Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Watching The Metamorphosis

    One of the things of interest about examining a particular design house is being able to chronicle time and change through the work of it's ateliers.  In early 1858 Charles Frederick Worth began business with his then partner Gustave Bohbergh, and entered into the annals of the design community as the first couturier.  His career continued up to his death in 1895, though he ended partnership with Bohbergh in 1871.  The house continued under the stewardship of his two sons.
    So, today I want to take a look at the shifting of both silhouette, and the concomitant shift in social behaviors that went right along side them, by looking at a series of different evening and ball dresses all from the House of Worth.
    First up, here is an evening dress from very early on in Worth's career.  Made in 1862, this evening dress is from the point when skirts had just about maxxed out with regard to circumference.  The decorative elements are almost all self fabric.  Which, honestly, was a hold over from the prior century.   And most well made clothing for women employed decorations that were primarily of the same material as the gown. It wouldn't be for another decade before the use of multiple textiles in a single ensemble was the norm, rather than the exception. Looking at this through the eye of time, even though this is a couture garment, it is relatively simple in it's design and construction.  The fully round skirt has some fairly simple applied decoration.  Not a patch on what is to come in just a few years, as time and technology bring their influence to bear.  What is of most interest is that till this point in time nearly all sewing was done by hand. Elias Howe's sewing machine was still a strange new device that most shied away from. So, even the most lavish of gowns has less elaboration than  we will soon see.
    Only three years later, these efforts emerge from Worth.  The absolute maximum of circumference has been achieved, beyond which technology fails.  The low, round bodice is nearly identical in silhouette, but the level of detail rendered on the skirt has increased enormously.  Additionally, we have at service the use of the new aniline dyes which make superior intense values of color possible.
    Rectitude, by the 1870s, became the most singular influence on design and apparel.  Social appropriateness and adherence to social rules becomes the single driving force for any kind of sartorial statements made.  Interestingly, it is at this time that the mass of the skirt collapses, falling first to the back as an ovoid shape, and then emerging as the first version of the bustle.  This begins happening in the latter 1860s, but by 1870 it is fully in place.
    As a method of stating one's position in society, nothing worked quite so effectively as making sure that one's clothing we as elaborated, and possessed of as many hand worked details as might be possible.  By the 1880s, where these four garments come from, it was all about making sure that the textiles and details of one's clothing announced in no uncertain terms where in the social hierarchy one stood.  The bustle had finally collapsed, but it left a train in its wake that permitted considerable display of unneeded, fabulously expensive fabric and decoration.
    By the later 1880s the bustle made a return appearance, since its ability to waste textiles and trimmings was nearly without peer.  By the 1880s, it was not only social standing that mattered, but sheer, undeniable wealth that held sway.  So, the ability to display, as we had in the latter 1700s, our means financial in overt ways, was of prime concern.  The greatest peers of the English realm fell by the dozens to the parvenues of the American rich.
    By the 1890s, this process of display and social acceptance or dismissal based on apparel was so entrenched that the clothing less overtly about display.  One had to know and understand an intricate set of unspoken rules and regulations in order to gain admittance to the highest realms of society, (though honestly why anyone would want to hang out with such venal, shortsighted folk is beyond me, regardless of their connections).
    At the end of the 1800s, and into the beginning of the 1900s, we saw a slimming, and a kind of simplification.  The shape no longer had endless layers of extraneous decoration.  It became a simpler, more direct approach, more in keeping with both the modern world's growing mechanization, and the increasing presence of women in the work force outside of the home.  Frankly, it is a simplification from which we have never fully retreated.  Though fussy clothes have always had their place, we have never been willing to go back to a world wherein women especially, were hampered in their movement to the degree they were in the 1800s.

    So, looking back over these decades we can see the slow, steady metamorphosis of not only how women dressed themselves, but how women thought of themselves. We can look at this timeline and see our progress; even when, living in the midst of it, we don't seem to be getting anywhere at all.