History of Fashion and Dress
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The Empire/Georgian/Regency Era: 1790-1820

"Excess is always bad..."
Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces

Key terms:


chemise a la reine
Empire style
Spencer jacket
skeleton suit
Eton suit

King George IV/Prince Regent
Prince Regent of England
Brief historical overview:

Due to civil unrest, a revolution broke out in France in 1789 leading to the end of the French monarchy. From 1794 to 1799, a new Directoire governed- however, quite ineffectively. By 1799, the opportunity was right for a young military leader by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte to stage a coup. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France and began reestablishing order. Although his reign was marked by series of wars abroad, Napoleon was successful in bringing stability to the country as well as reestablishing a prosperous French economy- specifically the French textile industry. The reign of Napoleon Bonaparte is now referred to as the Empire period in France.

Scene from Napoleon's coronation
Scene from The Coronation of Napoleon by J-L David c. 1805-7
Le Louvre
This period is also referred to as the Georgian period- named after England's King George III. Unlike France, England enjoyed a stable political climate during this period. King George was a virtuous man who enjoyed the simple life. He published a number of articles on farming and rural living under the surname "Farmer George." However by 1810, a genetic disorder had fully incapacitated the King and his son, the Prince Regent, stepped into power to rule in his father's place. Thus, the period from 1810 to 1820 is known as England's Regency period.

The import and production of American cotton continued to flourish abroad. Although war with France dominated the majority of England's resources during this period, the export of British manufactured goods (including American cotton and goods from English colonies) was substantial enough to fund the war and continue to secure England's place as a European fashion capital. In 1815, England defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and war with France was over.

Caricature by Charles Williams (1807) illustrating the "old style" vs. the "new style"

Marie Antoinette by Lebrun (1783)

Transitional stays
Transitional Stays c. 1790s
(Kent State University)

French court gown
French Court gown
Lancaster /Barreto collection

19th century reticule
Early 19th century reticule
with metal clasp
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Women's Clothing:

During this period, France and England were fashion rivals. During the revolutionary period in France, women's fashions began to change drastically. Extravagant corsets, panniers, and gowns made of silk brocade were cast aside as thin, almost transparent Grecian- like cotton gowns were adopted. It was this idea of Neoclassical simplicity that changed the way female form was treated. Garments began to drape and flow. Corsets were discarded altogether. For the first time since antiquity, the body was free to remain in its natural shape.

In 1783, Marie Antoinette was the first to wear a new style of gown called the chemise gown or the chemise a la reine (chemise of the queen). This style of gown is seen in the portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (left). This gown was typically white or pastel in color and made of thin, flowing cotton. It was a style inspired by the clothing of the European countryside and the writings of authors like Rousseau. Although deemed radical and immodest at first, some forward thinking (and fashion conscientious) aristocrats began wearing this style. However it would not be until after the death of Marie Antoinette that this style of gown would be adopted into the mainstream. By1802, all of fashionable Europe was wearing a reformed version of the chemise dress- a gown style we now refer to as the Empire style gown
Chemise a la reine 
(left) Chemise a la reine Manchester Art Gallery
(right) Muslin evening gown with cashmere shawl c. 1800 The Victoria and Albert Museum

By 1804, the French silk industry had seriously declined and Napoleon tried to recover the nation's main economic industry by passing a decree that all court dress for both men and women be made of French materials only. Flamboyant colors and elaborate decoration once again epitomized French fashion. By 1810, the corset had resurged in popularity and by 1815, the white empire style dress was completely out of fashion.

In England, the empire style gown was fashionable as well. However, it is important to note that early English gowns were slightly fuller in skirt width than French gowns. Sheer cotton fabrics such as muslin, gauze, and percale were the most popular English gown materials. Raw cotton was imported from the Americas and India and manufactured in English textile mills.

English muslin gown
English gown of Indian muslin and shawl
(The V&A)

Hair of this period was worn au naturel- tied up in loose fitting buns and other natural styles. Gone were the wigs of the earlier period. Grecian inspired hairstyles were all the rage and some radical women even cut their hair short in the style of a la Titus. However, short hair was not a widespread trend and women who did cut their hair soon regretted it. Girls over the age of 13 rarely wore their hair down.

