|The stunningly beautiful Empress Eugénie, generally considered the world’s first fashionista.|
Every fabulous frock needs an impressive form to fill it and arguably the first such fashion muse and mavin was the strikingly lovely, red-haired, blue-eyed Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoléon III.
She was, Teri Agins tells us in her latest book, Hijacking The Runway, the Emperor’s “trophy wife” who was more than willing to play the role of mannequin and ambassador of French haute fashion.
In 1858, she tells us, Napoléon hired English tailor, Charles Worth, “to create a magnificent wardrobe suitable for the new age of mass media. . .[thus] his young wife became the world’s first supermodel.”
Now, I don’t know about you but I am mad about this sort of history. Not only is it fascinating as a “stand-alone” tidbit for scintillating conversation, but also it gives us a better understanding of where we are in the hybrid (incestuous?) world of fashion, celebrities and commerce today.
|Charles Frederick Worth, the father of haute couture and, according to his most famous client, Empress Eugénie, the “tyrant” of fashion. (As we all know, he wasn’t and won’t be the last tyrant.|
We’ll get back to the latter in the days ahead. Teri’s chapter on Eugenie sent me off into my relatively serious fashion library to investigate more about the power of beauty, exposure (she was married to France’s last Emperor after all which gave her enormous exposure in France, much of Europe and beyond), and the influence that heady cocktail can produce.
More from Teri: “Worth painstakingly confected one hundred innovative new gowns for her to wear for the official opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869. Her appearances at ‘the great State balls, the more intimate receptions at the Tuileries, the races at Longchamp served the same function as today’s runway fashion shows,’ wrote historian Olivier Corteaux.”
Worth, a man of not only considerable creativity, but also commercial intelligence understood the importance of the serendipitous situation in which he found himself. The word and the concept may not have been fully formed in the 19th century, but clearly he understood “branding.” He was at the same time a fashion celebrity (hello, Karl!) and a brand.
He was the first clothing designer to have a label sewn inside his garments. Without the complicity of Eugenie, Charles Frederick Worth may have been no more than a historical fashion footnote and not the “father of haute couture.” She was, apart from the advantage of the stage on which she played as Empress of France, the undisputed arbiter of taste, and she was daring. Together, she and Worth decided the cumbersome crinolines of the time were “out” leading him to gather material close and caressingly around the waist, finishing in a bustle. It became all the rage, for one reason: Eugenie wore the style beautifully.
|The Empress Eugénie wearing Worth.|
Teri again: “As for Napoleon III, his trophy wife (along with his mistresses, which Worth diplomatically outfitted at the same time) amounted to far more than arm candy, for the Emperor shrewdly accomplished his foremost commercial motive: triggering the demand for all the homegrown silk textiles, embroideries and finery that France would come to export throughout Europe, as fashion grew to become the second-largest industry in France.”
By the 1860s her fashion forward choices were scrutinized as far away as the fashion magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book in Philadelphia. She even influenced colors, Empress blue (which supposedly was the inspiration for the famous Tiffany blue, the color of those boxes we all love to open), and her signature hairstyle, à l’imperatrice.
Her portrait was displayed in boutiques throughout Europe and North America — you see where this is going. The elegant Empress was the precursor of what has been taken to the ultimate extreme today — fashion, media, business, celebrity. . .aspiration.