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Fashion Favourite: Empress Eugenie and Charles Frederick Worth

Royals and fashion have gone hand in hand for centuries. In 1574 under Queen Elizabeth I, Parliament passed an act dictating who could wear what colours and textiles based on their social status. The preferences of the king and queen have long dictated what is in fashion for society. This Fashion Favourites series will look at some of the most fashionable royals and their favourite designers, starting with Eugenie, Empress of the French and Charles Frederick Worth. 

María Eugenia Ignacia Agustina de Palafox y Kirkpatrick was born on 5 May 1826 in Granada, Spain. Known later as Eugenie, she met Prince Louis Napoléon while he was President of the Second Republic in April of 1849. In 1852 he became Emperor Napoleon III, and after announcing their engagement on 22 January 1853, they were married in a civil ceremony on January 29th and a religious ceremony on January 30th. Eugenie dedicated herself to her public life as an empress and quickly became a fashion icon in Europe and beyond. 

Eugenie’s support of fashion helped to boost a lagging French luxury industry. Along with her twelve ladies-in-waiting, she changed her outfit multiple times throughout the day and rarely re-wore outfits. Annually, she would auction off several different gowns to raise money for charity (and make room in her wardrobe). In 1860, Eugenie discovered the work of Charles Frederick Worth and fashion history was made. 

Charles Frederick Worth was an English designer who trained originally in fabric sales and drapery in England. He moved to Paris to continue selling textiles for Gagelin, and the department store allowed him to open a ready-to-wear department. His designs for the firm were shown at both the Great Exhibition in 1851 in London and the Exposition Universelle in 1855 in Paris. With a business partner, Worth opened his own design house in 1858. 

The Empress in a Charles Frederick Worth design.
(By Pierre-Désiré Guillemet, Public Domain, Wiki Commons)

Worth had quickly become a society favourite. Princess de Metternich, an Austrian socialite active in French society, wore a Worth gown to a ball at the Tuileries. The Princess visited the Emperor and Empress in their private apartments before the ball, and immediately the Empress was taken with the gown. The Empress asked the Princess for the name of the designer and told her to have him call at the palace the next day. 

Eugenie and Worth would form a close working relationship. Although his salon was a social place to see and be seen, the only client he would travel to was the Empress. She quickly was ordering all new garments from Worth, no matter what they were for. Before she discovered his work, a Worth gown would sell for 300-400 francs. After she turned her eye to them, they were upwards of 2,000 francs for each dress.

Worth was largely known for his changes to silhouettes. In the mid-nineteenth century, a wider silhouette with the help of crinoline was the prevailing fashion. However, neither Worth nor Eugenie liked crinolines- she found them cumbersome and difficult to move in. The newer shape was narrower at the front, with the crinoline concentrated at the back; this was known as the bustle. This was almost immediately adopted by women in fashionable society. 

Eugenie also appeared at the races in 1862 without a shawl, in order to better show off her Worth gown. While prior to this, going without a shawl or jacket would have been unthinkable, women everywhere were leaving their shawls at home to imitate Eugenie and her Worth designs. 

By 1869, Worth had been appointed as the official court dressmaker. However, the Second Empire collapsed in 1870. The House of Worth was able to survive, though – he had become a favourite of royals and socialites in Europe and America. Although Charles Frederick Worth dressed countless royals during his career, his closest relationship was with Empress Eugenie. 

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