This epoch has got its name "Empire" (stress French: „om-peer“) from the first French Empire under Napoleon I. The "Regency" era in the United Kingdom describes the period of time when George IV ruled from 1811 to 1820 as Prince Regent,therefore sometimes referred to as the "Georgian Era". The time of this style trend, however, differs from his reign so it is often just used for the time between the rococo and the Victorian period.
The names of popular persons who lived in this time are still famous: Napoleon I Bonaparte and Josephine, Madame Recamier, Jane Austen, Lady Emma Hamilton, Queen Louise of Prussia and her husband and many more.
The French revolution that took place in 1789 until 1799 had great influence on the fashion of that time. The people fought against absolutism and the arbitrary domination of the kings of the „Ancien régime“, as well as against the extravagances of the nobles while many people famished.
Flowing white robes had already emerged before the Revolution in the form of the Chemise dresses. The increased study of antique works of art, together with the intellectual trend of the Enlightenment and its return to nature and simplicity, brought the flowy gowns into the forefront of fashion. The famous artist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, for example, held a much remarked-on dinner where everybody was clothed by her in the manner of antique sculptures and all wore flower or laurel wreaths on their heads. Fashion thus began gradually to follow classical ideals, inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman styles with their draped and gathered dresses. Those Chitons and Peplos, together with the Roman tunics, formed the point of inspiration. The Empire silhouette thus defines a dress with a high waist and a long and loosely falling skirt, which lengthens and flatters the body but does not always make it look slim.
This portrait of Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comptesse de Sorcy, was painted in 1790 by Jacques-Louis David. The late Rococo hairstyle with powdered hair, and white skin and rouged cheeks is paired with the simple dress and shawl. This demonstrates the complex and gradual transition between Rococo and Empire styles, rather than being sharply divided into before and after by the French Revolution, as sometimes takes place in pop culture and historical media. Besides, at the English court, Empire-waisted dresses were worn over Rococo sized hoops for many years into the 1800s, creating a rather odd look.
The dresses were gathered under the bust to give them shape. The favoured white Muslin was first imported from Europe's overseas colonies like India and then also produced locally. White was a favoured colour as it was the colour of ancient marble statues (although most ancient Greek and Roman statues were vividly painted in their day). White, being easy to wash and bleach, was worn both for special occasions like evening assemblies and balls, and at home. It also demonstrated a certain social standing and most members of the landed gentry forbade their female servants from wearing white gowns over fears it would make them think beyond their station in life. Increasing wealth among the middle class, together with sinking costs of cloth and clothing due to industrial manufacturing, led to ladies changing their clothes a number of times throughout the day. There were different types of clothing for different activities:
For a vast variety of different dresses and styles take a look at fashion copperplate prints (e.g. "Costume Parisien", "Ackermann's Repository" or "La Belle
Assemblée") - here you can find a few examples out of my own collection:
UNDRESS * RIDING HABIT * CARRIAGE DRESS
HALF DRESS * FULL DRESS
Making a dress by hand was a great deal of work and surviving garments show different kinds of stitches in different parts of the garments. Visible stitching is usually done neatly but the long seams inside skirts are in some cases even sloppily sewn.
Although linen items were made at home, and dresses were often embroidered and bonnets trimmed by
the wearers, most items in a person's possession would have been made by specialists with tailoring experience. A woman's dress required several yards of fabric; about 6 to 8 yards. There was a
very active trade in second-hand clothing and they were handed down the social order. Ladies would hand dresses to their servants, they would sell them on when worn out for domestic service, and
finally they would be collected to be boiled to pulp to make paper. Needlework was part of women's education of most ranks. Nearly every young lady learned basic sewing and embroidery techniques
at home. Needlework was the most popular pastime.
Under the visible dress, several undergarments had their place:
First of all, the chemise (also called shift), a thin, low-cut and short-sleeved underdress made of cotton in soft colours, that should protect the upper layers from e. g. body odour; a shift was also worn to bed).
Over this go the stays, also called the bodice, which is followed by the petticoat (not the typical 1950s garment but a sleeveless dress which is often embroidered, especially at the hem).
The bustle pad, a pad either half-moon-shaped or of the size of a fist, was worn underneath the actual dress in the small
of the back. It's function was to assist the fall of the skirt by holding out the gathering at the back to preclude the skirt from falling into the small of the back. The half-moon-shaped version
is tied with strings around the upper part of the body. The other way is to have the small fist-sized pillow sewn on the inside to the back of the gown. If you use one for your Regency outfit:
don't overdo the size, you do not wish to look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame!
