No, we don’t have Gaultier–he’s the wrong century for our museum. But we are delighted to have received a piece by Charles Frederick Worth. I don’t know if Madonna would have liked his clothing, but throughout the decades around 1900 all the other women in America longed to wear a dress by the undisputed leader of the Paris fashion scene.
The House of Worth was the shopping destination for American women rich enough to journey to Europe for fitting and to spend amounts that would embarrass some of our modern fashionistas. Worth was known for some signature fashion touches, such as using lots of lace. But he championed the practice of constantly changing fashion trends. New shapes, details and colors rendered last year’s dress passé.
American women of the best classes didn’t fall for that. As Edith Wharton shows us in Age of Innocence, no New York society woman would have been seen in the latest Worth gown. When their yearly order of 10 to 20 dresses arrived by ship from Paris, they were packed away for a good two years, till they were clearly out of fashion and safe to wear in conservative society. I am sure that in less strict cities, American women who could afford Worth gowns proudly wore them the minute they arrived.
We don’t have an entire gown, just the bodice, the top half of a two-piece silk dress from the 1870s. That one piece contains a wealth of information. First, look at what an art object it is, in sea-foam green with lace and other decorations. Imagine it paired with the long matching skirt, with a bit of bustle in back. This dress would not have been fancy enough for something like a ball, but it might have been good enough for a dinner.
Look closer and see the elaborate sewing needed to make the shaped, fitted clothing of the 19th century. Homemade gowns and those of lesser designers were similarly complex, but the House of Worth’s attention to sewing detail is pretty impressive. The bodice is nothing like a modern shirt we could buy off the rack today. Several pieces of silk were seamed together in precise shapes to make the bodice fit one particular woman in the specified shape of the day.
To fit in her bodice, she would first have donned a corset to force her upper half into an impossibly narrow waist and firm bosom. In case the corset’s boning wasn’t hard enough to keep her form rigid, the bodice has a little boning to keep it from folding or creasing. There can be no quick escapes from this piece of clothing. It closed at the front by lacing together those two stiffened edges, each with 18 holes to lace.
Look to the back to see more of Worth’s artistry. Two large tasseled bows hang off of the bodice, where they would rest on the swell of the skirt. Look closely at those tassels, keeping in mind that Worth would not have used some that came out of Europe’s industrial textile mills. Those were made by hand, wrapping thread around a form. As we saw on the inside seaming, no detail was so small that it did not merit hours of effort by a skilled seamstress.
We will never be able to put on a Worth exhibit with our one little bodice, but I hope you see how it is big enough to teach about fashion standards, comfort expectations and the efforts of French seamstresses. One question to think about: how on earth did they clean this garment?