Old Master Paintings

The Father of Couture

Emile Friant (French, 1863-1932), Portrait of Charles Frederick Worth, 1893, Oil on canvas, 89 1/4 x 48 3/4 inches. Est. $15,000-20,000. Lot 80. Auction June 3.

NEW YORK, NY -- Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), known as the “father of haute couture,” was the dominant figure in French dressmaking in the late 19th century. A more counter-intuitive impresario of fashion can scarcely be imagined. Born into a working-class family in provincial England, Worth worked as a young man in London in the shop of a purveyor of fine textiles.

In 1846, with little money and speaking almost no French, Worth moved to Paris with the hope of establishing his own business there. In only a few years he had persuaded an important Parisian fabric merchant to allow him to open a dress department featuring his own designs, which then won prizes at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 in London and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. In 1858 he and his French wife and a partner launched their own clothing house.

From the beginning, Worth’s innovations changed the world of high fashion. His tailors were the best in the business, and the range and quality of his fabrics and trimmings were unparalleled. His dress designs were noteworthy both for their elegance and their practicality. He used live models (including his own stylish wife) to show his designs. Instead of visiting clients at their homes, he persuaded them to come to his salon to view his offerings, where they could see a variety of fabrics and designs. These showings became social events, where it was important for rich and noble ladies to be seen. Eventually Worth’s clients included not only European and American society but the Empresses Eugenie of France and Elizabeth of Austria.

In 2001, Doyle auctioned an 1888 court presentation gown by Charles Frederick Worth for $101,500, setting a world auction record for an antique dress. The gown with its 10 1/2 foot court train had belonged to Esther Maria Lewis Chapin, a descendant of George Washington’s sister.

An 1893 Portrait of Charles Frederick Worth

A highlight of Doyle’s June 3, 2020 auction of Old Master & 19th Century Paintings, Drawings & Sculpture is an 1893 portrait of Charles Frederick Worth by French artist Emile Friant (1863-1932). In this portrait, painted only two years before his death and now offered by one of his descendants, Worth is dressed in his characteristic hat, loose-fitting jacket, cravat and cape, a distinctive ensemble that he had adopted for its simplicity and comfort. After his death, his sons and their descendants continued to run his business to his high standards until it was finally closed in 1952.  View the Portrait

Portrait of specialist Elaine Banks Stainton
Senior Specialist, Paintings & Drawings
Old Master Paintings
View Specialist Profile