Fashion Era: The Empire Era (1795-1820)


Figure 1.--This portrait of the Bridges family was painted by English artist John Constable. He is perhaps the most acclaimed English landscape artist, often described as the father of modern landscaping. He also did some portraits, the sure way of earning lucrative commisions. This portrait of the Bridge's family in 1804 is one of those portraits and a classic representation of Empire fashions. Notice the simple, white high-wasted white dresses and the drab colors, often black, garments of the men. The boy is earing a skeleton suit. George Bridges was a wealthy banker and merchant. He is pictured with his wife Mary and their eight children. The group is shown in what was probably the drawing-room of the home Bridges built in 1790, Lawford Place, Essex.

Fashion in the new 19th century took radical turns. It was not the advent of a new century that was aplay, although notably major changes occured with the advent of the 20th century as well. What occurred in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. These were ground breaking events firmly breaking from centuries long established Europen traditions. The Enligtenment and the American Revolution laid the groundwork for the massive changes which began in France, hence the name of the era--the Empire era. This was based on Napoleon's Empire which stabilized France after the chaotic Revolutionary period. The British call it the Regency after the regency of the Prince of Wales who reigned while his father, George III, descended into periodic bouts of madness. The fashions, however were essentually the same with France the driving force of fashion even in the country's like Britiain which fought both the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic forces. The Empire is notable for the era in which women's styles began to take presidence in the fashion world. Today we generally see women as girls as focusing on fashion more than men. Most people would be amazed as the attention men gave to fashion in the 18th and earlier centuries. The one instantly recognizable garment of the Empire era was the Empire dress. There were other important garments, but the Empire dress defined largely defined the era. The inspiration was the clasical era of ancient Greece and Rome. The Empire dress was a radical departure from the elaborate fashions voluminous dresses of the 18th century and precious centuries. We no longer see the heavy brocades and voluminous lace as well as wigs (called periwigs) and powder of previous era. The Empire dresses were simple and made of light, largely unadorned fabric. Empire styles were virtually undress compared to what preceeded them. The French Revolution was not just about the monarchy and King Louis XIV. It was about the hole ediface of feudal aristocracy. Aristocrats and even those associated with them were losing their heads in the Terror. No one in France wanted to even look like an aristocrat. The new politically correct fashion for womem which adhered to classical ideals. Voluminous, elaborate dresses and tightly laced corsets were abandoned for the low-neckline, high-waisted, natural figure embleamatic of the Empire Era. The Bridges girls here provide excellent examples of Empire dresses. There were also changes in men's fashions. Here there could be no return to classical fashion. Even the most ardent republican could not very well go around wearing togas. The men's version of the Empire dress was the Beau Brummell look: semi-conical hats, simple linnen shirts, drab colors, and trousers (long pants). Beau Brummel was English, but the inspiration may have come from France. From this point while France continued to be the center of women's fashions, Britain became increasingly important in men's fashions. The most radical change in fashion was the beginning of chilren's clothes. Until the French Revolution, children were basically treated as small adults. This idea began to be challenged by important Enligtenment figures such as Rosseau. People began to see childhood as a destinct period of developent and that children had special needs. One aspect of tht was fashion and as a result we see the first garment specifically designed for children--the skeleton suit. As strange as it may seem, it was boys who first wore long pant as part of the slleton suit. It would take two decades for men to completely make the fshionabl transition from knee breeches to long pants. Long pants existed before the Revolution, but were the unfashionable garments of the poor and the peasantry--the sans culottes. There was no comparable garment for girls. Throughout the Empire Era and later they simply wore smaller editions of the dresses their mothers were wearing. The American Revolution would have an impact politically, but in fashion terms, Americans continued to be guided by European styles. It should be emphasized that the Empire styles were the fashions of the elites. While the Industrial Revolution was widening the middle-class, most of the European popultion was workers and peasants who did not have the time or money for high fashion. The fashionable Empire clothing was a pan-European style. The fashions worn by the peasantry which was still the bulk of the population were often destinct local styles. This is why many of the garmnts that eventually emerged as nationl styles and now folk costumes, emerged from the peasant dress.

Political Change

Fashion in the new 19th century took radical turns. It was not the advent of a new century that was a play, although notably major changes occured with the advent of the 20th century as well. What occurred in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. These were ground breaking events firmly breaking from centuries long established Europen traditions. The Enligtenment and the American Revolution laid the groundwork for the massive changes which began in France, hence the name of the era--the Empire era.

