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 Paris’s leading mercers, to open a dressmaking department. The mercer’s clients could chose from examples of Worth’s 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 Worth’s 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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  The Family
      Couture   |   Art
      Magazines   |   1900s
      1910s   |   1920s
      1930s   |   1940s
  The Business
  The Clients
  The Workers




This democritization only went so far, of course. Couture clothes were worn by women with particular social lives and responsibilities.