What would happen if a great designer from the past told us, from his own point of view, the significance of today’s trends and shared his aesthetic universe with us?
What would it be like to talk to Charles Frédérick Worth (1825-1895), the French haute couture inventor and the first to conceive of high fashion designing as a profession and an autonomous creation, distinct from simple tailoring?
Having some fun with our imagination, and giving this brilliant tailor universal knowledge that goes beyond the barrier of time, we imagined the outcome to be like this…!
Claudia: you have always been considered the first designer. A student of yours, Paul Poiret, who then became your successor, has described you as the inventor of high fashion. In the year 1857, you opened your first tailor shop on the historic rue de Paix, in Paris. What was so revolutionary about this new shop?
C.F.W .: in previous times, the fashion designer was a humble and anonymous character who worked in ladies’ homes, indulging their tastes and desires. In my shop, however, women – at first the nobility and then the upper middle class – had to wait their turn, and elegant and expensive ready-made dresses were available to them. I did not work for commission, giving into their whims: I presented what I had imagined through my own genuine inspiration and no one else’s.
Claudia: in short, this was the the origin of the principle that the tailor is the master of fashion and not the person wearing the dress…
C.F.W .: that’s right. I think in your time, the situation is a little different: there is a stronger need to accommodate people’s changes and styles of living, while retaining the designer’s creative freedom. I mostly envisaged a sort of figure that would be able to guide the choices of his customers, deciding in advance what they would like.
Claudia: this was also made possible thanks to the mechanism of the seasons, which you invented as well…
C.F.W .: exactly. I was the first to have models do a fashion show in advance. This imposes an autonomous rhythm to the fashion cycle that transcends the customer. It is as if the dress were living its own life, and were totally self-sufficient, even from a temporal point of view.
Claudia: for the first time clothing was signed like a work of art.
C.F.W .: I had the idea to change the shape of the skirt, first round and then pushed further and further behind towards the back, into an asymmetric crinoline, flat at the front and swollen at the back. I made original garments like this myself, which was a product of my love of fabrics and of women. Not working on commission, the work was born out of my imagination so it was mine in every way. It was obvious that I had to sign it some how. For a writer or a painter it was easy to claim possession with a signature, so it was enough to use a pen or a brush… so I affixed labels with the name of my shop on them. It is still used today, is it not?
Claudia: yes, of course, as well as mannequins, which display the dresses, and are now called models…
C.F.W .: rather than be beautified by the garment, the women I needed were to only present it to queens and royalty in its simplicity and beauty. As you said before, it was my artwork; I just needed someone to display it for me. Like the beautiful frame of a painting or the finely worked cover of a literary classic.
Claudia: in your opinion, beyond the past and the future, what is a general characteristic that fashion has always possessed?
C.F.W .: it is cyclical. Everything returns. An eighteenth-century writer spoke about occurrences and recurrences of history, while a philosopher from your time, in the early twentieth century, wrote about the principle of eternal return. They are deep concepts, which are suited for the interpretation of today’s world. Man’s life is characterized by the return: everything returns, and not only from a historical and artistic point of view, but also an aesthetic one. Fabrics, shapes and colors come back. Maybe not my ladies’ crinolines, but just think of velvet, pearl necklaces and bell-bottom pants… they all cyclically return… how do you call them? The must-haves of the season, correct?
Claudia: Yes, that’s right. But in this recurrence, what changes?
C.F.W .: sensitivity, because the outdated turns out to always be present. Here is an example that you modern types will really like. It is a fact that Coco Chanel’s launch of men’s trousers for women in the twenties of the twentieth century was a response to: a particular need resulting from a specific historical and cultural situation of poverty, the new breath of freedom in the aftermath of war, the emancipation of women, and a number of other elements that had nothing to do with your world. Therefore, the sensitivity with which it proposes the familiar again is entirely new, and that’s the beauty of it. The historical layers – always implied – are enriched today with new meaning and nuances: for this reason the object that is brought back is never the same… Look, for example at Dries Van Noten’s last show…