Classical Empire Dresses

Figure 1.--Little girls and boys were still outfitted in dresses at the close of the century, but the dress styles had changed to the open, airy Empire style. Here in a scene painted about 1794, Emily and George Mason play while their Ayahs (Indian nannies) can be seen in the background. This is just a thumbnail. If any one can find a better images, we would be pleased to add it. Compare the dress styles to those of the Blunt brothers on the main 18th Century page. (Just click on the image.)

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 people.


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 countries.


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 puffed sleeves.

Children's Styles

Younger children, both boys and girls, wore the simplest style of high-waisted 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 children's 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 spots.

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.

Baby Dresses Inspiration

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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Created: February 20, 1999
Last updated: 5:15 AM 7/24/2013