However, more lasting have been Worth's contributions to fashion as an industry. He changed the way dresses were shown to customers by being the first designer to use living women as models, and the first to have fashion shows to reveal his new designs to customers. He also began to make high fashion more widely available, by selling his designs not only to individual customers but also to other dressmakers, clothing manufacturers, and to the newly invented department stores. Another introduction Worth made was the practice of mass-producing parts of a piece of clothing, then putting them together in different ways. For example, a certain type of sleeve could be produced in a bulk quantity, and then used on several different types of dresses to produce a different look each time.
Worth's ideas came at a time when clothing factories and department stores were new developments, and they combined well to create a new concept in fashion called ready-to-wear clothing. For the first time, people could simply go to a store and buy the latest fashions, and "haute couture" style was no longer only available to the rich. Charles Worth died in 1895, but his sons continued to operate his successful design house for many years.