This page is about Empire dress and its influence on C19th Regency
Fashion. Using fashion plate imagery, the page follows the changes in the female
fashion silhouette from the late 1790s to 1825. The bulk of this epoch covers
the era of fashionable Regency Dress, an era beloved by Jane Austen and costume
re-enactment fans. Regency accessories and Romantic fashions are on their
own pages. Go to Regency Accessories -
Romantic Fashion Era.
Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned
Emperor in 1804 and was keen to make France a leader of fashion and innovator of
design and craft skills. During the French Revolution the French textile
industry had suffered and unlike in England, use of textile machinery had been
non existent. Emperor Napoleon stopped the import of English textiles and he
Valenciennes lace industry so that fine fabrics like tulle and batiste could
be made there.
To make women buy more
material he forbade them to wear the same dress more than once to court. Ladies
dresses had extra fabric gathered into the back and trains were seen again for
evening. Bonaparte also had fireplaces at the Tuileries blocked up so that
ladies would wear more clothing.
Bonaparte was following a long tradition of
promoting the French economy through fashion. Empress Josephine was a great
fashion leader. She was an ideal model for the slender fashions of the day.
Many of her Regency fashion dresses were
designed by Leroy.
Bonaparte did not ignore men's rôle in the revival of
the textile economy and he enforced male military officials to wear white satin
breeches on formal occasions.
Above Left -Josephine
in Full Regalia.
Right - Post French Revolution simplified dress - Full skirt raised waist
Empire dresses from the late 1790s.
The high waisted graceful
styles of early 19th century are known as the Empire style. The Empire dress
which evolved in the late 1790s began as a chemise shift gathered under the
breasts and at the neck.
By 1799 the empire line silhouette shown left was well established and is the
line we associate with dress of the early 1800s.
The costume history plate of 1800 shown right, is a good example of how the
fullness of the muslin shift dress was first drawn together under the bustline
with a girdle. The
volume in the skirt is still great and bears a relationship with fuller skirts
of the 1790s shown above.
Named after The First Empire, by 1800 the gown silhouette had a very décolleté
low square neckline as seen right, a short narrow backed bodice attached to a separate skirt.
Left - Dress of 1799 Le Journal Des Dames et Des Modes 1799
neat puff sleeves barely capped the shoulder. They were pulled back by the
narrow cut of the bodice and this restricted arm movement to a certain daintiness.
Regency dress in the
period 1800-1820 was based on classical principles of flowing Grecian
robes. For modesty until 1810 a tucker or simple
chemisette (a side opening half
blouse) filled the bare neckline by day.
Right - Chemisettes like these with side fastenings
were worn under low necked gowns as a modesty filler.
Far Right - The lady of 1799 at the turn of the 19th century wears a
chemisette and her coiffure (hair) is bound by a fichu cap. From Les
Journal Des Dames et Des Modes 1799.
soft muslin dresses of 1800 clung to the body highlighting the natural body
outline so stays were unpopular unless the figure demanded them.
These Empire fashions at the turn of the century
were often little more than sheer nightgowns. The practical solution to
the discomfort of lighter clothing was to simply adopt the warm undergarment
called pantaloons and already worn by men.
The pantaloons were made of light stockinet in a flesh toned nude
colour and reached all the way to the ankles or to just below the knee.
This is why Empire women often appear to be wearing no underwear when seen in
paintings of the era.
The flesh tone pantaloons acted in just the same way under
clothes as they do today when a woman wears a flesh toned bra and briefs under
white or pastel trousers and top.
Far Right - Stays Worn about 1810.
Near Right - The Classic White Muslin Empire Gown.
Later it became fashionable to wear a white
or pastel slippery silk satin slip
over the stays making the dress silhouette quite smooth. To support extra skirt fullness
a small bustle pad lifted the dress back.
The fabric for Empire line dresses
was usually fine white lawn, muslin or batiste.
Although muslins were less
costly than silks, good white work embroidered lawn fabrics still cost money. Muslin also laundered better than silks, but the white muslins still needed a
great deal of attention to keep them looking pristine clean.
