Empire / Regency (approx. 1795-1820)

Detail: Josephine Bonaparte, 1800, Pierre Paul Prud'hon, Louvre. Photo: Epochs of Fashion - Empire 19th century dress fashion
Detail: Josephine Bonaparte, 1805, Pierre Paul Prud'hon, Louvre. Photo: Epochs of Fashion

The high-waisted style of Jane Austen heroines, Bridgerton debutantes and famous historical figures like Empress Josephine Bonaparte is as present in popular culture as in a museum.

There is a variety of terms applied to this dress style.

The "Empire" waistline (stress French: „om-peer“) received its name from the first French Empire under Napoleon I. The "Regency" era in the United Kingdom encompasses the period of time when George IV ruled from 1811 to 1820 as Prince Regent for his incapacitated father George III, thus marking the latter part of the time referred to as Georgian era. In the German-speaking lands, the late Regency overlaps with the Biedermeier style period. Empire and Regency style is also referred to as Neoclassicism when referencing Ancient Rome and Greece. Overall, this dress style follows on from the extravagant 18th century styles with wide skirts and powdered wigs and remained until the Victorian era saw the rise of corsets and hoopskirts.


The French Revolution took place from 1789 until 1799 and had great influence on the fashion of that time. The people of France, chiefly Paris, 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 working-class people famished during bad harvests. Nonetheless, the subtle social and artistic shifts that brought on the new dress style without paniers, wigs and stays had already begun many years prior.

Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comptesse de Sorcy, Jacques-Louis David, 1790, Neue Pinakothek Munich. Photo: Epochs of Fashion
Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comptesse de Sorcy, Jacques-Louis David, 1790, Neue Pinakothek Munich. Photo: Epochs of Fashion

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 in the second half of the 1700s. 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, pale skin and rouged cheeks is paired with the simple dress and shawl of the Empire style. 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.


Mrs John Campbell of Kilberry, Henry Raeburn, c. 1802. Städel, Frankfurt. Photo: Epochs of Fashion
Mrs John Campbell of Kilberry, Henry Raeburn, c. 1802. Städel, Frankfurt. Photo: Epochs of Fashion

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: 


  • the Home Costume, the Morning, the Walking and the Promenade Dress (informal "Undress")
  • the Afternoon, Dinner and Opera Dress (called "Half Dress", semi-formal)
  • the Evening, Ball and Court Gowns ("Full Dress", usually had trains (pinned up for dancing))
  • the Riding Habit (women's clothes for horseback riding, normally very long to cover the legs when sitting on horseback))
  • the Carriage Dress
  • mourning attire
  • and the seaside bathing dresses

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:




Regency sleeve variants as they appear in similar ways in fashion copperplate prints - puffed sleeves, decorated, straight, long (© Epochs of Fashion). Regency Empire fashion
Regency sleeve variants as they appear in similar ways in fashion copperplate prints (© Epochs of Fashion)

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.

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. 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. Most country towns had dressmaking shops, haberdashers and milliners, and whenever a relative travelled to London, they were charged with bringing back reports of new styles as well as new articles of clothing.


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 of wealth would hand dresses to their maidservants, these would sell them on when worn out, and finally the clothes would be collected to be boiled to pulp to make paper.



Different Regency hem decoration styles, fashion copperplate prints Regency Empire (© Epochs of Fashion)
Different Regency hem decoration styles (© Epochs of Fashion)
Regency underclothes (© Epochs of Fashion)
Regency underclothes - chemise and short stays (© Epochs of Fashion)

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 shift go the stays which shape and push up the bust. These are either around the length of a modern sports bra - then called short stays - or reach down to the hip bones - then called long stays. These are not to tight-lace the wearer, as is sometimes made much of in period dramas. Indeed in Empire line dresses, tight-lacing would be of no use as the waist is hidden under the skirt anyway. The stays are, like a bra, a shaping garment. The Regency's idealised bust was separated over the sternum and cupped, pushed upwards (one might say like peaches on a plate...) to match the low necklines of evening dresses.


The stays are followed by the petticoat (not the typical 1950s garment but a sleeveless dress or cut as a long tube skirt starting under the bust held by long shoulder straps). The less expensive and easier to bleach material of the petticoat still covers the legs and ankles even if muddy roads force the wearer to lift the outer skirt. 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).


The bustle pad, a small padded half-moon-shaped pillow the size of a fist, was worn underneath the outer dress. Usually it was attached inside a dress under the bust line or attached to the stays. Its function was to assist the fall of the skirt by holding out the gathering at the back to preclude the skirt from caving in into the small of the back.

Over the petticoat the gown is worn. Long-sleeved and high cut for daytime wear or glamorous, low cut and with short puffed sleeves for a ball - gowns came in an infinite variety and were, due to the bespoke nature of dressmaking in this era just before industrial clothes production, highly personalised. Gowns were made from linen, cotton, silk, wool, or fibre blends. The rise of printing brought many fashion magazines into circulation and fuelled the speed of changing styles. To be always in the first style of fashion was a pastime limited to the upper-classes of independent wealth. Most people bought very few new articles of dress in a year and rather had garments re-tailored to match new cuts or changed decorative trim themselves to go with the times.