Over the petticoat you wear your dress, which has sleeves; tight or puffed. Perhaps it rains this day but
you want to take a turn through the shops so you are going to have to lift your fine dress to protect it from the dirt of the streets. The less expensive and easier to bleach material of the
petticoat still covers the legs and ankles while the dress is safe. But beware to show yourself like this in the elegant house of "a single man in possession of a good fortune" or be prepared to
hear his his sisters spiteful remarks about your hem being "six inches deep in mud" (see Pride and Prejudice).
A pelisse was a long coat with likewise long sleeves. Pelisses were high-waisted and usually made of fine fabrics. They could be
plain or adorned with trimming, fine buttons, braid and embroidery. The colours for autumn could be darker and bolder than those for spring and summer, when light shades were more appropriate. In
the same way, fabrics for summer and winter differed.
For a lesser degree of protection from the elements, a Spencer could be just the thing. This short (ending just under the bust) and
fitted jacked, was essentially a Pelisse without the skirt.
The name Spencer goes back to Lord Spencer who is said to have singed the tails of his coat at the fireplace and then cut them off, creating a short jacket.
To protect themselves from the cold and draughtiness of the houses and to spice the (white) dresses up, cashmere shawls and wraps were worn. The word „shawl“ has its origin in the Persian language and originally describes a woollen garment for men. These wraps soon gained fashionable importance. They were imported from India and later also manufactured in Europe, where the Scottish city Paisley became famous for them and lent its name to the distinctive drop-shaped pattern. Napoleon's wife, Empress Josephine, owned more than 300 shawls.
Long overcoats, cloaks, capes and mantelets made of wool, merino and velvet and trimmed with fur
were much in demand, too. One of those garments was the Redingote, a top coat quite alike to a dress but in closed in the front (often buttoned) and made of hardwearing and somewhat
water-repellant cloth, was useful for journeys on horseback and being out in poor weather. The Redingote had originally been an item of men's clothing and the name is derived from "riding coat."
In some cases the protecting was supported by being made of several layers and/or shoulder capes to prevent getting wet through. The skirt was cut overlong to cover the wearer's feet when up on
horseback in side saddle or perched in the box seat of an open carriage.
During the winter months, women resorted more protecting cloth like fine wool, linen and heavier velvets and tried to keep warm with flannel petticoats or more undergarments. Despite this, falling ill from too thin clothing was a talked-about threat to women. Most illnesses like consumption (tuberculosis), and other bacterial and viral infections, were contracted in unhygienic conditions like in packed ballrooms and through un- or poorly washed glasses of drink circulating around the assembly. Tuberculosis was, however, also called “muslin disease” and its discussion had moralising undertones about the dangers of fashion to the minds of young ladies.
The upcoming Romanticism with all its poetry about unrequited affection and the melancholic Gothic, made the ailing and frail look of the consumptive a (questionable) fashion among a section of the population. In Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, Elinor Dashwood says to her romantically-inclined sister Marianne on the subject of their friend Colonel Brandon wearing flannel waistcoats: "Had he been only in a violent fever, you would not have despised him half so much. Confess, Marianne, is not there something interesting to you in the flushed cheek, the hollow eye, and the quick pulse of a fever?"
A military inspired style came up in 1808. The (higher ranked) members of the army in their glamourous uniforms with decoration were considered to be extremely fashionable, and a well-to-do officer to be a good match for a daughter. As fashion draws its inspiration from many fields, there were uniform styled garments for the females, such as Spencers, pelisses and jackets with frogging, tassles and braid like the Hussars. The Queen of Prussia, Luise, wore a matching ensemble of hat, Spencer and dress in the style of men's uniforms when visiting a regiment given to her by her husband, the King. Some of her contemporaries ridiculed her for it but I believe it to be a very creative and becoming idea.
Wedding gowns were not
necessarily white. Red, yellow, blue, pink and light green, even brown, were worn. Less prosperous women wore their best dress, wealthy ones had their attire made or bought exclusively for the
wedding, consulting the latest fashions in London and Paris and spending great amounts of time on choosing the perfect lace veil, the most luxurious fabrics and the place of every embroidery. Not
only the particular dress for the ceremony was bought but the whole wardrobe was brushed up, worn-out things were replaced or mended, new linen, dresses and accessories bought. This was
considered part of the dowry.
Another way to embellish the garments was using lace, among which Brussels lace was the most fashionable. Brussels lace is a bobbin lace, first entirely made by hand, later with machines to meet demand. That lace is braided with threat wound on wooden, bone or even ivory bobbins and the already woven lace is held with pins on a (straw-filled) pillow. The complexity of this time-consuming working process is gigantic and thus the cost of the lace very high. It could hence only be purchased by the wealthy.