Regular wearing of
white gowns was a sign of social status as white soiled so easily. White gowns
generally were kept for evening and in the day pastel or coloured robes were
thought more suitable.
In winter heavier
velvets, cottons, linens, fine wools and silks were used and sometimes extra warmth came
from flannel petticoats or full under slip dresses.
Left - Dress of 1799 Le Journal Des Dames et Des Modes 1799.
Right - Dress of 1800 The Lady's Monthly Museum 1800.
The classical decoration was
inspired by images of Grecian ladies from original Greek art.
To help you date
costumes in prints, paintings and productions it is useful to understand that
the classical line was debased by other types of decoration dependant on fashion
influences. For example Napoleon's expeditions to the east and items brought
back by him and other soldiers created interest in Egyptian ornamentation.
Right - Typical border decorated dress wrap overlay.
Left - Dress from Le Journal Des Dames et Des Modes 1799.
Between 1800 and 1803 classical ornament
used geometric shapes.
Greek key patterns decorated borders and garment hems, sleeve bands
and shawls. All the embroidery was initially delicate and light, faithfully
following the classical influence, but eventually the embroidery became coarsely
One of the problems of
such simple classical silhouettes was their very simplicity. This soon led to
boredom and decorative innovation as the restraint of staying pure to plain
classical robes was too much for some.
Between 1804 and 1807 the classical robes
developed an eastern exotic feel with Etruscan and
Egyptian decoration with
woven or embroidered borders on fabric lengths and on stoles. The eastern
patterns first appeared from gifts Napoleon gave to his Empress Josephine after his visits
to Egypt. Soon everyone copied the items. Empress Josephine was an icon
and fashion leader of her time.
This empire line muslin gown shown right and from 1807 has an appropriate border.
The border is
emphasised on the coordinating shawl, complete with tassels.
After 1808 Spanish
ornament featured on robes and appeared as slashed areas and tiered sleeves.
When sleeves covered the hand they were called à la mamelouk. Image
examples here illustrate this extra long sleeve length.
Napoleonic Wars meant that a soldier's uniform had high visibility and military
style details featured on clothing for both sexes.
Frogging, braids, cords,
velvet and other trims lent a topical jaunty dashing air to many a garment,
especially outdoor wear.
from European dress was particularly applied to the name of coats, cloaks and
mantles such as the Witzchoura redingote an empire cloak of Russian origin.
most usual coat in the Regency era was the Pelisse coat.
The Pelisse can be a
confusing term because there were several forms over a 50 year period. The first
form of pelisse worn from 1800 to 1810 was an empire line coat like garment to
the hip or knee.
After 1810 it was worn full length and
was a warmer longer sleeved coat than
the Spencer, but often made of the same materials.
Left - Early Form of Pelisse Coat 1804.
Centre Left - Early Form of Pelisse Coat 1806.
Centre - Fur trimmed Pelisse.
Centre Right - Decorated Pink Pelisse Coat.
Far Right - Broad Collar Pelisse Coat of 1812. It is similar in line to the military
influenced braided Pelisse shown above right.
It was usually fur trimmed, straight in cut, belted at a high waist like the
gown and sported a broad cape like collar an influence of military styles. The
colours for pelisses were golden brown, dark green and blue. The Pelisse was
normally worn over pale gowns which were visible as it was worn open at the
By 1811 in Britain, influence
of the Middle Ages, termed Gothic crept into dress styles debasing the pure classical lines.
The bodice gained more shaping and could be panelled. It was not cut as tight
and narrow as in the first decade of the century, so it made the shoulder line broader and the
dress more comfortable to wear.
The flowing medieval
touches soon broadened to include Tudor and Elizabethan times with ruffed and Vandyke
triangular pointed decoration and cross over bodices. In England copious
trimmings on skirts were all the rage from flounces and padded rolls to pleated,
fanned and tucked trims.
Left - Elaborate mock Tudorbethan touches, sleeves, slashes and Vandyke
Embellishment was according to the latest fashion which
sometimes took its own course due to the hostilities between France and Britain.
By 1820 the dress had
lost all classical form and took on a pure Gothic line which lasted until Queen
In wartime between
1808 and 1814 the female waistline lengthened in England. English ladies really
had little idea of what was happening to Paris fashion.
