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“ (“L'état, c'est moi“: “I am the state!“, probably said by Louis XIV). And they fought against extravagance and lavishness among the nobles while many people had to famish. It was hunger, caused by immense taxes and raised living expenses and the new mindset of the Enlightenment that started the revolution. The people abolished Absolutism.
A taste for the simplicity of antiquity had come up, strengthened by Rousseau's The Art of Enlightenment which awakened the wish to get back to nature. Flowing white robes instead of stiff corsetry, had already begun before the Revolution. Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun for example, the famous painter, celebrated great parties. One of her dinners, where everybody had to dress in the manner of antique sculptures and all wore flower or laurel wreaths on their heads, was especially famous. Even outside France the accounts of it made a splash.
This portrait of Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comptesse de Sorcy, was painted in 1790 by Jacques-Louis David. The Countess is, from the shoulders upwards in Rococo style, with powdered hair, white skin and rouged cheeks. Her dress, however, simple and white, unadorned but by a shawl, clearly shows the dawning of a new style. The height of trim, flounces and extensiveness of dress had been reached, a transition into the opposite direction was the consequence.
Now, at the turn of the century after the Revolution, no one wanted to look like an aristocrat anymore. It was a victory over the pompous Rococo style with wigs, powder, ties, bows, brocades and much more. So it was also a revolution of style from the tightly laced waist and the voluminous and flouncy hoop-skirts to a demonstratively natural and unobtrusive way as a general fashion. The transition however was not quite to sudden, a couple of years longer the hoopskirts prevailed. At court, Empire-waisted dresses were worn over Rococo sized hoops, creating a rather odd look.
Fashion started to follow classical ideals, inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman style with its gracious, loosely falling dresses that were gathered or just accentuated over the natural waist under the bust. This style had been ideal for the Greek and Italian warmth because it was comfortable and light. Those dresses were also called Chitons or Peplos. The French painter Jacques-Louis David is regarded to be the founder of the so called à la grece-fashion. Favourably, the figure was to appear natural and high-waisted so that the tight corsets were abandoned for a time. The Empire silhouette 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.
The dresses were gathered under the bust with ribbons tied at the back. In this epoch, fabrics were liked to be light and the most popular fabrics were linen, (white) muslin, cotton, batiste and silks. However, velvets, wool and other heavier fabrics were also worn. Muslin was first imported from India but people were so fond of it and the demand was so great that it was then also produced in Britain. At that time muslin was also a general term for very fine and light fabric. In vogue were soft and pastel colours like rosy shades, light-blue and green for the young and stronger colours, for instance purple, scarlet, dark blue and black for the other women. White was a favoured colour among young ladies of rank. Symbolizing purity and innocence, this colour was worn both for special occasions like evening assemblies and balls and at home. The frequent wear of white gowns showed the social rank, as this colour becomes so easily stained. Therefore it showed (like the overlong fingers of Elizabethan gloves in the chapter Tudor/Elizabethan Era) that its wearer had nothing like household chore to do but servants for it. Over the day, ladies changed their clothes a number of times as 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 was a lot of work without a sewing machine. Everything had to be done by hand. Quite often, clothes were made at home by the women as let a tailor make them was not affordable for everyone. A woman's dress required several yards of fabric; about 6 to 8 yards. In contrary to the low-cut and short-sleeved evening dresses that were richly trimmed and embroidered and baring much of the bosom, the day dresses were rather high-cut, had long sleeves and were not (much) decorated. As it was very expensive to have one's clothes embroidered, nearly every young lady learned embroidery techniques at home and needlework was the most popular pastime. Embroidery with classic motives and floral patterns was very in vogue. An other 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.
The trendy woman of the Empire/Regency Epoch wore several undergarments:
Imagine you are a Regency Lady standing in your dressing room in your London Town House. Your maid helps you getting ready. First of all, you put on a 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). A few women started with wearing short-legged underpants (so called drawers). The next you put on are the stays / the bodice. It is not in place to create a wasp waist but had an other function: It was shorter than the corsets of the antecedent epochs and worked a bit like a modern bra as it should lift and separate the breasts. Women with a generous figure sometimes used it to slenderize.
