How Women’s Labour in Fashion Challenged my Perception of History

As a history major, I am always encouraged to explore the possibilities beyond what is presented within a body of research; the author’s motives, the inherent perspectives of a specific demographic, religious influence, and politics of the time studied. As I round out my undergrad, I have become increasingly conscious of the power that history holds, and more specifically, how we recount it. As the world evolves into a more inclusive one, so does our perception of history that came before us. 

When I came across the myth of Eugénie and Worth in my seminar, A Cultural History of Paris, I knew it was something I wanted to explore. The famous fashion icon, Empress Eugénie, is quite frequently tied to the fashion epicentre of mid-nineteenth-century Paris. This glamorous connection between the Empress and the blooming fashion industry results from the mythologized relationship between Eugénie and English designer Charles Fredrick Worth. The connection between these two connoisseurs of art has been fantasized over the past century. As Worth’s creation of the fashion show and Haute Couture put him at the centre of Parisian fashion, so did Empress Eugénie’s unique style and progressive pieces. After reading articles provided by my professor, it became increasingly clear that Worth and Eugénie’s connection did not go beyond any other bond she shared with various designers across Europe. Instead, Worth’s aristocratic, ancestral position as a successful white man in design elevated their relationship to the point of legend, effectively erasing the overwhelming evidence that women across Europe were heavily involved both technically and in design to create a trans-European progressive fashion for which Empress Eugénie was idolized. 

Before Eugénie married Emperor Louis Napoleon, she curated a network of designers and sewists across Europe that challenged the nineteenth-century perception of fashion and exemplified her Spanish heritage. However, when Eugénie came to France as the Emperor’s wife, she began to work with Worth, who remained integral to the blooming Couture fashion in Paris. Since she died in 1920, the historical research surrounding Empress Eugénie has become increasingly tied in with Worth’s work and therefore completely grazes over the multi-cultured assembly of women that just as frequently designed and created for the Empress. 

Nineteenth-century Paris was the epicentre of fashion and arguably still is today, so why is this history solely focused on an English white man’s work? If historians do not actively re-examine historical theory to provide an equal representation of history, the evolving inclusivity of gender will not have any root in our history books. Princess Eugénie had an entire ensemble of female artists from across the world that worked with her in fashion, and yet they remain non-existent in most pages of Parisian history. 

This ignorance of women in fashion further perpetuates the sexist divide of nineteenth-century Europe; it also enacts the notion that England and France are the only notable nations of mention. Many of the women who worked with Eugénie were from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Ottoman Empire. These women travelled to Paris due to the city’s increased opportunity for design success. Their omittance from our history books based on their sex further damages the history of European cross-culturalism. 

The sexism present in the written history of Parisian fashion is arguably more suppressive than the industry they worked within. The multi-cultural cohort of female designers who worked with Eugénie is effectively removed from the history of French regal fashion and demonstrates ever-present subconscious sexism within the discipline of history, showing itself in the stories that historians have decided necessary to tell. 

As the next generation of change-makers, students, academics and artists, it is up to us to establish equal weight to the works of both men and women in history and write over the sexist prejudices that have stained the discipline of history for centuries. 


Works Cited:

Dolan, Therese. "The Empress's New Clothes: Fashion and Politics in Second Empire France." Woman's Art Journal 15, no. 1 (1994): 22-28. 

Jirousek, Charlotte A., and Sara Catterall. "The Nineteenth Century: Empires Bloom and Fade." In Ottoman Dress and Design in the West: A Visual History of Cultural Exchange, 186-215. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Indiana University Press, 2019.

Kurkdjian, Sophie. “Paris as the Capital of Fashion, 1858-1939: An Inquiry,” Fashion Theory vol.24 n.3 (2020): 371-391.