The Regency Wardrobe collection - research - The evolution of the Empire style

During the French revolution the fashion for all things Neoclassical dramatically changed the way the female form was dressed. Extreme corsetry, panniers and silk brocade dresses were cast aside to be replaced by almost transparent Grecian styled light cotton gowns. For the first time since antiquity the female body was freed and allowed to remain its natural shape. Marie Antoinette was the first to wear the new style of gown called the chemise a la reine (chemise of the queen) in 1783. Whist the chemise was deemed radical and immodest at first certain fashion conscientious aristocrats soon followed the queen's lead and adopted the garment. In fact it was not until after Marie Antoinette's death that the typical white or pastel coloured chemise, commonplace in the Regency, was adopted into the mainstream but by 1802 all of fashionable Europe was wearing a reformed version of the chemise dress, now referred to as the Empire style gown.

English women wore the Empire style gown with a slightly fuller skirt than did ladies in France. Sheer cotton fabrics such as muslin, gauze and percale were the most popular with raw cotton imported from the Americas and India and manufactured in English textile mills. Although war with France dominated the majority of England's resources during this period, the export of British manufactured goods, including American cotton and goods from English colonies, was substantial enough to both fund the war and to continue to secure England's place as a European fashion capital.

Marie Antoinette 1783

"Muslin portrait" by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun

This version of the chemise style was named chemise à la reine because of this portrait. But the painting created a firestorm of controversy when it was produced. The dress is one-piece, very casual and was reportedly put on over the head. A drawstring around the neckline can be seen to gather it at the top whilst a sash is used to gather it at the waist. Even the style of Marie Antoinette's hair in this painting is relaxed for that era.

Perhaps the best way to understand what a shift this style of dressing would have seemed to be, for ladies of the late 1700's, is to consider the style of dress Marie Antoinette would have been married in 13 years earlier, at the age of just 14.

Her marriage ceremony was held in the Royal Chapel of Versailles and the court of France was the epicentre of fashionable dress in Europe at that time, trends were made and unmade there and court dress was always the most luxurious. Nevertheless descriptions of the dress worn by Marie Antoinette for her marriage sound so extreme as to perhaps have been responsible for initiating the opinion that would come to be generally held that the queen was overly extravagant. It's described as having been made from silver cloth and decorated with countless numbers of diamonds. She was described as having been "much jewelled".

Like most of her clothing Marie Antoinette's wedding dress no longer exists though we have this portrait (above) and contemporary engravings. We can also get an idea of what it may have looked like by considering other wedding dresses worn by women of similar standing at the time. For example, this is the wedding dress of Hedwig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein Gottorp who married the future Charles XIII of Sweden four years later in 1774. Made from expensive silver cloth it was ordered from Paris; it's said to have originally had sleeves that were later removed.

Marie Antoinette is known for creating contoversy, though the scandals she created as regards fashion are perhaps less well known than is the line attributed to her concerning cake. Still, from her very first days in France, because of her stunning wedding dress, scandal appear to have dogged her. In the case of this first one in fact she wasn't to blame. Contrary to the reputation she would gain for frivolity and lavish spending when she first made her way from Austria, still only a child, to marry Louis XVI, she was primped, powdered, wigged and outfitted by others, in order that she look like a French noble; according to the already lavish expectations of the French court. And again just days later she was outfitted for her wedding. But whilst the enormous white and silver dress, decorated with clumps of white diamonds and with wide pannier hips to show prestige was no doubt beautiful and of the time it is said not to have fit and to have had to be left gaping.

Marie Antoinette was only 28 in 1783 when she wore the first chemise dress of that era. Imagine being 28, having all the wealth of France at your command and being considered a trend setter, wouldn't you want to try something different, perhaps you'd hated the fact that you'd been laced into constricting outfits not of your choosing for all of your early life. To her peers, however, seeing her in the first chemise dress for the first time must have seemed comparable to seeing the queen in court in her petticoats or nightdress.

The French would quickly come to blame Marie Antoinette and her court for the hard times that their textile industry would suffer when the muslin chemise took off as a popular garment; muslin was made in Italy not France. By 1804 the French silk industry had seriously declined because of the pace of this trend. By then Marie Antoinette had already been executed in part at least for her perceived excesses; the irony surely is that this style of minimal dressing had in fact only inflamed that charge.

In the end the situation for the French nation's main economic industry would become so bad that Napoleon would try to recover its fortunes by passing a decree that all court dress for both men and women must be, from then, on made of French materials only. Thus it was that flamboyant colours and elaborate decoration began again to inform French fashion. By 1810, the corset had resurged in popularity as people grew tired of the simplicity of thin gowns and epidemics of influenza, which affected scantily clad women badly, had taken their toll.

For more about Marie Antoinette please see:

Between 1815 - 1820 the chemisse went altogether out of fashion, the waistline of dresses dropped to just above the natural waistline and decent women, once again, were required to wear corsetry and petticoats.

1795 1800 1805