Social Trends

It should be emphasized that the Empire styles were the fashions of the elites. While the Industrial Revolution was widening the middle-class, most of the European popultion was workers and peasants who did not have the time or money for high fashion. An why the fashionable Empire clothing was a pan-European style. The fashions worn by the peasantry which was still the bulk of the population werte often destinct local styles. This is why many of the garments that eventually emerged as nationl styles and now folk costumes, emerged from the peasant dress.

Terminology

This was based on Napoleon's Empire which stabilized France after the chaotic Revolutionary period. The British call it the Regency after the regency of the Prince of Wales who reigned while his father, George III, descended into periodic bouts of madness. Americans think of George III as the Revolutionary War king (1776-83). But although George was subsequently ill for extended periods, he lived until 1820, 5 years after Napoleon was expelled to St. Helens. Thus the Prince of Wales official Reguency lasted longer than the Empire well into the 19th century.

Fashions

While Britain and the French were again bitter enenies, a rivalry that had persisted for centuries, the fashions trends during the Empire/Regency were essentually the same. France had been the driving force of fashion even in the country's like Britiain which fought the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic forces and in earlier wars. The Empire is notable for the era in which women's styles began to take presidence in the fashion world. Today we generally see women as girls as focusing on fashion more than men. Most people would be amazed as the attention men gave to fashion in the 18th and earlier centuries.

Female fashionss

The one instantly recognizable garment of the Empire era was the Empire dress. There were other important garments, but the Empire dress defined largely defined the era. The inspiration was the clasical era of ancient Greece and Rome. The Empire dress was a radical departure from the elaborate fashions voluminous dresses of the 18th century and precious centuries. We no longer see the heavy brocades and voluminous lace as well as wigs (called periwigs) and powder of previous era. The Empire dresses were simple and made of light, largely unadorned fabric. Empire styles were virtually undress compared to what preceeded them. The French Revolution was not just about the monarchy and King Louis XIV. It was about the hole ediface of feudal aristocracy. Aristocrats and even those associated with them were losing their heads in the Terror. No one in France wanted to even look like an aristocrat. The new politically correct fashion for womem which adhered to classical ideals. Voluminous, elaborate dresses and tightly laced corsets were abandoned for the low-neckline, high-waisted, natural figure embleamatic of the Empire Era. The Bridges girls here provide excellent examples of Empire dresses (figure 1).

Male fashions

There were also changes in men's fashions. Here there could be no return to classical fashion. Even the most ardent republican could not very well go around wearing togas. The men's version of the Empire dress was the Beau Brummell look: semi conical hats, simple linnen shirts, drab colors, and trousers (long pants). Beau Brummel was English, but the inspiration may have come from France. From this point while France continued to be the center of women's fashions, Britain became increasingly important in men's fashions.

Children

The most radical change in fashion was the beginning of chilren's clothes. Until the French Revolution, children were basically treated as small adults. This idea began to be challenged by importnt Enligtenment figures such as Rosseau. People began to see childhood as a destinct period of developent and that children had special needs. One aspect of tht was fashion and as a result we see the first garment specifically designed for children--the skeleton suit. As strange as it may seem, it was boys who first wore long pant as part of the skelton suit. It would take two decades for men to completely make the fshionabl transition from knee breeches to long pants. Long pants existed before the Revolution, but were the unfashionable garments of the poor and the peasantry--the sans culottes. There was no comparable garment for girls. THis was the case throughout the Empire Era and later they simply wore smaller editions of the dresses their mothers were wearing.

Country Trends


America

The American Revolution would have an impact politically, but in fashion terms, Americans continued to be guided by European styles.

England

The term for Empire fashions in England was the Regency. A major shift in the fashion world occurred during the Empire/Regency period. Previously France dominated the fashion world, but for the first time there was a radical splilt in the Fashion world. The French continued to dominate women's fashion, but for the first time the English emerged as a force in the male fashion world. In this regard Beau Brumell is the epitomy of male fashion during the period. There is no comparable French figure. And England aftr the Empire/Regency era continued as an especilly important influnce in male fashion. In the era before photography, art is the most important source of fashion information. The Constable portrait here is a good example (figure 1). Relevant John Constable works, however, are limited because of his focus on landscape art.

Frannce


Scotland

Fashion in Scotland basically followed English fashions. In fact we do not see a lot of Scottish national dress. This followed the English supression of the Scottish national interests following the Jacobian Uprising (1745-46). This only bgan to change in the last years of the Regency, most priminently displayd with King Gelorge IV's visit to Edinburg (1824). We have a rich aristic record of the prominance of Rfency fashions in Scotland. The most prominent Scottish portratist of the day was the prolific Sir Henry Raeburn who has left us numerius portaits of Scotish children, especially the landed elite.










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Created: 11:37 PM 12/12/2017
Last edited: 1:53 PM 1/17/2018