The Late Georgian/Empire/Regency Era 1790-1820

by Susan Jarrett

France

Due to civil unrest, a revolution broke out in France in 1789 leading to the end of the rule of the current French monarchy. From 1794 to 1799, a new Directoire governed- quite ineffectively- causing much civil unrest. By 1799, the opportunity was right for a young military leader by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte to stage a coup. He was successful. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France and began reestablishing order. Although his reign was marked by a 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 referred to as France’s Empire Period.

Scene from The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques Louis David. c. 1805-7. Le Louvre.

England

The earlier years of 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- leaving his son, the Prince Regent, to step into power and rule in his father’s place. Thus, the period from 1810 to 1820 is known as England’s Regency Period.

King George III
King George III of England
Prince Regent George IV of England

Although war with France dominated the majority of England’s resources during this period, the export of British manufactured goods (including American cotton and other goods) continued to prosper and was substantial enough to fund a war with France. In 1815, England defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and war with France was over.

In the United States, the export of American cotton flourished. Much of this period England’s textiles were still imported from America. However, England still held the world’s market on printed cottons throughout the Regency Era. The majority of English mills were located in the British territories in India. Calcutta was a large cotton manufacturing city and is the namesake for the 19th century term ‘Calico.”

early 19th century calico
Early 19th century printed cotton. Image sourced from Pinterest.

Early textile techniques consisted of over-printing woven fabrics with wooden blocks. Designs were cut into a block of wood and then colored dyes were applied to the block. The block of colorized wood was then stamped onto the woven fabric creating a design. To achieve multiple colors, the block was painted again with a second color and stamped directly over the first printing. This process was repeated until the multicolored design was complete. Floral patterns were quite popular as were small geometric repeats.

Women’s Fashion

Caricature by Charles Williams c. 1807 illustrating the “old style” vs. the “new style”

During this period, France and England were fashion rivals. Napoleon rejected all customs, including fashion, associated with the old regimes and instead encouraged a return to simplicity and the silhouettes of the Ancient world. It was Napoleon’s ideology of Neoclassical simplicity that changed fashion. Extravagant corsets, panniers, and gowns made of silk brocade were cast aside as thin, almost transparent Grecian- like cotton gowns were adopted. Garments began to drape and flow. Corsets were discarded altogether. And for the first time since antiquity, the female body was free to remain in its natural shape. With fashion icon (and now Empress) Josephine at his side, the two single handedly controlled the sartorial future of their empire.

The Chemise a La Reine

But the origins the new style had earlier roots. 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 exemplified in the portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. The chemise gown was inspired by the clothing of the European countryside and of the writings of authors like Rousseau. It was a style worn by the artist Vigee LeBrun herself and it is thought this is where Marie Antoinette first admired it. The chemise gown was typically made of bleached, ultra fine, semi sheer cotton (not silk). Although deemed radical, rejectionist, and immodest by most of the upper and royal French class, some forward thinking (and fashion conscientious) aristocrats within LeBrun’s circle began wearing this style. However it was not a garment that would be widely accepted until after the death of Marie Antoinette. But by the turn of the 19th century, thanks to Napoleon and Josephine, all of fashionable Europe were wearing what can be considered a version of the chemise a la reine- or a style we now refer to as the Empire style gown.

Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress by Vigee LeBrun. c. 1783. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
chemise dress
Chemise dress. c. 1783-1790. Manchester Art Gallery

Empire and Regency Style

Early empire style gowns were made of fine bleached cotton or fine linen and could be printed. They had elevated waistlines with bodices ending just below the bust. Initially, skirts were equally draped. Sleeves were long and sometimes ended at the knuckle. Sleeves were also short or even sleeveless as in the gowns cut “a la Grecian.”

However, the ancient revivalist styles of Napoleon and Josephine’s empire was short lived. 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. Skirts slowly took on an A- line shape as the fullness of the skirt moved toward the back.

French court gown

French Court gown. c. 1815. Kent State University.

kyoto corsets
(L) 1790s stays. (R) 1820s stays. Kyoto Costume Institute.

In England, the empire style gown was most fashionable as well. Early English empire gowns were cut slightly fuller in skirt width than French gowns and were called “round gowns.” It is assumed the extra skirt width was for modesty reasons. Sheer cotton fabrics such as muslin, gauze, and percale were popular English gown materials. And like the trends across Europe, printed cottons round gowns were in great demand in America as well.

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.

Portrait of a Lady by Henri François Mulard. c. 1810. Private collection.

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

Spencer Jacket. c. 1814. Napoleon and The Empire of Fashion.
Redingote. c. 1808. Napoleon and The Empire of Fashion.

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).

Reticule. c. early 19th century. Dominic Winters Auctioneers.
Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales by Charlotte Jones. c. 1818. Pinterest.

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. With the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and the return of the French monarchy, empire style gowns were quickly going out of fashion. By the 1820s, waistlines dropped to just above the natural waistline and controlled silhouettes became the norm once again. No longer could a lady go without her corsets and petticoats. And thus was the end of the Empire style.

Children’s Fashion

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.

The Bowden Children by John Hoppner, c. 1803. Public Domain.

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 (shown lower left). 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 (shown upper right).

Thomas Tyndall with Wife and Children by Thomas Beach. c. 1800. University of Bristol
Girl’s Indienne Chintz dress. c. late 18th century. Cooper-Hewitt.
Boy's skeleton suit
Boy’s skeleton suit. c. 1800. The V&A.
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