A new naturalness began to emerge in late 18th Century dresses for both
children, young boys and girls, and women. Both litle boys and girls
wore dresses and there were no stylistic differences differentuating boys
and girls dresses. Dress styles had for centuries
been created for elaborate rituals at royal courts. Dresses and hairstyle
were extrodinarily orate and hugely expensive, a cost born by the common
The political ferment of the late 17th Century culminating in
the Frech Revolution brougt these extravagant, wasteful styles into question.
Rather the more comfotable and practical clothing styles of the rural and
working class women grew in popularity. At the same time there was
growing interest in classical styles. Europeand began to serious
pursue archeology and escavations at the Roman ruins
at Pompey and nearby Herculaneum yielded a treasure trove of classical
sculptures. The light, flowing dresses on these sculptures complimented
the trend for sensible clothes. Soon dresses in the classic styles for
children and women appeared in England, France, and other European
The Empire dresses were popular in Englnd during the period that has
come to be known as the Regency. Note that the term "Regency" refers to
English Regency (when the Prince Regent ruled for George III) actually
covered only the years 1811 to 1820, from a fashion and
architecture standpoint, however, it begins in the late 1700s and
continues into the early 1820s--a period when an imitation
of the classical Greeks and Romans was the caught the public's intrest
and dominated fashions.
Elements of the Empire-style classical dress are observable in the
1880s, but the dresses were motly worn by younger children until the
190s. The syle of these dresses was remarkably stable during
this period: the basic shape and construction stayed the
same--only the details changed. Any earlier, though, and
you've backed into the Abigale Adams/pouter pigeon
silhouette; any later and the dress outline becomes
an padded wasp-waisted lampshade.
These classical dresses were abkle length with straight free flowing
lines, falling from a high waist. They were worn with sashes to cover the seem between bodice and
skirt. They often had rounded, open necklines without collars and
Younger children, both boys and girls, wore the simplest style of
dress, usually with short puff sleeves, the bodice gathered into a band or
pulled with a drawstring. Styles changed significanty in the 1810s.
Early style (1780-1810): In the late 18th Century Empire dresses were first worn by children and they worn long, at ankle length. As women began to wear Empuire dresses, especially after the turn of the Cebntury, the hems of children's dresses, for both boys and girls, began to rise-- differentiating the styles for children and women.
Later style (1810-1825): In the 1800s the gem of the skirt began to rise and by the 1810s hems ending below the knees were increasingly common. Under this they wore pantalettes that came all the way to the ankle, trimmed with the best lace their parents could afford.
Styles changed for older children.
Older girls: Older girls kept the gown-and-pantalette combination, the gown getting longer as they got older. These gowns, whether on small children or older girls, were usually white and it was the fashion to have colored bands to tie around the waist. Blue was the most popular color, for both boys and girls, but fashionable children would have several different colors.
Older boys: When boys got a bit older they were breeched, allowed to wear more boyish clothes such as knee breeches. (I'm not sure exactly when but I think for most, but not all boys, it was around age 5.) At that time they graduated to knee breeches or after the turn of the century, tunics or perhaps a skeleton suit. Some doting mothers, usually from wealthy families, delayed breeching, in some cases for several years. These olders boys who continuing wearing dresses wore styles appropriate for girls of a similar age. There were no styles specifically for boys.
White was one of the most popular colors for late 18th century
dresses. This was in large part because Europeans assumed the dresses
on the sculptures bein escavated were white. Even today most people
do not know that classical Greek and Roman sculptures were painted.
The scupltures were
whitish and the paint with which they had once been embelished had been
lost. Thus sheer, free flowing dresses, often made of sheer muslin, became fashionable for children
and eventually their mothers. The white dresses and the angelic appearance
of the boys and girls so attired fit perfectly with the
increasingly accepted view by the late 19th Cetury that children were
esentially innocent beings, until corrupted by adult society.
White wasn't the only possibility. Really bright colors, however,
were usually reserved for accessories, but both soft, light colors and
dark, rich colors were used. Also, colors became
brighter throughout the 1810s and especially into the
early 1820s. The colors were mor common for dresses worn by older girls and women.
The dresses worn by boys and younger girls were more commonly white.