Usually, flowers were worn as a floral crown or worked in the hairstyle if no bonnet was worn. This print here, though actually from 1822, shows (as is stated in French underneath) 'the hairstyle of a bride the day after her wedding. The hair is adorned with roses and mytle, the robe of fabric from Lyon with decoration invented by Madame Bouhot'.
Mourning times had their own etiquette. Before mass production, a wardrobe especially for mourning was beyond most women's means so they could only show their mourning by a few dark elements in their dress. The mourning colours were black (for the first period) then it kind of faded out during the half-mourning with colours like grey, dark blue, purple and lilac. The cut allowed only a minimum of visible skin. The dresses were combined with matching pelisses, dark shoes, white or dark gloves, mourning bonnets and caps. If a member of the family or a royal passed away, a certain period of time had to pass before e.g. a marriage could be celebrated.
In Jane Austen's Emma Miss Fairfax and Frank Churchill are obliged to wait for the three months of deep mourning to pass after his aunt had died until they can be
The mourning periods for female relatives were generally much longer. A husband mourning the loss of his wife was by etiquette only obliged to go into seclusion for a couple of weeks and wear mourning for about a year. As black was a colour for daily wear for men this was no great rearrangement. It can be assumed that there was no half mourning etiquettes for men.
A widow, however, was not supposed to attend plays or dance or go much into public in general for a year and a day. She was also not able to remarry whithin that period.
1820s and 30s - Not Regency anymore yet not Victorian already:
Towards the end of the Regency/Empire epoch (approx. 1820), the high empire waist slipped down about an inch every year. Therefore existing gowns were altered according to the new fashion with wide waistbands to help lowering it.
In the mid-twenties, the waist reached a natural height again. Laced stays to fit this style were
created. The wasp-waist was contrasted with increasingly full but sometimes only ankle-long skirts (sometimes even padded with animal hair to give them shape) and the little puffed sleeves of the
early 1820s gave way to the so called “leg-o-mutton” sleeves (sleeves that were almost spherical). Those sleeves, most popular in the mid 30s, needed to be supported by padding worn as underwear
or enhanced with boning and were therefore very hindering. The new fashionable silhouette was a broad upper torso and a full skirt which formed the appearance of two triangles meeting at their
tips. This made the waist appear narrower to the eye.
In this time, the Romantic Movement had reached its zenith: The Romantic fiction and historical
novels and plays were loved very much by a great readership. As a consequence, Early Modern dress influences found their way into 19th century fashion, such as ruffs.
Gloves were a vital part of everyday wear, being put on when leaving the house, going to Church and even for social events like dinners and balls. Thus, glove fabrics varied depending on the usage and setting in which the gloves would be worn - from
fur-trimmed leather to fine, embroidered silks.
The handkerchief was a very important accessory, neatly embroidered with whitework, flower stitchery or a monogram, trimmed with lace and scented with perfume. It could be used for signalizing feelings, intentions or flirting discreetly. A folding fan, painted with motives, was made of wood, ivory or mother of pearl with painted paper, fabric or lace or feathers. It was used by both ladies and gentlemen to cool themselves. Perhaps even more important is, that the women used it to underline body language and to communicate with objects of interest. With the way a lady held her fan she could for instance either signalize interest or indifference in a man. Holding the closed fan in the left hand and fingering the top of it with the fingers of the other hand meant “I wish to speak to you”, whereas drawing the closed fan across the forehead signalized “You have changed”.
To protect the delicate pale skin from the sun, parasols embroidered with needlework and fringing were a great help and also had a fashion-factor. When Lady Catherine de Burgh arrives at Longbourn she forces Elizabeth to walk with her for which the heroine needs an important accessory: "Elizabeth obeyed, and running into her own room for her parasol, attendet her noble guest down stairs" (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen). As the dresses had no room for pockets (pockets would deposit and detract the drape of the fabric) women used to carry around their important things (the essential handkerchief and perhaps powder and smelling salts) in little handbags, called reticules. Those small pouches were gathered with a drawstring and beautifully embroidered, usually with floral motives. The shapes are numerous, everything from spherical over pear-shaped to polygonal – or even looking like a pineapple. The reticules colours were sometimes chosen to match a dress or made of fabric remnants.
Salts or lavender water in pretty vinaigrettes cured fainting fits or protected from bad smells in the streets. The strong smell of vinegar or scented salts caused a person to breathe in sharply and revive more quickly through better oxygen supply. Lavender water was applied to ones handkerchief to dispel headaches or fatigue.
