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.
Dancing dress featuring
Grecian elements, 1809.
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 passé 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.
|Evening dresses from 1816 (left) and 1819 (right) feature |
helmet-like headdresses reminiscent of Athena’s,
the Greek goddess of war.
|Morning and evening dress (1818) |
showing military influences.
|Walking dress demonstrating both Tudor &|
military influence, 1821 (left) and 1822 (right).
|The falling waistline. Left: Walking and dinner dress (1822).|
Right: Evening dress (Winter, 1826).
|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.