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Victorian Fashion

Charles Worth fashion sketch

 

Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How did the Victorians keep up-to-date with the latest trends? Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education, Rhian Tritton discusses nineteenth century fashion, designers and fabrics.


Fast fashion is everywhere. Versions of the designs seen on the catwalks during the bi-annual fashion week carousel of New York, London, Paris and Milan appear on Zara’s rails within a week. Even the designers who show in those rarefied surroundings are tuning into customers’ insatiable desire to have the new now; at Burberry, one of the UK’s most successful high-end fashion houses, customers can buy straight from the catwalk show (provided they have a hefty enough wallet, of course), rather than having to wait for stock to arrive in the shops. But fashion hasn’t always moved at this lightning speed.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the wealthiest and most fashionable women, such as the first class passengers on ss Great Britain, shopped at the House of Worth. Charles Frederick Worth himself, an Englishman working in Paris, was the first couturier to produce a number of designs each season, shown, thrillingly and for the first time, on live models.

Customers ordered outfits to be made up, to their particular measurements and in their choice of fabric, in the House of Worth’s work rooms. The whole process, including at least two fittings, might take six months. And for those women who loved fashion but didn’t have a Worth-sized income, finding out what the great man had shown on his models was even more of a waiting game. Not for them the pulse-racing live streaming of Marc Jacobs’ latest creations straight from New York Fashion Week. Instead they’d have to wait patiently for the next issue of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine which might, if they were lucky, contain fashion plates showing a few of Worth’s confections of lace and silk.

The Victorians might wonder at the speed and disposability of our fashions today, but there is one thing they’d recognize. Designers today set great store by having the front row of the audience at their catwalk show stuffed with celebrities, but this isn’t new. A hundred and fifty years ago Worth himself was giving free clothes to the A-listers of the day, and cashing in on the publicity generated. Lily Langtry to Kim Kardashian isn’t such a leap after all.

 

Author: Rhian Tritton, Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education