Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Looking for the birthplace of haute couture in Lincolnshire

In terms of my ancestry, I'm about as Lincolnshire yellowbelly as you could get. Both my Dad's parents were born and lived in Lincolnshire; as did my Mum's father. Only her Welsh/Irish mother introduces some exoticism into the family tree. My brother, sister and I all lived in Lincolnshire until we left home for University.

Lincolnshire is a county which seems to be missing from a lot of people's map of the British Isles. Despite its size, no-one seems to purposefully head there (though southern Lincolnshire is increasingly becoming London commuter country). The county is known for its sausage, its Lincolnshire Poacher cheese and, very occasionally, a mention will arouse a misty-eyed recollection of a childhood holiday at Skegness or maybe even Cleethorpes.

I was back in Lincolnshire for my sister's wedding and, over the bank holiday, headed even deeper into the landscape of my ancestors. I visited the birthplace of one of Lincolnshire's most famous sons and the man known as the father of haute couture. The Paris Haute Couture exhibition opened with the statement that "Haute Couture started with an Englishman". That Englishman - Charles Frederick Worth - started in Bourne, Lincolnshire, also the birthplace of my maternal grandfather.

Worth was born in Bourne in 1825 and the imposing family home, Wake House, bears the blue plaque pictured at the top of the post. He was born into a middle class family with his father, William Worth, a local attorney. However, his father's speculation brought the family to ruin, and they had to leave Wake House, with Charles Frederick first learning printing, then moving down to London to work in drapers shops, before eventually moving to Paris in 1846.

Carelessness with money is not something easily forgotten or forgiven in the Lincolnshire psyche, perhaps indicating the prominence his father's financial "disaster" is given in the notice of C.F. Worth's death in the Lincoln Weekly Herald, a copy of which is reproduced and framed in the Bourne Heritage Centre (and just about readable here, despite my reflection in the glass).

In Bourne, I was looking out for clues this was the kind of place which would produce the Father of Haute Couture. A pleasant town, the first suggestion might be the impressive looking inns in the market place - just along from Wake House. These survive from the days Bourne was a key stopping place on the road from York to London. So back in the early nineteenth century, there would have been some very smart people stopping in this small town.

The family must have also been quite smart. Wake House was only built in 1800 - the Worths were living in this grand building fifteen years later. And, before financial ruin hit the family, they would been expected to form part of the town's upstanding middle class, with all the duties associated with that role. I was amazed at the strength of civic pride evident in the town even today - volunteers set up and ran the heritage centre, an open air swimming pool, not to mention several community centres. Could the structures of life in such a society provide the social experience which he could transfer when he moved eventually to Paris?

Finally, it was a prosperous town, profiting not only from those passing through but also the rich agriculture benefiting from the then recently-drained surrounding fenland. Bourne Heritage Centre - which now has a permanent display honouring Worth - was originally a mill. Do these examples of nineteenth century industry help young Worth start thinking about dressmaking on more businessman terms, the decisions which form the basis of the haute couture system? At the very least these advances must have planted in his head something of the idea of modernity, even if his ideas were only fully developed subsequently in London and Paris.

Bourne's Worth display features some reproductions of his clothes, alongside photographs of garments and documents from the town dating to his time there. Just as it's hard to pinpoint any influence his Lincolnshire upbringing had on Worth as a child and his future, I was speculating what looking at the clothes in this display would mean to the children of Bourne today.

In the most optimistic interpretation, it's the idea of possibility - being born in a small town doesn't mean you can't change the world, or - at the very least - create very beautiful things adored the world over. That's always inspiring. But, on the flip side, however innovative Worth's fashions were at the time, our modern eyes marvel at the waist or the bustles and the torture of having to wear something like that as part of daily life, rather than enviously look upon their beauty. They seem, literally, old fashioned. And, while haute couture has never been part of everybody's experience, today the couture system seems even further removed from the reality of everyday life and fashion. Why would being the father of haute couture continue to be seen as such an important thing?

I wondered if Worth thought about Bourne after he left it. He built his home in France, in Suresnes, and was eventually buried there. Some of his Lincolnshire family came to visit in 1871 but I've found no record of him making a return visit. Did he feel any pull back to the place of his birth once he had left it? Did he tell his sons about his childhood there, as my parents have told me about theirs, and their parents before that?

My family history is physically written upon gravestones in the churches in this part of Lincolnshire. Yet the names upon those stones are increasingly meaningless and I feel them, along with the places, slipping from sight without the peg of a direct memory to hang them on. Could the same be argued of Worth's contribution to fashion? Without a context that appeals to us directly, it's easy to let these clothes and their creator slide from our view. How quickly decades of history can be forgotten.

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