The History of the Empire Waist Dress

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The History of the Empire Waist Dress
The empire waist dress became popular in the 19th century. (Three well dressed women image by Warren Millar from Fotolia.com)

A version of the high-waisted dress was popular all over Europe by the end of the 18th century, influenced by classical Roman and Greek styles. By the time Napoleon Bonaparte ruled in France in the early 19th century, the high-waist dress was known as the Empire waist, or Empire-line dress, and was the mode of dress worn in the Regency period. Many popular styles of high-waisted dresses are depicted in the films of Jane Austen's books, which were written in the early 19th century.

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Classical Influence

From around 1794, most women’s dresses began to adopt a style reminiscent of the classical Greek and Roman era. The waist became higher to gather under the bust, while the skirt flowed gently to the floor, making the silhouette look longer and slimmer. Sleeves were long and close-fitting, three quarter length or short and puffed.

The History of the Empire Waist Dress
Women's dresses resembled classical lines. (statue image by Zeno from Fotolia.com)

French Influence

The brocade gowns and wigs of the English 18th century eventually gave way to the flimsy, high-waisted dresses which were worn without a corset or petticoat underneath. When Napoleon Bonaparte of France declared himself ruler of the Empire, this style of women’s dress became known as an Empire waist, or Empire line. Dresses often resembled a full length, thin nightdress, with a low neckline, or décolleté.

The History of the Empire Waist Dress
Empire waist was named during Napoleon Bonaparte's reign. (napoléon sur l'arc de triomphe. image by Bruno Bernier from Fotolia.com)

Regency Period

The empire waist dress was popular throughout the Regency period, from the late 18th century until around 1820. During the day, women wore light, plain muslin dresses, even in winter. Dinner dresses were often of velvet or satin, while evening gowns were cut square and low over the bosom. Some dresses were trimmed with frills or rolls of the same material. According to Joanna Richardson in The Regency, dressmakers only began to use different colour trimmings in 1812.

The History of the Empire Waist Dress
The empire waist dress was popular during the Regency period. (an example of london's wealthy regency architecture image by Steve Mann from Fotolia.com)

French and English Style Dresses

After Napoleon Bonaparte’s first abdication in France, English ladies began travelling over to Paris, where the fashion style had changed slightly. French ladies still wore white, but the skirt now flared a little at the hem. English fashion was of a more romantic style, with Elizabethan-type puffed or slashed sleeves, but English ladies soon adopted the French style. By the end of the Napoleonic wars, the waist rose even higher, with the skirt falling straight to the ankles.

19th Century Style

From the 1800s to the middle of the 19th century, women wore fewer clothes than ever before. With the flimsy material and low necklines of empire waist dresses, ladies draped a light shawl across the shoulders. Pockets were impossible and ladies carried a reticule, or small bag. They sometimes wore a pelisse, an over dress, buttoned down the front, often shorter to display some of the white dress beneath. Although white was the most popular colour of dress, pale colours appeared around 1814.

The History of the Empire Waist Dress
Ladies wore a light shawl across the shoulders. (Basket image by fotorumba from Fotolia.com)

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