The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Waist)

The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Waist)

Dancing dress featuring Grecian elements, 1809.

My newest book, Darcy in Wonderland (look for it this summer), is both a Pride and Prejudice sequel and mashup with Alice in Wonderland. The action takes place at some unspecified point during the early Victorian Era. Honestly, the timing is very sketchy, as Darcy and Elizabeth are supposed to be married for over twenty years, putting the year in the early 1830’s, but Carroll didn’t publish his masterpiece of children’s literature until 1865. In my head I split the difference, dating the book somewhere around the late 1840s, but this ambiguity is causing my illustrator no little strife (Katy Wiedemann is an amazing artist! See her work in scientific illustration here: We have spent a great deal of time discussing the transition between Regency and Victorian fashions, and it has caused me to reflect upon why the fashions of the Regency Era are so drastically different from those that proceeded and followed. An answer can be found in the name of the silhouette that dominated the period: the Empire waist.

Left: Full dress (Spring, 1799) in the Grecian style. Right: Day dress (1802) leaving very little to the imagination.

The Empire waist gown, the most defining element of women’s fashion during the Regency Era, has far more political implications than most Austen fans and period reenactors realize. In truth, it was revolutionary: a sartorial celebration of the times. “Empire” refers to the one built by Napoleon, and is the name given in France to this period of history. High-waisted, loose gowns inspired by the peasantry began to be worn in elite French fashion circles prior to the Revolution, largely in response to the philosophies put forth by Jean-Jaques Rousseau, an advocate for society’s return to more a natural state (often using peasants as an example), and whose ideas permeate Romantic thought. Yet this uncorseted look that shocked so many was not de rigueur until after the Revolution, when it became a reflection of the values of the new French state: simple fabrics and lines were far more egalitarian than complex court dress, their unrestrictive shapes were literally liberating, and the overall look was evocative of ancient Athens, where Democracy was born. Structured gowns became as passé as the wigs that went with them.

1807 gowns display the continued popularity of Grecian and Roman styling. Left: Full dress and walking dress. Right: Full dress

The earliest examples of this look from the late 18th century still featured trains, but as the 19th century began the gowns became straighter, emphasizing a woman’s true shape. Thin fabrics left little to the imagination. The English took their initial cues on this new look from the French, but as contact between the two countries diminished over decades of war, the Empire look began to take on a distinctly English flare. Tight fitted spencers and redingotes, while marvels of tailoring, acted to bring the liberated look a bit more in control, as well as providing some much-needed warmth. Many ladies also found that to achieve the desired silhouette, they still required a great deal of confining undergarments. Tudor and military embellishments further increased the structure of the gowns. Notions of simplicity in women’s clothing were soon abandoned, and ornamentation became just as ostentatious as ever. The death of Napoleon in 1821 coincides nicely with the beginning of the waistline’s gradual journey back to, well, the waist (it took less time in France). It wasn’t until the early 1830’s that women’s fashion began to take on truly Victorian dimensions in England, returning to the tight corsets and voluminous skirts of the previous century.

Evening dresses from 1816 (left) and 1819 (right) feature helmet like-headdresses reminiscent of Athena’s, the Greek goddess of war.

One need not be an historian to know the Victorian Era was a period of rigid social conservatism. It is easy to read the fall of the waistline as a rejection of revolution, but feminist historians are quick to point out that Rousseau’s philosophies and the fashions they inspired were far from liberating. Boys and girls of the era dressed in miniature versions of the gowns grown ladies wore. Boys were “breached” and allowed to grow into men, but girls were kept in a perpetual state of infancy. In Emile, Rousseau’s treatise on education, he describes a vision of womanhood rather chilling to the modern reader. The vast bulk of the book describes the education of Emile, his fictitious pupil, and only contemplates the education of girls in Book Five: Marriage. Here he describes the ideal mate for Emile, one Sophie, and the education she ought to receive to keep her as natural a woman as possible:

Morning and evening dress (1818) showing military influences.

