Rex Needle: Charles Worth dress goes on show at Bourne Heritage Centre

Baldock's Mill, Bourne
Baldock's Mill, Bourne
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A genuine dress by Worth has been added to the gallery display at the Heritage Centre in Bourne celebrating the life of one of the town’s most famous sons.

The stunning creation is an evening or ball gown in burgundy silk made to order at the Paris salon where the great man dressed the world’s rich and famous.

Brown dress by Worth

Brown dress by Worth

It was handed in to the Heritage Centre in South Street by a local lady who was given it by friends living in France, one of whose ancestors had it made by the House of Worth, suggesting that it might be suitable for a place in the Charles Worth Gallery which opened in April 2006 to celebrate the life and times of the solicitor’s son from Bourne who subsequently left for France to pursue his career in fashion, becoming founder of haute couture and dressing many of the world’s most prominent women from celebrities to royalty and including the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.

Members of the Civic Society who opened the bag found to their astonishment that it contained a Worth dress made in 1921, inspired by the great man and most probably the work of his son, Jean-Phillipe, who took over when his father died and whose designs continued through the use of dramatic fabrics and lavish trimmings. The garment also bore the distinctive Worth label in embossed fabric, thus marking it out as one of particular excellence.

Charles Worth died from pneumonia on 10th March 1895 at the age of 69 although the House of Worth flourished well into the 1920s. But the great fashion dynasty came to an end after his great-grandson, Jean-Charles (1881–1962), retired from the family business and in 1956, the House of Worth closed its doors, two years short of a century of creating sumptuous and artistic gowns for the world’s most renowned women.

There are already two Worth dresses on display in the gallery but both are copies, made by ladies who volunteered their needlework skills to produce garments identical to the originals which are now in museums.

The first is a style known as Visite and made from off white silk with braid and bead trimmings, originally designed by Worth in 1885 and bearing the label of his salon at No 7 Rue de la Paix in Paris. The second is a glamorous ruby red evening gown completed from a design Worth produced at his Paris salon for one of his rich lady customers which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The new addition has now been given a prominent place in the gallery which has made its mark during the eight years it has been opened, attracting visitors from around the world, particularly Australia and the United States, and assisting many students working on theses for their fashion degrees.

“The new dress has become the most important item now on display”, said Mrs Brenda Jones, chairman of the Civic Society which runs the Heritage Centre and who was instrumental in opening the gallery. “We have a wide variety of other artefacts, documents, photographs and garments, but this is now by far our pièce de résistance.”

Meanwhile, one of the long-standing mysteries in the life of Charles Worth has finally been solved. His father, William Worth, who lived at Wake House in North Street where he also had his law practice, lead a profligate life and eventually deserted his wife and children who went to live with relatives.

William Worth died in obscurity at Billingborough on 12th November 1878, aged 89, and is buried at Horbling, but there has been no record of the fate of his wife, Ann (nee Quincey), a local girl he had married on 2nd December 1816. New research by the Quincey family has now revealed that she died at Highgate, London, on 3rd September 1852, aged 59, from sub-acute gastritis and is buried in Highgate cemetery. It has also been established that her name was simply Ann, and not Mary Ann as has been believed, the name used by Charles Worth’s biographer, Diana de Marly, which has been widely copied [Worth: Father of Haute Couture, Batsford, 1980].

One mystery, however, still remains and that is what she was doing in London in 1852. Her address on the death certificate is given as North Road, Highgate, and Paul Quincey, of Hampton, Middlesex, who has provided this information, has suggested that perhaps she may have recently returned to England after attending the wedding of her son, Charles, who was then working for Gagelin and Opigez in Paris, the leading fashion fabric retailers of the day, where he met Marie Augustine Vernet, an attractive sales girl, who became his bride. They were both 26.

It would seem to be a natural conclusion that his mother would be invited to the wedding although her later presence in London remains unexplained. Nevertheless, the date and circumstances of her death now remedy an omission in the archives and provide even more information about the family for the Charles Worth Gallery which now has a copy of Ann Worth’s death certificate for display.