Skirt Style 1815
When visitors from
Britain returned to France after the 1814 peace treaty they were amazed that
fashions were so different. In Paris waists were worn very much higher than in
those of Regency England
and skirt hems were wider, more A-line, padded and decorated.
British fashion soon followed the French lead after the French ridiculed the
English dresses in cartoons making them appear very ugly with bulbous tulip
round waisted skirts and solid corsetry.
Right - Shorter flared styles of 1813 Pelisse Coat and Regency Dress 1814
In 1815 with the
Napoleonic wars over, Britain began to follow French fashion trends for wearing a
The waistline reached its peak height in 1816-17 when the line
fell directly under the breasts.
Almost as soon as the waist had risen, 1818
fashion plates began to show the waistline dropping and tightening. It continued
to drop annually by an inch, until by 1825 it was at last in its normal
Skirt Styles, 1818, 1819, 1822
Left - Regency Gown - Iris blue dress 1818.
Centre - Regency Gown - Blue semi opaque sleeved dress 1819.
Leroy the French
designer had to follow the whims of his clients and drop the dress waists and
widen the skirts. It seems that French ladies soon preferred the English style.
Anglomania began to sweep France.
After 1820 as the neat
slim waist emerged, corsets were worn again by all women. The narrower buckle
belted day waist or sash wrapped evening waist was balanced by widening skirts
which were often horsehair padded and frilled
to make them stand away from the legs.
By 1824-5 the wider skirts were balanced by a wider shoulder line with a leg
of lamb sleeve often known as a gigot sleeve as seen in the central pink dress.
This had begun as a short sleeve
which had been covered over by a transparent or semi opaque sleeve as the pastel
pink evening dress shows, and eventually
such sheer sleeves became a solid fabric.
The semi opaque sleeve was the forerunner of all manner of fancy sleeve styles
setting the scene for more romantic dress styles of the 1830s.
Above Right -
Green dress 1825 showing how the waist is at last at its natural position.
The Spencer was a
short top coat without tails worn by men during the 1790s as an extra covering
over the tailed coat. It had long sleeves and was frequently decorated with
military frogging. Its originator is thought to be Earl Spencer who singed the
tails of his coat when standing beside a fire. He then had the tails trimmed off
and started a fashion.
A female version was
soon adopted by gentlewomen who at the time were wearing the thin light muslin
dresses of the 1790s.
The Spencer was worn as a cardigan or shrug is worn today. It was
a short form of jacket to just above waist level cut on identical lines to the
Right - A Lady Wearing a Spencer to read. A Spencer was perfect to keep
Left - A very cropped short high waisted Regency Spencer of 1817.
The Spencer was worn both indoors and outdoors and for eveningwear and was
made of silk or a wool material known as kerseymere. When it was worn as an
indoor evening Spencer it was called a canezou. Spencers stayed in fashion for
about 20 years whilst the waistline remained high.
This lemon Regency Spencer is from a fashion plate of 1818.
has Gothic and military overtones with its decorative work. Areas of Spencers back
and front were
decorated with braids and cording. Italian quilting was popular as it created a
raised surface pattern.
When the waist slowly began its drop on dresses so did the waist of the Spencer
as in this illustration of the cerise Spencer circa 1820.
The Redingote was worn from 1818 onwards initially indoors in cold weather, worn open whilst
revealing the dress beneath. Its name derives from
the 18th century version of a riding coat. It was used in place of a loose cloak
and as it developed a series of shoulder capes it became very suitable for
travel. As dresses widened so the Redingote widened.
Redingotes were usually
trimmed with fur and mostly made of heavy dark cloth. See a timeline of the
The period 1800-1837 is part of the
Georgian era. George III, insane after 1811, lived on until 1820.
His son the Prince Regent, George, already a cause celebre acted as Regent for
nine years of the King's madness and then reigned himself from 1820-1830.
Because of the influence of the Georgian Prince Regent, this is known as The
Regency Period, or the Regency fashion era. Because of some overlap due to
the acknowledged prominence of the Prince in court consider the Regency era to being in 1807.
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