Until the middle of the nineteenth century, fashion
was in the hands of the mercers, merchants who sold the luxurious
fabrics like silks, brocades, and velvets out of which fashionable
clothing was made. Their female counterparts were called modistes,
from the French word mode, for style. Well-dressed men and
women went first to the mercer or modiste to purchase the latest
textiles and trims, which they then took to their tailors or dressmakers
who made up garments according to the customers wishes.
By the 1850s, the institution of couture, or fashionable
dressmaking and design, had arrived on the scene, merging the services
of mercer and dressmaker. The first person to claim the title couturier
was the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), who convinced
his employer, one of Pariss leading mercers, to open a dressmaking
department. The mercers clients could chose from examples
of Worths designs, and then select fabric from the shop.
Worth set up his own shop, Worth et Bobergh, in 1858 with
a Swedish business partner. He considered himself a design artist,
disdaining the step of working with clients to create an individual
design for them. Instead, he began to design clothing for the sake
of design, setting the fashion of the day.
Each year Worth created model gowns that were dressed on forms
in the shop or worn by demoiselles de modes, or house models,
who paraded in front of customers. Familiar today, this custom was
new at the time. Customers could then chose a model gown and Worths
shop would reproduce, alter, or restyle it according to their needs.
It was not long before these original designs found their way into
the new fashion magazines. Then, even women who could not travel
to Paris to visit mercers, modistes, or couture houses could work
with their dressmakers to adapt the latest fashions to their own
tastes, budget, and figures.
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