Next, you put on the petticoat (not the typical 1950s garment but a sleeveless dress which is often embroidered, especially at the hem). Your maid fits it in your back with hooks and eyes, small buttons or a lacing/cording. If a petticoat was not in good order or not fashionable anymore, it was changed in a dressing gown. You see, fabric was never wasted by throwing it away but it was reused as often as possible.
The bustle pad, a pad either half-moon-shaped or of the size of a fist, was worn underneath the actual dress. 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 will 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 simpler to bleach material of the petticoat
still covers your legs and ankles while the dress is save. But beware to show yourself like this in the elegant house of "a single man in possession of a good fortune" (Pride and Prejudice, Jane
Austen, 1813) - or his sister might remark spitefully on your soiled petticoat [Caroline Bingley mocks about the one of Elizabeth Bennet, who walked some miles on foot through the country, as
being several inches muddy]. Ladies wore knitted or silk
stockings in their shoes, sometimes embroidered, and held up by garters.
To protect themselves from the cold and draughtiness of the houses and to spice the (white) dresses up, women liked to wear cashmere shawls and wraps, especially with paisley patterns. The word „shawl“ has its origin in the Persian language and describes a woolen garment for men. The transferred 'shawl' soon gained fashionable importance. They were imported from the East and later like the muslin also manufactured in Europe where the Scottish city Paisley became very famous for it. Napoleon's wife, Empress Josephine, owned more than 300 of them.
Mantles (in form of coat dresses), long overcoats or cloaks and capes 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 some way closed in the front (often buttoned) and made of stronger cloth. The Redingote was worn in other designs for decades already (the first ones had come up in the beginning of the 18th century during the baroque). Made in England of woolen fabrics it was a suitable garment for dirty weather as it braved the rain. In some cases the protecting was supported by being made of several layers and/or shoulder capes to prevent getting wet through. It was also popular as a riding coat covering the ladies' legs primly.
The pelisses came up in the early years of the 19th century and soon were a
must-have. A pelisse is a long coat with likewise long sleeves. Pelisses were cut like a dress, hence close-fitting and Empire-waisted and usually made of fine fabrics like a silk called
sarcenet. Women usually adorned their pelisses with trimming, fine buttons, braid and embroidery. A bonnet or headpiece matching the colour of the pelisse was the hight of chic. The
colours for autumn could be darker and bolder than those for spring and summer, when light shades were more appropriate.
Perhaps the most fashionable protection against the cold was the Spencer, a short (about as long as the bodice or ending just under the bust) and close fitted jacked, typically made of heavier and sturdier fabrics like woolen cloth or velvet.
Regularly high cut with long sleeves, the colour of nearly every Spencer was vivid as it was worn to the pastel or white dresses. The name Spencer goes back to Lord Spencer who is said to have singed the tails of his greatcoat at the fireplace and then removed them, so that he just wore a short jacket.
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. Yet all this was not enough protection so that many women who died of consumption (tuberculosis), had fallen ill with heavy colds caused by wearing far to light clothes. Therefore, this perilous illness that leads to death when untreated, was also called “muslin disease”. 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: The paleness and feebleness contrasting to wild, gazing eyes was achieved by potentially lethal methods like taking belladonna to look glass-eyed...
In Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, Elinor Dashwood says to her romantic sister Marianne on the subject of 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 chic and a well-off officer to be a good party for the 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. Very much to the delight of the bride's father...
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.
1820's and 30's - 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 its natural position and it became again fashionable to be very slim. Consequently, corsets were worn again. 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. A higher neckline was in vogue now. The new fashionable silhouette was: broad shoulders through the sleeves, a very slim waist and a full skirt. Evening and ball gowns stayed low-cut and short-sleeved. After the fashion of pure white and pastel shades, a change has been taking place and clothes became noticeably colourful and decorated. In the 1830s, chintz, a printed cotton fabric of Chinese origin came into fashion.
