History of the Empire Dress

A narrow, high-waisted silhouette has recurrently expressed the epitome of grace and femininity in ancient Greece, medieval Europe, Napoleonic France, and into modern day.  The Empire Dress of the period 1795-1815 is the simplest and loveliest example; its lack of ornamentation accents a pure integrity of line.

Fashion has always been influenced by political and economic factors, both directly and subconsciously.  This was strongly evident during and immediately after the French Revolution, when cataclysmic social upheaval was accompanied by radical changes in dress.  As in the decade following World War I, a wave of female emancipation brought short hair, rejection of constricting stays and corsets, and body-revealing clothes with the natural waist-line displaced or ignored. 

The ascendancy of French influence on fashion had reached its peak a few years earlier with Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette's couturiere, whose extravagant whims swayed Europe to an unprecedented degree.  Even before the Revolution, however, simpler styles were beginning to appear from England, where newly-invented machines wove fine cottons from colonial India.  The robe a la Creole, and unstructured sashed sack-dress, was followed in 1790 by the English chemise.  During the Republic this gown, shaped only by drawstrings at the neck and below the breast, became more and more "Grecian".  Necklines dipped lower, waistlines rose, and sleeves shortened.  A more refined fit was adopted during the Directoire period when the bodice was cut separately, with the skirt sewn on.  

The fall of the Bastille in July, 1789 had brought a definitive end to the glaring opulence of the upper classes.  Men did not dare to appear in public wearing lavish clothes; from this time on, in fact, men have continued to dress less flamboyantly than women.  In France it was not longer safe for anyone to wear silks and velvets.  The silk weavers of Lyon were ruined, and the industry remained idle for twenty years.  The guild system, rigid but effective, was abolished as undemocratic, resulting in inferior workmanship in fabric-making and other crafts.  Fashionable modistes, tailors, and hairdressers fled to foreign capitals such as London and St. Petersburg.  

In fashion, architecture, and even government structure, the forms of classical Greece and Rome were emulated, especially during the Directoire and Consulate periods.  Women's dresses resembled slender columns, with the skirt's fullness carried to the back and lengthened into a train.  White was the universal color in sheer fabrics worn over very simple, often flesh-colored undergarments.  A few trend-setting socialites even sprinkled themselves with water to enhance the clinging effect of the garments.  Dresses fine enough to be drawn through a woman's ring were worn summer and winter, contributing to epidemics of influenza, which was called "muslin disease".  A contemporary rhyme lamented:

"Plump and rose was my face
And graceful was my form,
Till fashion deemed it a disgrace
To keep my body warm."

At first the only concession made to the weather was the shawl, which came into vogue after Napoleon's Egyptian campaign.  These were similar to the Greek chlamys, about 5 by 8 metes, made in taffeta, muslin, or crepe in white or pale colors.  Smaller cashmere shawls and Scottish Paisleys were worn for warmth, although only Josephine (emperor Napolean's wife) was allowed to wear real India shawls - she owned three or four hundred of them.

After 1800, the Spencer became popular, a long sleeved, high-necked jacket which reached to just below the armpit.  Spencers were usually made of velvet in colors such as Egyptian earth, pea green, or tobacco brown.  Only late in the decade did the more practical long redingote find favor. 

To set off the delicate gowns, flat slippers were worn, laced and tied at the ankle.

When Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, pomp and circumstance and court dress returned. He was eager to revive the French textile industry, and was said to have sealed off fireplaces in the Tuileries to encourage the wearing of velvet instead of muslin.  After 1808, gowns shortened, with trains worn only at court, bodices became less skimpy, fabrics and color more substantial, and undergarments regained importance.  Beginning in 1815 after Waterloo, fashion, like politics, underwent a long transitional period before returning at last to conservatism and formality.

Folkwear presents this classic Empire Dress sewing pattern in three lengths, with two sleeve options.  There is a traditional version, with drawstrings to fit the bodice firmly to the bust and tie in the back.  And, a more contemporary version, with a closed back and elastic at the "waist". 

--from Notes on the Empire Dress, 1981, Folkwear