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

The 1810’s spanned the Empire era, which ended with the fall of Napoleon’s First French Empire in 1815, and the beginning of the Regency era, which started in 1811 with the regency of Britain’s Prince George. While the high-waisted classically inspired styles of the previous decade continued, a shift in focus to the Romantic Movement occurred and it became popular in incorporate influences from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This decade also saw elements from India, Egypt, China, and other parts of the world impacting European fashion and Western styles spreading around the globe.

This period is popular among writers and producers of TV shows and movies. The new hit Netflix series, “Bridgerton,” is set in 1813. There have also been many, many adaptions of Jane Austen’s novels that were published in this period such as Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). Of course, each of these productions have varying levels of accuracy in their costuming.

Influences

The woman at the leading edge of fashion was Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, better known as Empress Joséphine Bonaparte. She married Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796 and was crowned empress of France in 1804. She adored fine muslins and Kashmiri shawls, two staples of the decade’s look. Josephine supported the rebuilding of the French fashion industry after it was devasted by the Revolution. [1] Although her husband limited the importation of British muslin and Indian cashmere, she still found ways to acquire them. [2] She also had a voracious hunger for clothes. An 1809 inventory of her wardrobe included 49 court dresses, 666 winter dresses, 230 summer dresses, 60 cashmere shawls, and 1,132 pairs of gloves. [3]

This is what biographer Andrea Stuart had to say of her: “She was the wife of the world’s most powerful man, and the most visible female figure of her era. Her every action and nuance of appearance were followed eagerly by newspapers and journals in France and abroad. She was the high priestess of style, and fashion-conscious women the world over idolized her. They pored over fashion journals like le Journal des Dames et de la Mode…in order to see what Josephine was wearing, and attempted to copy her style. Joséphine reinforced Paris’s position as fashion capital of the world, which in turn boosted French industry.”

A 1812 portrait of Empress Joséphine Bonaparte. Painted by Firmin Massot. Photo source.

Undergarments

A linen or cotton shift or chemise continued to be worn.

Over that, was a pair of stays or a corset to support the bust. The term stays referred to the heavily boned support garment that originated in the 18th century while a corset had lighter or minimal boning. Over time, the terms became interchangeable, stays faded from use, and corsets became more heavily structured and boned. [4] Both short and long stays existed during this period. The short ones were used to support and shape the breasts, while the long did that as well as slimming the figure. [5]

Petticoats were worn under the skirts for support, modesty, and warmth.

Women would also wear a bustle pad, a crescent-shaped roll tied around the torso. Since the waistlines were so high, it rested just below the shoulder blades, creating a round-backed look known as a “Grecian bend.” [6]

Dresses

Gowns continued the high-waisted columnar look that began in the previous decade. However, the skirts became more angular with the use of gores, with the fullness gathered at the back. [7] The fall-front bodice disappeared in favor of back closures. A smoother fit was achieved by cutting the fabric on the bias and using darts. [8] The sleeves could be either short or long and were set further forward. Sleeves became fuller and were sometimes fashioned into puffs. Necklines could be square or V-shaped. [9] Cleavage was hidden during the day by a chemisette but was on full display for evening. [10] Some evening bodices were as short as two and a half inches (6.35 cm)!

White was still a stylish color, but brighter shades and patterns were increasingly popular. [11] Stiffer silks and cottons began replacing the gauzy muslins. Light transparent netting became incredibly trendy and more affordable after the invention of the bobbin-net machine by John Heathcoat in 1808. [12] It was used heavily in evening dresses where it was embroidered or otherwise decorated and worn over a silk slip. Pintucks and flounces on skirts also became incredibly popular as well as puffs and rouleaux, or stuffed rolls of fabric.

Overall, the neo-classical look was supplanted by Romanticism, which drew influence from the idealized past, especially the Middle Ages. Fashions from the decade have an ethereal quality about them or evoked elements from the past such as panes and puffs that recall the slashing of the Renaissance. [13]

English and French fashions from 1815. Photo source.
An 1818 dress showcasing the ethereal and medieval elements of Romanticism. The Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo source.
An 1810 evening dress with embroidered machine-made silk netting. Photo source.