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, the ladies (with a quixotic view of the past centuries, especially the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan Era) wanted to dress like the work's heroines, so that for instance (small) Elizabethan ruffs were seen again.
Every time a woman left the house, she would put on gloves made of (suede) leather or fabric. At social events like balls gloves were also worn inside but removed for dining. To short sleeves the gloves reached over the elbow. For those important events the most delicate materials were used and the gloves were sometimes embroidered with stitching or by attaching false flowers. In winter, gloves and a muff were worn to keep the hands warm. Elizabeth Farren in the painting by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1790, wears a creme white cape trimmed with fut matching her muff. Gloves and winter gear were generally put off when entering a building to stay for a while.
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 discreetely. 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 possession 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.
Many colds and sicknesses were due to this delicate and unprotective footwear – one time caught up by rain during a stroll through a park and one would risk to fall severely ill as medicine and treatments were not quite as successful as today. For bad weather or longer walks, boots or half boots were worn. In Jane Austen's fragment of a novel "The Watsons" - yes, I love to refer to Jane Austen, she is as authentic a source of information as possible - Lord Osbourne talks about how good a nankin (yellowy Chinese cotton) boot galoshed with black looks. Most boots, however, were fashion items and no protection. To spare the footwear, the women could strap metal pattens on it. 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. Powder and a bit of rouge was used but the eyes were never accentuated with eye make-up, as it was still considered not lady-like and only used by actors and prostitutes.
This was good indeed for the women because make-up was made of several very unhealthy ingredients. A certain degree of plumpness was considered beautiful as a proof of youthful
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 prizoners 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?"
Even the most beautiful hairstyle had to be covered when the lady left the house as it was considered not respectable to go out without a headpiece. Hats made of straw, bonnets, oriental inspired turbans and so called Queen Mary coifs were in vogue. Caps were worn at home by married women.
Bonnets, quite contrary to hats, have ties. There are many different kinds, e.g. the Mariah or poke bonnets which sit so close to the head that a woman's face could only be seen from the front and it must have felt like having blinkers on. In France, carricatures circulated, depicting "Les invisibles", completely hidden under huge tube-like bonnets. With dresses so simple the women did not want to abandon all kinds of embellishment - and in a kind of contrary development, all ornaments were packed on the headwear. 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. The old decoration was frequently removed to make room for new fashions. Bandeaux were headbands made of fabric, ribbons, false flowers or jewels.
These could be rather narrow or broader band. Bandeaux were excellent constructions for adding feathers. In the 1820s, a coiffure of small curls, on which was placed a gemstone tiara and a headdress made of ostrich feathers, even up to 50cm high, became very fashionable. This extensive use of ostrich feathers and other (exotic) birds for decades, either for fans, trimming or headdresses, really threatened many species with extinction. Many voices censured this slaughter and campaigns were held to convince people to let go of this endangering fashion
> Here you can find a DIY Regency Bonnet Tutorial!
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 reestablished 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 nacklace, 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 -
Keywords: dress, gown, costume, fashion, history, empire, regency, silhouette, muslin,
petticoat, à-la-grece, redingote, pelisse, spencer, copperplate prints, Jane Austen, high waist, neckline, parure, Madame Recamier, Bonaparte, shawl, reticule, era, time, Emma, Mansfield Park,
Hamilton, Lord Nelson, Pride and Prejudice, painting, art, chiton, cameo, braids, military, style, cashmere, chemise, Morning dress, Walking, Promenade, Afternoon, Dinner, Opera, Ball, Court,
Full dress, half dress, undress, Peplos, sleeves, hem, decoration, cut, fabric, musseline, sarcenet, Greek, line, hems, epoch, era, epochs, of, wedding, marriage, grecian, Regency,
© Nina Möller