As I see it, the special functions of women, their inclinations and their duties, combine to suggest the kind of education they require. Men and women are made for each other but they differ in their measure of dependence on each other. We could get on better without women than women could get on without us. To play their part in life they must have our willing help, and for that they must earn our esteem. By the very law of nature women are at the mercy of men’s judgments both for themselves and for their children. It is not enough that they should be estimable: they must be esteemed. It is not enough that they should be wise: their wisdom must be recognized. Their honor does not rest on their conduct but on their reputation. Hence the kind of education they get should by the very opposite of men’s in this respect. Public opinion is the tomb of a man’s virtue but the throne of a woman’s. 

Walking dress demonstrating both Tudor and military influence, 1821 (left) and 1822 (right).

His words, though rather infuriating, perfectly describe the reality in which Jane Austen lived and wrote. Recall what Mary Bennet has to say on the subject:

“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable — that one false step involves her in endless ruin — that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, — and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

Elizabeth might find such a statement annoying under the circumstances, but Mary is undoubtedly correct about life in the Regency. If Wickham did not marry Lydia, the entire Bennet family would have been tarnished by her actions, throwing their very survival into doubt. All this from a lack of active patriarchal protection. Women were entirely at the mercy of public opinion, yet at the same time fashion exposed their bodies in ways unheard of in Europe for centuries past. They were taught to court and relish masculine attention, just like Lydia Bennet, but then were punished for indulging in it. What a double edged sword!

The falling waistline. Left: Walking and dinner dress (1822). Right: Evening dress (Winter, 1826).

Even if Rousseau was not an advocate for any real form of female liberation, his notions undoubtedly influenced philosophers who were, like Mary Wollstonecraft. The ideals of freedom and liberty that marked the period would gradually spread their wings and encompass more and more of the globe, a process that is ongoing. One truth that can be universally acknowledged is that after a few decades of Victorian austerity, corsets again fell out of fashion, hemlines raised, and a new era of women’s fashion was born. With it came suffrage, women in the work place, and birth control. Pretty revolutionary, wouldn’t you say?

Boy and girls fashions, 1834. The younger boys, like the three on the far left, are still wearing skirts resembling those of the girl the same age (second figure from the right). The older boy standing behind her has been breached.

This post owes a great debt to Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing, an excellent overview of the subject from Shire Library that I highly recommend.

The images featured are from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library:

19 Responses to The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Waist)

  1. Every time I see Victorian dresses in museums, I think about just how much WEIGHT the poor women were carrying around in their clothes! I would have much rather worn the Regency styles, although I do think the 1820s fashions were quite pretty. If only they had stopped evolving there. Great post, Alexa!

    • Hi Sophie! Thanks! The dresses must have been such a great change. I imagine there was some outcry over giving them up. Regency reenactment is definitely amongst the most comfortable (though not in winter). I also like Renaissance costume, if you’re going for an average woman kind of look and not court finery. Those short bodices are surprisingly comfortable. I once slept in one.

  2. I’ve often wondered what future historians will say about the fashions of our time. I look at our ‘fashion plates’ – the magazines and other published mediums but they don’t, in the main, depict what we actually wear. I spent some time just sitting in one our main shopping precincts some time ago and marvelled at the diversity of dress, the variety of what is ‘ok’ to wear (or not wear) in public. At this, the end of the Second Elizabethan Age, our fashion is so disparate. Colours, textures, materials…. Practically anything is acceptable and with the exception of the scarf, little has a political implications.
    So, in 200 years from now, when there is an enormous community of readers enjoying the fruits of our authors efforts today (Thank you, by the way!) what will they say about the fashion of our time and the political influence thereon? An intriguing thought, at least I think so..

    • Very intriguing, Lynley! I think about it all the time, though I disagree with your assessment. I come from a fashion family (and I mean serious fashion), and I’ve always been highly conscious of what I am saying about me and my beliefs with my clothing. Yes, we have massive variety and freedom of choice, but people judge others based on first impressions, as we well know, and clothing says huge amounts about you. The cultural and socio-economic group you identify with is revealed in your clothing. Religious symbols and traditional dress are maybe the most obvious, but different cultures have many different ways of identifying themselves, most of which is not known to those outside that community. I believe clothing is way more complicated than ever. They may have had more of it back in the day, but it was relatively straightforward. Thanks for the comment!