To have a lapdog was still popular among wealthy ladies. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park Lady Bertram has a pug which is a companion of great importance to her.
After the brocade, buckle-closed and high-heeled shoes of the Rococo Era a distinctive change happened. In 1800 and after, fashionable shoes were the flat and thin slippers made of
fabric or leather (they looked a bit like ballet shoes or slippers today). They were worn for activities in the house and for dancing (nowhere near dirt, however). Pastel shades or black were
chic and the slippers used to be decorated with fabric rosettes, bows or embroidery. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the shoe rosettes for the Netherfield Ball are brought to the
Bennet sisters who can't leave the house because the weather is so bad.
Furthermore, the slippers could be like ballet flats today or have ribbons to be laced cross-wise over the ankle and be tied there (like the shoes of a ballerina). Usually, the slippers were quite pointed.
For bad weather or longer walks, boots or half boots were worn. In Jane Austen's fragment of a novel, "The Watsons," Lord Osbourne talks about women's yellow-and-black boots. In the making process both the left and right shoe was made the same way so that no special shoe for every feet existed.
Nearly no make-up was used in the Regency/Empire epoch to preserve the ideal of natural beauty. Luise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen consort of Prussia from 1797 to 1810, said that if she wanted to tease her husband, she threatened to put make-up on which he did not like at all.
This was good indeed because make-up was made of several very unhealthy ingredients.
Like the dresses, Greek and Roman culture influenced the hairstyles. The hair was worn long, drawn up to buns while the hair around the face was worn in curls. Buns were usually not just twisted and fixed but very elaborate with many small braids and curls arranged in certain ways. The women decorated their hairdos with for example braid, flowers and pearls but all in all rather simple compared to the voluminous hairstyle of the precedent Rococo era. The hairstyles had names like 'à la Titus' (short, curls), 'à la Victime' (short, unarranged, like the imprisoned Royalists during the French Revolution) or 'à la Ninon' (in curls).
About these decorations Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra from Bath in June, 1799: "Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. Elizabeth has a bunch of strawberries, and I have seen grapes, cherries, plums, and apricots. There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers', but I have never seen any of them in hats. A plum or greengage would cost three shillings; cherries and grapes about five [...]". Later in June she wrote mockingly: "I cannot decide on the fruit until I hear from you again. – Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. – What do you think on that subject?"
Leaving the house as a woman meant putting on a head covering. Hats and bonnets were made of straw, buckram, and wool and other dress fabrics. Caps were worn at home by married women.
There was a multitude of bonnet styles, each spread by the emerging printed press and its fashion
magazines. Poke bonnets are so tube-like that a woman's face could only be seen from the front and it must have felt like having blinkers on. In France caricatures circulated, depicting women as
"Les invisibles", completely hidden under huge tube-like bonnets. Others had wide brims, were shaped like helmets or like medieval berets. Popular hat-trimmings were artificial flowers and fruit,
feathers and ribbons. A veil of lace or sheer fabric could be added to the brim of the hat or bonnet to add formality. Decorations were frequently exchanged to keep up with changing
During the Regency in England, comparatively a minimum of jewellery was worn. Necklaces (plain gold or with pendants, favourably cross-pendants or miniature portraits) and bracelets (around wrists, upper arms and ankles) as well as rings were chic. This fashion did certainly not stop rich ladies from showing their jewels, though. At evening parties and balls there was generally more jewellery worn.
In France it was different: the Emperor Napoleon had re-established a pompous court. Therefore, jewellery was used as a display of the social status. The coronation of Napoleon and his Josephine was a splendour and the appearances of the French imperial family with new styles were copied in many countries and influenced also England: For example, cameos became all the rage after Napoleons crown, decorated with them, had been seen. Pearls and all kinds of precious stones were worn. Empress Josephine often wore a set of various matching jewelleries, a Parure, that could consist of a tiara or diadem, a hair comb, earrings, a necklace, a bracelet, brooches and pins and rings. The pearls in (seed) pearl Parures were often arranged in the beloved "bunch of grapes"-design.
During the Regency era, the gold price was comparatively high as a consequence of the American War of Independence, making gold jewellery even more luxurious. A very popular jewel was to have the hair of a beloved person set in a locked or ring. These hair jewels were real works of art with the hair beautifully braided or carefully arranged to look like spikes of corn or trees. The mourning wardrobe was all in all rather plain and thus a minimum of jewellery was worn
- Please note that this list claims no completeness and does not operate as advertisement. It was merely composed for informative purposes. Furthermore, no valuation of the patterns is implied or intended -
© Epochs of Fashion