Dior. Blass. Prada. Givenchy. De la Renta. Von Furstenberg. Cassini. Cardin. Lauren. Gucci.
History records the names of today’s fashion designers, but nowhere in its pages are the names of the tailors, dressmakers, and seamstresses who clothed royalty and nobility throughout the ages. They must have existed. Fashion certainly did. France and Milan were recorded as two of Europe’s earliest fashion centres.
But what was important prior to the late eighteenth century was the garment itself—the style, detailing, colour, fabric, and, too, the person who paraded it; everything except the designer. Who originated designer clothes? and who paved the way for the phenomenon of the name label?
Her name was Rose Bertin, the first fashion designer to achieve fame, recognition, and a page in the history books. Born Marie-Jeanne in Abbeville, France, in the mid-1700s, she might not have became famous, despite talent, had it not been for a series of fortunate encounters. Rose Bertin began her career as a milliner in Paris in the early 1770s. Her stylish hats caught the attention of the Duchess of Chartres, who became her patron and presented her to Empress Maria Theresa. The Hungarian Queen was displeased with the style of dress worn by her daughter, Marie Antoinette, and Rose Bertin was commissioned to make over the woman who would become perhaps France’s most extravagant and famous Queen.
Rose’s lavish costumes for the Dauphine dazzled the French court, though they distressed the empress, who complained that her daughter now dressed with the excesses of a stage actress. As Queen, Marie Antoinette devoted increasingly more time and money to fashion. And as her extravagances rose to the level of a national scandal. Rose Benin’s salon became the fashion center of Paris.
She dressed not only Marie Antoinette, meeting with the queen twice weekly to create new gowns, but most of the French aristocracy, as well as the Queens of Sweden and Spain, the Duchess of Devonshire, and the Czarina of Russia. Rose Benin’s prices were exorbitant. Even the fermenting revolution did nothing to lower the prices, the demand for gowns, and the queen’s commitment to fashion—which may have led to the arrest that resulted in her beheading.
Early in June 1791, prior to the planned escape of Marie Antoinette and her husband, set for the twentieth of the month, the queen ordered from Rose Bertin a large number of traveling outfits to be completed as quickly as possible. The discovery of the order is believed to have confirmed suspicions that the royal couple was about to flee the country. The queen, of course, was caught, imprisoned, and guillotined in 1793.
Rose Bertin fled to Frankfurt, then moved to London, where she continued to design clothes for European and Asian nobility. She died in 1812, during the reign of Napoleon. Her worldwide fame helped draw attention to the people who design clothes. In Paris, salons and individual designers began to attach their own names to the fashions they created.
And one Parisian designer, Charles Worth, introduced in 1846 the concept of using live models to display name-brand clothes—which were now protected by copyright from reproduction. Those events marked the birth of haute couture. And it was that nineteenth-century phenomenon, coupled with the concurrent rise of off-the-rack ready-wear, that made designer labels a possibility, then a profitable reality.