Twice a year, a select handful of by-invite-only fashion designers request the presence of a super-elite cadre of editors, celebs and one-percenters at the presentation of their collections for the Haute Couture. "High Sewing" is the literal translation, but it's so much more. A culture, really, defined by two characteristics: precise tailoring and extravagant old-world dressmaking. Lavish fabrics are key and each look shown can take up to 700 hours to make, the elaborate result of impeccable hand-sewing, embroidering, embellishing, befeathering, bedecking and other festooning of garments as well as creating (from scratch!) the accompanying accessories, shoes, bags, buttons and jewelry. To purchase one of these money-no-object creations, you need a lot of it - an outfit can start at $25,000, with gowns easily running into the hundreds of thousands. With enough festooning, some even surpass the $1 million mark. (image)
And who buys this sort of thing? The wealthy, the famous and the powerful - the same people who always have, particularly since the mid-19th century. In 1852, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoléon III (1808-1873), ushered in the glittery Second French Empire. As part of his plan to restore the royal house, he felt a more regal setting was required, starting with Paris, then a cramped and congested urban slum. Poverty-stricken and crime-ridden, even the Seine was disgusting and filled with free-floating sewage. Notre Dame was in disrepair and urban blight covered the Ile de la Cite, the island in the Seine where Paris had begun. The once-beautiful Saint Chapelle had been defaced and destroyed during the French Revolution and was now overrun with a rabbit-warren of tenements. In short: a medieval maze that was dangerous, unsanitary as to be hazardous and nigh impossible to navigate.
The "difficulty of getting around in Paris," writes Stephane Kirkland in PARIS REBORN: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City (St. Martin's Press), "had grown so bad and the old neighborhoods were so dirty and dangerous that the elite had begun avoiding the historical core altogether." So when Napoléon III seized power, he launched his makeover of the city by appointing a new Prefect of the Seine Department. Georges-Eugène Haussmann was so successful, we never refer to "Napoléon III's Paris" but to "the Paris of Haussmann." He enabled the city to live up the lovely nickname it had been given during the Age of Enlightenment (late 17th- & 18th-century Europe) as a seat of learning and new ideas: La Ville-Lumière! Under Haussmann, buildings now boasted impressive new facades, elegant parks bloomed and in place of the dense and irregular alleyways were grand boulevards.
Ready for its international close-up, Paris hosted countless court functions and galas galore. And red carpet events mean ladies with money who require gowns. Lots of them. Sartorial opportunity was knocking and a smart somebody answered: a savvy expatriate dressmaker with flair, connections and vision.
Enter Charles Frederick Worth.
To read the rest of his fascinating tale, be sure to check out my latest piece for Answers.com.
- Lesley Scott