  3. The new book sounds as though it’s going to be fun, Alexa. I’d never read the Alice books in full until I was given my Kindle for my birthday some five years ago, after which I downloaded lots of free classic literature. I’d seen just about all of the film versions, I think, but never properly read the source material. A mash-up between that and a tale about an older D&E and their family takes some imagining but as it’s you, I’m sure it’ll be amazing!

    Thanks for such an informative post about Regency fashions. Who knew that so much in the way of politics was involved? I’ve just put that little book on my Wish List. The illustrations you’ve found are just lovely.

    • Hi Anji! You are most welcome. I must ask – have you really seen all the Alice movies? There are so many adaptions, I can’t even begin to count them. The list on Wikipedia is incomplete. My personal favorite is the 1985 made for TV version, which is a musical featuring a ton of celebrities, including Sammy David Jr. as the caterpillar and Carol Channing as the white queen. It stays very true to the original story, covering both Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass chronologically. I’m not a huge fan of the Tim Burton versions, though I adore him, and Helena Bonham Carter is my absolute favorite actress of all time. The films are fun, but they’re not Carroll. The geek in me rebells. My version stays sticks pretty strictly to the cannon but for Darcy’s presence at Alice’s side. As I mention below, that tale is sandwiched between a fairly standard form P&P sequel. The illustrations (I think there will be ten) are magnificent! Can’t wait until they’re all done.

      • Ah, obviously I haven’t seen all of them as the 1985 version seems to have passed me by! Sounds good though. Like you, I’m not a fan of Tim Burton’s versions either apart from Helena Bonham-Carter. Looking dorward to seeing the illustrations for your book.

  4. Loved this post! I read Sarah Downing’s book recently and was very enlightened with how much politics played a part. Thank you for lovely pictures as I was hoping for more in this book. I have now gone looking for books on lace as well and have some on my wishlist. Looking forward to your new book! It certainly sounds intriguing not only for the Alice in Wonderland aspect but for Darcy and Elizabeth being older!

    • Hi Carole! It’s a great little book, isn’t it? I’m glad to hear this post acted as something of a supplement. My new book is lighthearted and fun. One that can be shared with children. The Carroll tale is sandwiched between scenes of the entire Darcy clan. All eight of them (they have five girls and a boy) are thriving, and we get to spend some time with members of the broader family, as well. Lady Catherine is still alive and kicking. She and Mrs. Bennet don’t get on. It was a blast to write.

  5. Great post. I love all of the pictures and the title is genius. That Rousseau quote really was infuriating: “We could get on better without women than women could get on without us.” I know he was a product of his time, but still!

    Personally, I like a more structured gown. I think growing up in a world where Disney exists does that, but I’m endlessly glad that the women who lived before me did so much for all of us, as far as fashion goes and otherwise.

    • Thanks, Summer! Rousseau can be maddening to read. I’d like him see to try and procreate without us.

      I like both looks. As mentioned below, my lack of curves works well with an empire waist. Then again, I can fake having one (as well as some other assets) in a corset.

  6. Alexa, Thanks for a delightful article. So many good topics. I adore the empire style dress as I wore it throughout my pregnancy. I took great delight in that it completely hid my baby bump for nine months. (Those were the days when you had to stop working if you ‘showed.’) The quote from Rousseau treatise had me gritting my jaw. Best of luck with your Alice mashup. I wrote an Alice in Wonderland book about seven years ago and it remains one of my favorites. It is the most fun stories to play with. 🙂

    • Hi Barbara! You are most welcome. You mashup is on my TBR list, but I have been waiting until I’m totally done with my version before I look at any others. It has been great fun. I do like an empire waist, myself. I have no hips, so the shape flatters me.

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