An Autumnal Pelisse, La Belle Assemblee, September 1st 1812.
An Autumnal Pelisse, La Belle Assemblee, September 1st 1812.

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.




Regency-Kleid ©Epochs of Fashion
Regency-Kleid (©Epochs of Fashion)

To protect themselves from the cold and draughtiness of the houses and to spice the (white) dresses up, colourful shawls and wraps were worn. The word „shawl“ has its origin in the Persian language and originally described a woollen garment for men. Adapted by central Europe, these wraps soon gained fashionable importance in the cultural centres like London and Paris. 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 uncleaned or poorly washed drinking glasses 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?"


Queen Louise of Prussia in military inspired dress (Wikimedia Commons, public domain) Regency dress
Queen Louise of Prussia in military inspired dress (Wikimedia Commons)

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.





Attire for the day after the wedding, Costume Parisien, 1822
Attire for the day after the wedding, Costume Parisien, 1822

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 for festive wear, styling the wearer as an antique goddess of plenty or personification of spring. 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'.


Walking Dress for Mourning, La Belle Assemblee, March 1st 1820 - Regency / Empire fashion
Walking Dress for Mourning, La Belle Assemblee, March 1st 1820

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, for example, 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 married.


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.


Copperplate print, Leipziger Modenzeitung, September 1828
Copperplate print, Leipziger Modenzeitung, September 1828

1820s and 30s - the in-betweener decades between Regency and Victorian:

Towards the end of the Regency/Empire epoch around 1820, the high empire waist began to slip down about an inch every year.

By the mid- to later twenties, the waistline reached a natural level of the human body again. The Regency's gentler long stays changed into increasingly stiffened corsets, although few women tight-laced to the point of discomfort. The wasp-waist look was chiefly created by a clever use of visuals, where it looks narrower to the eye next to the increasingly full skirts and wide shoulder style with puffed sleeves.

These puffed sleeves gave way to the so called “leg-o-mutton” sleeves where the sleeve is not any longer constructed as a puffed sleeve with an attached tight sleeve below but as a one-piece mutton-leg shaped sleeve. Those sleeves, most popular in the mid 30s, needed to be supported. They were shaped by big pads akin to modern water wings around the upper arms, or by under-sleeves with sewn-in boning.

The new fashionable silhouette thus was a broad upper torso and a full skirt which formed the appearance of an hourglass or rather as two triangles meeting at their tips.


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.


'Elizabeth Farren' (Irish Actress), Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Epochs of Fashion
'Elizabeth Farren' (Irish Actress), Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Epochs of Fashion


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. Although there was a 'fan love language' and some women used these utensils to communicate flirty messages, it was not an incredibly common, understood and done by everybody kind of practice.


To protect the complexion from too much sun, parasols 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, attended her noble guest down stairs" (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen).

As the Regency dresses left 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.


Detail from Marchesa Marianna Florenzi, Heinrich Maria von Hess, 1824, Neue Pinakothek Munich. Photo: Epochs of Fashion
Detail from Marchesa Marianna Florenzi, Heinrich Maria von Hess, 1824, Neue Pinakothek Munich. Photo: Epochs of Fashion


 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, although the Regency era no longer employed lead-based ceruse as some socialites of the 1700s did. Burnt cloves functioned as eyebrow pencils (this works surprisingly well!) and rouge was available too.

To get or maintain clear skin, enumerable offerings were made by reputable doctors and by quacks in print magazines.

Tooth hygiene was known to be important to prevent decay and people employed pastes and tooth brushes to keep their mouths clean. Nonetheless, the great popularity of sugary foods of the era together with medically dubious toothpastes meant that many people unavoidably suffered from bad teeth.


Detail from: Statue of the Prussian princess Luise and her sister Friederike, Johann Gottfried Schadow, 1797, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Photo: Epochs of Fashion
Detail from: Statue of the Prussian princess Luise and her sister Friederike, Johann Gottfried Schadow, 1797, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Luise wears the À LA GRECE hairstyle. Photo: Epochs of Fashion

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 trends.


Regency-Kleid (©Epochs of Fashion)
Regency-Kleid (©Epochs of Fashion)


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




  • Laughing Moon Mercantile, e.g. LM 132 1800-1825 Petticoat, or LM 138 Dresses
  • Sense and Sensibility Patterns
  • Burda 2493 'Josephine'
  • Butterick 6630 and 6631 (dresses)
  • Simplicity 4052 (undergarments)
  • Simplicity 4053 (undergarments)
  • Simplicity 4055 (Empire/Regency dresses)
  • Simplicity 9769 (actually it is Victorian but the shift might be also used for Regency clothing)



 - 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