Outerwear

The most common outer garments included the long redingote and the short spencer jacket. [14] The pelisse-robe, a type of coat dress, was developed by 1817. [15] These garments were heavily influenced by the military uniform styles of the day and made great use of braid, tassels, frogs, cords, and Brandenburg buttons. [16]

Shawls were an essential part of the look with the most sought after being Kashmiri shawls from India. Since they were so expensive, many imitations sprang up. One of the most noteworthy was from Paisley, Scotland, which gave its name to the pattern. [17]

Hairstyles and Headwear

“Spaniel curls,” which hung over both ears remained popular with the rest of the hair done up in curls in the back. [18] The cropped hairstyles of the previous decade were still seen at the beginning of the 1810’s. [19]

A wide variety of hats, bonnets, caps, and other headwear were worn. Foreign styles such as the turban reflected the influence of Napoleon’s overseas campaigns. [20] Poke bonnets shielded the face from the sun. Tall hats inspired by the shakos worn by Hussars were also popular. [21] Older women would often wear day caps indoors. [22]

Comtesse Vilain and her daughter with their hair done in the fashionable style. Jacques-Louis David, 1816. Photo source.
An 1814 fashion plate of bonnets and other headwear. Photo source.

Footwear

The low slipper and white stockings of the previous decade were still the standard for footwear.

Accessories

Accessories included fur muffs and reticules. Fans also were a popular item.


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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: Fashion, A History from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2013 page 125.
[2] Jensen, Heather Belnap. “Parures, Pashminas, and Portraiture, or, How Joséphine Bonaparte Fashioned the Napoleonic Empire.” in Fashion in European Art: Dress and Identity, Politics and the Body, 1775– 1925. Edited by Justine De Young, 36-59. London/New York: I.B.Tauris, 2017. Bloomsbury Fashion Central via The New York Public Library.
Davidson, Hilary. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019 page 272.
[3] Jensen, Heather Belnap. “Parures, Pashminas, and Portraiture, or, How Joséphine Bonaparte Fashioned the Napoleonic Empire.” in Fashion in European Art: Dress and Identity, Politics and the Body, 1775– 1925.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 page 311.
[4] Davidson, Hilary. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019 page 64.
[5] Foster, Vanda. A Visual History of Costume: The Nineteenth Century. London: BT Batsford, 1984 page 31.
[6] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 page 32-33.
Davidson, Hilary. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019 page 26, 66. Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 page 315.
[7] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 page 26.
Johnston, Lucy, Marion Kite, Helen Persson, Richard Davis, and Leonie Davis. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publications, 2005 page 74, 46.
Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 page 30, 35.
[8] Davidson, Hilary. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019 page 26.
[9] le Bourhis, Katell, ed. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire 1789-1815. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989 page 94, 233.
[10] Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914. London: National Trust, 1996 page 180.
[11] Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 page 36.
Foster, Vanda. A Visual History of Costume: The Nineteenth Century. London: BT Batsford, 1984 page 36.
[12] Johnston, Lucy, Marion Kite, Helen Persson, Richard Davis, and Leonie Davis. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publications, 2005 page 146. le Bourhis, Katell, ed. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire 1789-1815. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989 page 100.
[13] Johnston, Lucy, Marion Kite, Helen Persson, Richard Davis, and Leonie Davis. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publications, 2005 page 46.
Davidson, Hilary. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019 page 37-38.
Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 page 29.
le Bourhis, Katell, ed. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire 1789-1815. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989 page 100.
[14] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 page 35-38. le Bourhis, Katell, ed. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire 1789-1815. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989 page 98.
[15] Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 page 27.
[16] Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: Fashion, A History from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2013 page 148-151. 
Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 page 30.
Davidson, Hilary. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019 page 233.
[17] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 page 155.
Davidson, Hilary. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019 page 273.
Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914. London: National Trust, 1996 page 179.
[18] Foster, Vanda. A Visual History of Costume: The Nineteenth Century. London: BT Batsford, 1984 page 32.
[19] le Bourhis, Katell, ed. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire 1789-1815. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989 page 103.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 page 317.
[20] le Bourhis, Katell, ed. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire 1789-1815. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989 page 108.
Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 page 156.
[21] Ginsburg, Madeliene. The Hat: Trends and Traditions. London: Studio Editions, 1990 page 72-73.
[22] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 page 53.

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