The Writer’s Guide to 1800-1810 Women’s Fashion

The first decade of the 19th century is known as the Empire period, named after Napoleon’s First French Empire. It is also sometimes referred to as the Napoleonic era. Women’s clothing of this period is often called Jane Austen dress, since many of the author’s books were written and set during this decade.

For an overview of fashion for the entire 19th century, please read my Writer’s Guide to 19th Century Fashion. Over the next couple of weeks I will be looking into each decade with greater depth.

Influences

As I mentioned in my blogs about the last decade of the 18th century, the French Revolution had a large impact on fashion and the stylish silhouette. The wide-hipped, tightly laced trends of the French court quickly disappeared in its aftermath in favor of a more natural figure. The new fashions reflected the desire for freedom and personal expression.

There was also increased interest in the classical Greek and Roman styles, leading to a revival not only in clothing but architecture, interior design, and the arts. This was due in large part to the discovery and excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The styles of the ancient democracies fit in well with the values of the revolution and Napoleon’s empire. They were also championed by his wife, Josephine. [1] The performances of Emma Hamilton, which pulled heavily from classical imagery, also increased the popularity of the style. [2]

Underwear

Just as for centuries, the base layer for all classes of women was the chemise or shift. However, cotton was becoming increasingly more common, and linen was falling out of favor. The chemise had a low neckline and tight short sleeves to accommodate the styles of the day. It was always white, which helped to withstand rough laundering practices.

Stays were worn over the chemise, but they became shorter than those from the previous century, usually only extending a short distance below the bust. In fact, they look a lot like a laced-up modern sports bra. [3]

A petticoat was worn over the chemise. Since most of the dresses of this period were made of shear fabric, a petticoat was essential for modesty. They could be decorated with pintucks, lace, or ruffles.

Drawers were worn by few women but were gaining in popularity. They often had a split crotch for convenience visiting the bathroom.

Stockings were made of silk or cotton and secured by garters as they were in the previous century. They were often white or nude colored. [4]

An 1811 illustration of a woman’s undergarments. Photo source.

Gowns

Dresses had a slim silhouette and drew heavily on classical Greek and Roman imagery. White was a common color since most ancient statues were white marble, having lost their coat of paint over the centuries. Other pastel colors were also popular and recommended for young ladies with jewel tones suggested for mature women. Gone were the wide skirt supports of the previous centuries. The change was so dramatic that it was heavily satirized in the publications of the day.

Lightweight fabrics that draped well such as muslin were used and were sometimes so flimsy to the point of being shear. It was essential to wear a petticoat for modesty. The fullness of the fabric was usually gathered at the back of the waistline, allowing the front to be smooth. The sleeves could be short, like a cap sleeves, or long, extending to the wrists.

Different classifications of dress appeared during this period, signaling a measured returned to formality after the expulsion of everything formal during the revolutions at the end of the previous century. Morning dress was casual at-home wear. Half dress for casual outings or meeting with guests. For both, it was recommended that the dress be long-sleeved and high-necked. Full dress was for formal occasions and evening dress for nighttime events, with plunging necklines and short sleeves being appropriate. [5] Other nuances appeared such as dinner dress, walking dress, etc., heralding the strict requirements of clothing based on occasion and time of day that the Victorian era is known for.

The styles of Spain began to deviate from the rest of Europe and North America. Black became a popular color again just as it was in the 16th century. Lace veils and large combs in the hair completed the look.

A satirical cartoon pointing out the change in styles. La Belle Assemblé, Le Beau Monde, 1807. Photo source.
London dresses for 1808. Photo source.
Spanish dress from 1805. Photo source.

Outerwear

The shawl was an essential element as well as being needed for warmth. Patterns were fashionable with the Indian shawl being favored. [6] Variations of the shawl, including mantels and capes, were also popular.

Various styles of coats such as the redingote, and short jackets called spencers were in vogue. [7]

Gloves were worn when outside the house and only removed for dinning.

Accessories

Due to the slim shear styles of the day, the separate pockets worn during the previous century were abandoned. Instead, small purses or reticules were used to carry items. They usually hung from the wrist.

Fans were carried for cooling and over this period, an entire language made up of fan movements and placement was developed. [8]

Parasols were used outdoors to protect a lady’s pale skin.

Hairstyles and Headwear

Hairstyles were also influenced by ancient Greece and Rome, with a style known as a Psyche knot being popular. Daring women chopped their hair short and wore it “à la Titus”, a layered look with some pieces hanging down.

Bonnets were commonly worn outdoors although adventurous ladies began forgoing them in public. A variety of other headwear was popular including turbans and hats inspired by Asia and China. Conservative married women continued to wear linen caps.

Woman with her hair done in a Psyche knot. Photo source.

Footwear

Flat slippers made of fabric or leather were the most common. High heels had gone out of fashion. When venturing out on the muddy streets, tall pattens were worn to raise a lady’s slippers up out of the muck.

Court Dress

Although the French court of Louis had fallen, the English court remained. Just as in the previous century, the styles of court were decidedly old-fashioned and harkened back to the 18th century. Skirt supports were still worn under court dresses. During this period, the English court tried to combine the wide-hipped styles of the late 18th century with the high-waisted trend. The result was rather absurd and probably not flattering on anyone.

A lady in 1805 court dress. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1800-1809/
[2] Hornsby, Clare (2000). "7". The Impact of Italy: The Grand Tour and Beyond. The British School at Rome. pp. 123–146.
[3] "Stays | V&A Search the Collections". V and A Collections. 2021-01-12. Retrieved 2021-01-12.
[4] "The Costume Book, Nesfield, Cookson. 1935:New York.
[5] "Mirror of Graces; or the English Lady's Costume". p. 95. Retrieved 4 July 2009.
[6] Payne 1965, p. 447–449
[7] Payne 1965, p. 447–449
[8] Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

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