In its broadest sense as a term in contemporary fashion, "empire style" (sometimes called simply "Empire" with the French pronunciation, "om-peer") refers to a woman's dress silhouette in which the waistline is considerably raised above the natural level, and the skirt is usually slim and columnar. The reference is to fashions of France's First Empire, which in political terms lasted from 1804 when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor, to his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It should be noted that the styles of this period, when referring specifically to English or American fashions or examples, may be termed "Regency" (referring to the Regency of the Prince of Wales, 1811-1820) or "Federal" (referring to the decades immediately following the American Revolution).
None of these terms, whose boundaries are defined by political milestones, accurately encompasses the time frame in which "empire style" fashions are found, which date from the late 1790s to about 1820, after which skirts widened and the waistline lowered to an extent no longer identifiable as "empire style."
The Empire Waist
The Empire style in its purest form is characterized by: the columnar silhouette-without gathers in front, some fullness over the hips, and a concentration of gathers aligned with the 3-4" wide center back bodice panel; a raised waistline, which at its extreme could be at armpit-level, dependent on new forms of corsetry with small bust gussets, cording under the breasts, and shoulder straps to keep the bust high; soft materials, especially imported Indian white muslin (the softest, sheerest of which is called "mull"), often pre-embroidered with white cotton thread; and neoclassical influence in overall style (the silhouette imitating Classical statuary) and in accessories and trim.
Other Aspects of Empire Style
Neoclassical references included sandals; bonnets, hairstyles, and headdresses copied from Greek statues and vases; and motifs found in ancient architecture and decorative arts, such as the Greek key, and oak and laurel leaves. The use of purely neoclassical references was at its peak from about 1798 to just after 1800; after that, they were succeeded by other influences.
The adoption of these references has been linked with France's Revolution and adoption of Greek and Roman democratic and republican principles, and certainly the French consciously sought to make these connections both at the height of their Revolution, and under Napoleon, who was eager to link himself to the great Roman emperors.
Applying this political reference to America is more problematic. The extremely revealing versions of the style were seldom seen in America, where conservatism and ambivalence about letting Europe dictate American fashions ran deep. However, Americans did adopt the general look of the period, and plenty of dresses survive to testify that fashionable young women did wear the sheer white muslin style. Moreover, there is ample evidence that women of every class, even on the frontiers, had some access to information on current fashions, and usually possessed, if not for everyday use, modified versions of them.
The origins of the neoclassical influence are visible in the later eighteenth century. White linen, and later, cotton, dresses were the standard uniform for infants, toddlers, and young girls, and entered adult fashion about 1780. During the 1780s and early 1790s, women's silhouettes gradually became slimmer, and the waistline crept up, the effect heightened by the addition of wide sashes, whose upper edge approached the level that waistlines would in another decade. After 1795, waistlines rose dramatically and the skirt circumference was further reduced, the fullness no longer equally distributed but confined to the sides and back. By 1798, fashion plates in England and France show the form-clinging high-waisted neoclassical style, with England lagging a little behind in its adoption of the extreme of the new look.
The Waist in Fashion
As England and France were at war for nearly all of this period, English styles sometimes took their own direction, showing a fluctuating waistline level (which should not be taken literally, as garments from this period show remarkably little deviation from a norm) and numerous decorative details borrowed from peasant or "cottage" styles, historic references, especially medieval and "Tudor," and regional references such as Russian, Polish, German, or Spanish. Often, contemporary events inspired fashions, such as the state visit of allies in the Napoleonic wars; military uniforms also inspired trim and accessories in women's fashions during these years.
Several myths persist about the styles of this period, including the idea that the style was invented by Josephine Bonaparte to conceal her pregnancy, and that ladies of fashion dampened their petticoats to achieve the clinging-muslin effects seen in classical statues. Fashions can rarely be attributed to one person (although a hundred years earlier, a pregnancy at the French court did inspire the invention of a style) and the most cursory glance at fashions of the 1780s and 1790s shows a clear progress of internal change in fashion.
The dampened petticoat myth may have arisen from some early historians', and historical novelists', misunderstanding of some comments on the new style. Compared to the heavier fabrics and stylized body shapes (created by heavily-boned, conical-shaped corsets and side-hoops) that immediately preceded them, the new sheer muslins, worn over one slip or even, by some European ladies, a knitted, tubular body stocking, would have revealed the contours of the natural body to an extent not seen in centuries. Several contemporaries and early fashion historians wrote that women looked as if they had dampened their skirts. However, no evidence, including scathing denunciations of the indecent new style, as well as gleeful social satirists' commentary and caricatures, exists to document that this was ever done.
Revivals of the Empire
The Empire style has seen numerous revivals, although modern eyes must sometimes look closely for the reference, as it is always used in tandem with the silhouette and body shape fashionable at the time. Tea gowns of the 1880s and 1890s are sometimes described as "empire style." Reform dress often borrowed the high waist and slender skirt of the Empire period, perhaps finding the relatively simple construction notably different from the styles it rejected, the high waist providing freedom from the era's constrictive corsets. By about 1908, "empire style" dresses were a large segment of fashionable offerings. The 1930s saw another minor revival, as did the 1970s. The release in the late 1990s of several film and television adaptations of Jane Austen's novels, all set during the Empire period, inspired another revival.
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Bourhis, Kate, ed. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire, 1789-1815. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
Cunnington, C. Willet. English Womens' Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1937. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1990.
Ribeiero, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988.
--. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.