Monday, March 15, 2021

The Rise and Fall of the Empire(waist)

Dancing dress featuring
 Grecian elements, 1809.
Though this post was composed a few years ago, I can't help but think it has more resonance today, when more and more people are thinking about the politicization of women's bodies. Fashion always has been an expression of a society's state, and monumental shifts in clothing styles inevitably occur in times of massive change. We have yet to see the lasting results of our current upheaval, but fashion already has reflected it, and future historians will analyze our clothing to better understand who we are as a people, what we value, and why we behave the way we do. Enjoy.

The Empire waist gown, the most defining element of women’s fashion during the Regency Era, has political implications far beyond what most Austen fans and period reenactors realize. In truth, it was revolutionary: a sartorial celebration of the times. “Empire” refers to the one built by Napoleon and is the name given in France to this period of history. High-waisted, loose gowns began to be worn in elite French fashion circles prior to the Revolution, largely in response to the philosophies put forth by Jean-Jaques Rousseau, an advocate for society’s return to more a natural state (often premised on idyllic notions of the peasantry), and whose ideas permeate Romantic thought. Yet this uncorseted look that shocked so many was not de rigueur until after the Revolution, when it became a reflection of the values of the new French state: simple fabrics and lines were far more egalitarian than complex court dress, their unrestrictive shapes were literally liberating, and the overall look was evocative of ancient Athens, where Democracy was born. Structured gowns became as pass√© as the wigs that went with them.

Full dress (Spring, 1799)
in the Grecian style. 

The earliest examples of this look from the late 18th century still feature trains, but with the beginning of the 19th century the silhouette straightens, emphasizing a woman’s true shape. Thin fabrics left little to the imagination. The English took their initial cues on this new look from the French, but as contact between the two countries diminished over decades of war, the Empire look began to take on a distinctly English flare. Tight fitted spencers and redingotes, while marvels of tailoring, acted to bring the liberated look a bit more in control, as well as providing some much-needed warmth. Many ladies also found that to achieve the desired silhouette, they still required a great deal of confining undergarments. Tudor and military embellishments further increased the structure of the gowns. Notions of simplicity in women’s clothing were soon abandoned, and ornamentation became just as ostentatious as ever. The death of Napoleon in 1821 coincides nicely with the beginning of the waistline’s gradual journey back to, well, the waist (it took less time in France). It wasn’t until the early 1830’s that women’s fashion began to take on truly Victorian dimensions in England, returning to the tight corsets and voluminous skirts of the previous century.

1807 gowns featuring Greek and Roman styling.
Left: Full dress and walking dress. Right: Full dress.

Evening dresses from 1816 (left) and 1819 (right) feature
helmet-like headdresses reminiscent of Athena’s,
the Greek goddess of war.

One need not be an historian to know that the Victorian Era was a period of rigid social conservatism. It is tempting to read the fall of the waistline as a rejection of revolution, but feminist historians are quick to point out that Rousseau’s philosophies and the fashions they inspired were far from liberating. Boys and girls of the era dressed in miniature versions of the gowns grown ladies wore. Boys were “breached” and allowed to grow into men, but girls were kept in a perpetual state of infancy. In Emile, Rousseau’s treatise on education, he describes a vision of womanhood rather chilling to the modern reader. The vast bulk of the book describes the education of Emile, his fictitious pupil, and only contemplates the education of girls in Book Five: Marriage. Here he describes the ideal mate for Emile, one Sophie, and the education she ought to receive to keep her as natural a woman as possible:

Morning and evening dress (1818)
showing military influences.

As I see it, the special functions of women, their inclinations and their duties, combine to suggest the kind of education they require. Men and women are made for each other but they differ in their measure of dependence on each other. We could get on better without women than women could get on without us. To play their part in life they must have our willing help, and for that they must earn our esteem. By the very law of nature women are at the mercy of men’s judgments both for themselves and for their children. It is not enough that they should be estimable: they must be esteemed. It is not enough that they should be wise: their wisdom must be recognized. Their honor does not rest on their conduct but on their reputation. Hence the kind of education they get should by the very opposite of men’s in this respect. Public opinion is the tomb of a man’s virtue but the throne of a woman’s. 

Walking dress demonstrating both Tudor &
military influence, 1821 (left) and 1822 (right).

His words, though rather infuriating, perfectly describe the reality in which Jane Austen lived and wrote. Recall what Mary Bennet has to say on the subject:

“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable — that one false step involves her in endless ruin — that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, — and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

Elizabeth might find such a statement annoying under the circumstances, but Mary correctly conveys the realities of their world. If Wickham did not marry Lydia, the entire Bennet family would have been tarnished by her actions, throwing their very survival into doubt. All this from a lack of active patriarchal protection. Women were entirely at the mercy of public opinion, yet at the same time fashion exposed their bodies in ways unheard of in Europe for centuries past. They were taught to court and relish masculine attention, just like Lydia Bennet, but then were punished for indulging in it. What a double edged sword!

The falling waistline. Left: Walking and dinner dress (1822).
Right: Evening dress (Winter, 1826).

Even if Rousseau was not an advocate for any real form of female liberation, his notions undoubtedly influenced philosophers who were, like Mary Wollstonecraft. The ideals of freedom and liberty that marked the period would gradually spread their wings and slowly encompass more and more of the globe, a process that remains hard-fought and ongoing. One truth that can be universally acknowledged is that after a few decades of Victorian austerity, corsets again fell out of fashion, hemlines raised, and a new era of women’s fashion was born. With it came suffrage, women in the work place, and birth control. Pretty revolutionary, wouldn’t you say?

Boy and girls fashions, 1834. The younger boys, like the
three on the far left, are still wearing skirts resembling those
of the girl the same age (second figure from the right).
The older boy standing behind her has been breached.

This post owes a great debt to Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing, an excellent overview of the subject from Shire Library that I highly recommend.

The images featured are from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library: http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/.

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting, especially during March, women's month!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very interesting, thank you for sharing!
    I didn't know that the empire waistline lowered so soon as the 1820s.

    ReplyDelete