Since the gowns of this period were so thin, the cold of winter required the adoption of large shawls imported from Kashmir, India (left). (India was a British colony during this period). Another defense against the cold of winter was the jacket. English tailors fashioned the Spencer jacket (below right)- a short close fitting jacket cut from the same style as the dress bodice- and later in the period, the Redingote (below left)- a full length coat.

The Spencer Jacket over a cotton gown (c. 1810-1815) and The Redingote (c. 1809)
both images courtesy The Victoria and Albert Museum

Bonnets, hats, and turbans were necessary to complete a lady's outfit. While in public, women always had at least one of these. At home, ladies wore close fitting cotton caps to cover their unstyled hair.

Other important fashion accessories during this period include the reticule- a small purse-like bag that closed at the top with either a drawstring or metal frame. Reticules were often made of silk but after 1810 were made of velvet and leather as well. In France, lacquered cardboard reticules were popular. Gloves were also prominent during this period and varied in length from wrist (for day wear) to above the elbow (for evening wear).

By 1810, people grew tired of the simplicity of thin gowns and epidemics of influenza had taken many lives. Hemlines began to shorten and garments of heavier woven cottons, linen, silk, wool, and velvet regained prominence. By the 1820s, the waistline had dropped to just above the natural waistline. No longer could a lady go without her corsets and petticoats. Thus was the end of the Empire style.

For reproduction Regency Era women's clothing, please click here.

Regency Era gown
(Kent State Museum)

Regency era Child's dress
(Kent State Museum)
Children's Clothing:

Thanks to philosophers like Rousseau, for the first time in history, children were viewed as more than just "miniature adults." These newly promoted ideas of childhood and adolescence are also reflected in the style of clothing during this period. Gone were the tight fitting, swaddling clothes of earlier eras. Instead, loose, adjustable garments were favored.

Girls and boys both wore gowns and pantalettes until the age of about 4 or 5. Only hats and toys delineated gender. All young children wore their hair loose. Neither young boys or girls were corseted during this period.

Older girls and young adolescents continued to wear dresses and pantalettes now cut in the same style as their mothers'. Dresses for girls up to the age 11-12 had mid calf length hemlines and included a set of pantalettes under their gowns. Until the age of 12 or 13, girls continued to wear their hair loose. It was not customary for girls to wear jewelry until after they were married.

After the age of five or six, young boys wore loose shirts buttoned to high-waisted, ankle length trousers- commonly referred to as the skeleton suit. After age 12, boys were dressed much the same as their fathers- in shirts, trousers, waist length jackets, and vests. This style is referred to as the Eton suit.

Skeleton suit
Young boy in a skeleton suit and young girl in the empire style dress
(Bowden Children by John Hoppner, c. 1803)

For reproduction Regency Era children's clothing, please click here.

Etiquette of the period:

Impeccable manners and spotless reputations were the order of the day during the Regency Era. Whether acknowledging someone while crossing the street or making introductions at a ball or country dance, specific behavior was dictated for each situation. But the rules and codes of behavior for men and women were different. Below are just a few examples.

Etiquette for Women
If unmarried and under the age of thirty, a woman was never seen accompanying a man without the presence of a chaperoned. A lady also never called upon a gentleman. From the book entitled Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces dating to 1811, "...at no time ought she (meaning a lady) volunteer shaking hands with a male acquaintance..."

Etiquette for Men
Gentleman were free to travel as they pleased and call upon young ladies of the house. While ascending a flight of stairs, a gentleman would precede a woman; While descending a flight of stairs,  a gentleman would follow her. This allowed for a ladies ankles to always be hidden from a gentleman's eye.

Other musing from the book, Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces:
"...your dress should correspond with the station you hold in society."
"..the occasional use of rouge may be tolerated- only tolerated."
and, of course, "Excess is always bad."
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These pages are for educational purposes only.  All text copyright Susan Jarrett.  No unauthorized use without permission.
Copyrighted images must be given source credit as has been done on these page. Public domain images do not require source credit.

Page revised January 2013