Dresses for wealthy children were made of muslin and were very
sheer. Despite its seeming simplicity, these muslim dresses were at the
time a status symbol. Only wealthy families could afford the true gauzy,
unlined muslin dress. Muslin in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries
was mostly imported from India, which England had seized from France in
the 1760s. (One of the reasons the French for revenge supported the
American colonists during the American Revolution.) While wildly
expensive, it was beyond the reach of working-class families.
The "spotted muslin" so frequently mentioned in Austen novels could
be "spotted" with tiny flowers or geometric shapes as well as actual
White and off-white muslins were typical of the "classical"
obsession, and many dresses were made from them. A
common way to make these plain fabrics more interesting was
to include a pattern in the same color, either by embroidering or
weaving it in. This wave is woven in.
Children from less affluent families would also wear dresses with the
same styling as the classical empire dresses. There dresses were made in
less costly, more opaque materials, often printed cottons or wools. Still they beneffited
from the style allowing much more freedom of movement than the styles
worn earlier in the 18th Century.
Fabrics in the 1790s fabrics were block-printed, which meant
that the fabric was laid out flat and the design
stamped on by hand in sections. Designs made this
way were complex, and the 18th-century fashion of
fancy florals governed the designs. These complicated
patterns are an amazing achievement when you
consider that each color had to be printed separately
with a different block, raised in just the areas that one
color should appear.
On simple frocks as Empire dresses, trim was very important. Even if
a dress was made by a professional "mantua-maker," the mother or her
servants often created the trim herself. Buttons included
mother-of-pearl, bone, wood, pewter, and china.
A popular trim was to run a satin or gauze ribbon around the waist.
There often was also trim at the neckline. Narrow piping
can put a flattering color near the face, and by accentuating the scoop of
the neck gives a vertical rather than horizontal emphasis. Running a
piece of lace around the edge of the neckline was popular, and dresses
things up at attention was given to the trim on womwn's dresses,
probably less for that of childrem. Jane
Austen often talked in her letters about how she was trimming a new
hat or gown, or redoing the trim.
Many trims involved complicated techniques at whose effect
we can only guess. Jane Austen says in a letter to
her sister Cassandra: "Ribbon trimmings are all the fashion at Bath. . .
. I have been ruining myself in black satin ribbon with a
proper perl edge; & now I am trying to draw it up into kind
of roses, instead of putting it in plain double plaits."
For modesty sake, children were outfitted in pantalettes. Pantalettes
were at first children's clothing, worn by younger boys still in dresses
and girls. They were intially not worn by women. In the
late 18th and early 19th Centuries the long Empire-style dresses often
completly covered the pantalettes. Oddly enough, it became fashionable
to wear what were called "false" pantalettes, which is to say that they
just created lace-decorated tubes that buttoned on to some kind of garter
arrangement underneath the dress. In other words, the pantalettes were
serving zero useful purpose--they were just to show off. Slowly in the early 19th Century hem lines rose and the pantalettes
became increasingly fancy as they were made to be seen. Some were plain,
but fashionable mothers often wanted pantalettes heavily trimmed in lace or even ribbons
for their children. It is interesting to note that, the lace trim not
with standing, the pantalettestes were in the first trouser-like
garment worn by fashionable European children.
The simple white frocks for children had an enormous advantage over the
more elabotate dresses worn earlier in the century. The simple white frocks
could be easily washed, a great advantage for children. The importance of
this factor can not be overly stated.
These classical Empire dresses were first worn by toddlers. Both boys and girls
wore them. Eventually older children wore them, both boys until breeching and
girls. Eventually by the turn of the 19th Cetury, older girls and women
began wearing them.
Some authors speculate that the plain white baby dresses that had become popular for centuries might have been a major inspiration for these dresses for older children. Europen mothers had for centuries dresses their babies in cotton and silk gowns with puffed sleeves, rounded necklines, and high waists--nearly idetical with the new classicaly inspired dress styles.
We have found images of very few individuals wearing Empire dresses. One of the few we have found is the Right Honorable J.A. Plantagenet Stewart about 1800. He seems a bit old to still be wearing dresses, but ghe style was widely worn by girls abd adult women.
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