Monday, July 29, 2013

Meet Margaret, Gown Hand at the House of Worth

Worth beauties. The dress on the left is from the late 1950s, when Owen Hyde Clark was head designer at Worth.

Sometimes the most wonderful (and unexpected) things happen because of my blog and that’s how I felt when my new friend Margaret from Scotland saw a post I wrote on the House of Worth back in February of this year and sent me an email saying she had worked there from 1958 to 1968. Manna from heaven! Fashion historians agree that the work of Charles Frederick Worth (October 13, 1825—March 10, 1895) was the beginning of modern haute couture. And if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know how much I love couture seamstresses! It seems especially fitting to introduce you to Margaret in July, the month of the fall/winter haute couture shows in Paris.

Margaret so graciously sent me an essay she had written for her cousin to present at a course she took at the V&A Museum in London about Twentieth-Century Fashion. It is a fascinating peek into mid-20th century practices at a fashion house with a prestigious background. The details she relates are so wonderful I just want to share with you what she wrote. Enjoy!

This satin and faille evening gown was cut on the bias and features a matching stole.

WORTH as I knew it.

In 1954 Paquin made a takeover offer which was accepted by Maurice Worth.

In 1956 Paquin was also having difficulties and sold to two brothers who were jewelers with shops in London.

I became involved in the fashion industry when at the age of 13 years I attended a technical college for three years’ training in dressmaking.

In 1957 I joined the London Fashion House of Worth as an assistant for a further two years to complete my apprenticeship.

I worked under the supervision of a gown hand who was responsible for the dresses and took her orders from the fitter in charge of the workroom.

The V&A notes the influence of Christian Dior in the design details of this Worth dress.

In 1958 we attended the wedding of the one of the brothers. The whole house was taken by bus to the service. Afterwards we were all given a little box of sugar almonds.

We were luckier at Worth than some of the other houses whose workrooms were in the basement and could be dark and cold.

Our workroom was near the top floor with plenty of natural light. It could be very hot in the summer as we were working on the next winter’s collection and ironing wool to shrink it before cutting, it was not easy as there were no electric irons as we know them today.

One very hot day I went to work in a sleeveless, lower-necked cotton dress and was told not to wear it again as it was beach wear and inappropriate for the fashion house.

The Worth wedding gown Margaret helped create as featured in The Tatler, Jan/Feb 1961.

I then worked as an assistant to a junior gown hand and we were lucky to be given a model wedding dress to make. We were very excited when a photograph was put in a magazine but of course we were not mentioned, just the designer. All the lace and appliqué was sewn by hand, also neatening and hemming.

This dress is from 1955, so just before Margaret worked there.

In the workroom of 25-30 girls there were only two old treadle sewing machines. These were only used on the seams as everything else was by hand.

We worked from 8:30 to 5:30 with 3/4-hour for lunch and two 10-minute comfort breaks morning and afternoon.

My starting salary was £3.10, rising to £5 as a junior gown hand. When I became a gown hand I had three assistants and one apprentice working with me.

A stand would be padded to the exact size of the client and the pattern of the chosen model would be fitted to that shape. After cutting, the client would usually have 3 fittings but there could be more until the client was satisfied.

A detail of the embroidery.

A 1960 dress from Worth.

I love the back and side of this dress as much as the front!

Towards the end of the sixties there was less work to keep the rooms occupied. We were not surprised when we were told that the house was being closed. Worth was sold to Sidney Massin, a U.S. entrepreneur who briefly revived it with American designer Hylan Booker.

Another 1960 dress from Worth, designed by Owen Hyde Clark.

In the spring of 1968 we were finally made redundant. While I was looking for employment in a fashion house I saw an advert for summer work in Harrods. At the interview I was offered work as a packer. The interviewer apologized for not being able to offer more money. Little did she know that the £12.50 was exactly the same as my last salary at Worth. No, I didn’t go back to a fashion house again. I stayed at Harrods and worked in the children’s department until I married. There were many jobs afterwards, none connected to dressmaking until I came to Scotland and started tutoring dressmaking classes for adults in local community centers. I retired this year but haven’t hung up my scissors yet.

I love the color, I love the details!

Thank you so much to Margaret for sharing this essay with me so I could share it with all of you!

All photos of the dresses courtesy of the V&A Museum.


Suzanne Carillo Style Files said...

What a fabulous account of history from someone who lived it. TFS


Paula Ruta said...

Yup, that would have been one of my dream jobs!
How wonderful she wrote this essay!

I knew someone that was a fashion history EXPERT; she could look at an OLD garment, tell you what year that style was. She had the most unbelievable library. xoxo

Anonymous said...

I loved this! It was so nice of her to share the paper with you, and for you to share it with your readers.

Heather Lindstrom said...

Jill this is a fascinating post. What a fantastic connection to make. I loved reading the details and the history. The images are gorgeous! This is one of my favorite things about blogging-all the connections.
By the way, to answer your question we ended up on an unplanned flight to Newark and took the train into NYC. It was blazing hot but we had a perfect dinner at Piccola Cucina on Spring Street. Quite a surprise on our way to the Caribbean! Loved it!
xx, Heather

Veshoevius said...

What a fascinating story! I was amazed at the craftmanship of the house and that you managed to get a first hand account of a seamstress who worked there! I'm drooling over all of those amazing dresses (the blue evening gown is sublime!).

Anonymous said...

I love this story! Margaret connected us to such a wonderful part of history with her essay, thank you sharing it! These gowns could be word today especially that little lace cocktail number.

kim at northerncalstyle. said...

Jill, Loved reading this. So interesting the real lives of those who worked there. To have a dress like that now. . . The yellow dress is my favorite. All amazing though!
Thanks for sharing this great story!


Anonymous said...

I was a model for Worth and Paquin when Eden was prime minister and during the Queens coronation. Owen Hyde Clarke was designer. Four girls 2 blondes two brunettes, I was a brunette, had their wardrobe made for them. Mrs Eden used to "borrow" my evening gowns to go to function at "Buck House" I have pix.
I still look "OK"

Joanna said...

Such an interesting tale. I love to read the real experiences of ladies working in this time period. Thank you for posting this!

katie may said...

What a delight it is to read this fabulous account! My dear Gran was a tailor for Worth's between 1950 to 57 at the London fashion house also and it is simply wonderful to get a greater insight into her work there. I have some beautiful samples of trim she once took home with her claiming they were off cuts that I treasure dearly but as some people have already commented, how I would absolutely love to own a worth's dress, they are utterly breathtaking works of craftsmanship. Thank you most kindly for sharing this post!
Katie May

Anonymous said...

Margaret is my Aunt. I was so shocked to read this as I had no idea she had written about it. I had to phone her and check it was her but the more I read the more I knew it was. I was very lucky as it was Margaret who made my wedding dress. Not white but Purple and Green silk.