OverviewIn this period, fashionable women's clothing styles were based on the Empire silhouette — dresses were closely fitted to the torso just under the bust, falling loosely below. In different contexts, such styles are commonly called "Directoire style" (referring to the Directory government of France during the second half of the 1790s), "Empire style" (referring to Napoleon's 1804–1814/1815 empire, and often also to his 1800–1804 "consulate"), or "Regency" (most precisely referring to the 1811–1820 period of George IV's formal regency, but often loosely used to refer to various periods between the 18th century and the Victorian).
These 1795–1820 fashions were quite different from the styles prevalent during most of the 18th century and the rest of the 19th century, when women's clothes were generally tight against the torso from the natural waist upwards, and heavily full-skirted below (often inflated by means of hoop-skirts, crinolines, panniers, bustles, etc.). The high waistline of 1795–1820 styles took attention away from the natural waist, so that there was then no point to the tight "wasp-waist" corseting often considered fashionable during other periods. Without the corset, chemise dresses displayed the long line of the body, as well as the curves of the female torso.
GownsInspired by neoclassical tastes, the short-waisted dresses sported soft, loose skirts and were often made of white, almost transparent muslin, which was easily washed and draped loosely like the garments on Greek and Roman statues. Since the fabric clung to the body, revealing what was underneath, it made nudity à la grecque a centerpiece of public spectacle. Thus during the 1795–1820 period, it was often possible for middle- and upper-class women to wear clothes that were not very confining or cumbersome, and still be considered decently and fashionably dressed. Among middle- and upper-class women there was a basic distinction between "morning dress" (worn at home in the afternoons as well as mornings) and evening attire — generally, both men and women changed clothes in preparation for the evening meal and possible entertainments to follow. There were also further gradations such as afternoon dress, walking dress, riding habits, travelling dress, dinner dress, etc.
In the Mirror of Graces; or the English Lady's Costume, published in London in 1811, the author ("a Lady of Distinction") advised:
In the morning the arms and bosom must be completely covered to the throat and wrists. From the dinner-hour to the termination of the day, the arms, to a graceful height above the elbow, may be bare; and the neck and shoulders unveiled as far as delicacy will allow.
- Morning dresses were worn inside the house. They were high-necked and long-sleeved, covering throat and wrists, and generally plain and devoid of decoration.
- Evening gowns were often extravagantly trimmed and decorated with lace, ribbons, and netting. They were cut low and sported short sleeves, baring bosoms. Bared arms were covered by long white gloves. Our Lady of Distinction, however, cautions young women from displaying their bosoms beyond the boundaries of decency, saying, "The bosom and shoulders of a very young and fair girl may be displayed without exciting much displeasure or disgust."
A Lady of Distinction also advised young ladies to wear softer shades of color, such as pinks, periwinkle blue, or lilacs. The mature matron could wear fuller colors, such as purple, black, crimson, deep blue, or yellow.
Many women of this era remarked upon how being fully dressed meant the bosom and shoulders were bare, and yet being under-dressed would mean one's neckline went right up to one's chin.
Hairstyles and headgear
During this period, the classical influence extended to hairstyles. Often masses of curls were worn over the forehead and ears, with the longer back hair drawn up into loose buns or Psyche knots influenced by Greek and Roman styles. By the later 1810s, front hair was parted in the center and worn in tight ringlets over the ears. Adventurous women like Lady Caroline Lamb wore short cropped hairstyles "à la Titus", the Journal de Paris reporting in 1802 that "more than half of elegant women were wearing their hair or wig à la Titus", a layered cut usually with some tresses hanging down.
In the Mirror of Graces, a Lady of Distinction writes,
Now, easy tresses, the shining braid, the flowing ringlet confined by the antique comb, or bodkin, give graceful specimens of the simple taste of modern beauty. Nothing can correspond more elegantly with the untrammeled drapery of our newly-adopted classic raiment than this undecorated coiffure of nature.
Conservative married women continued to wear linen mob caps, which now had wider brims at the sides to cover the ears. Fashionable women wore similar caps for morning (at home undress) wear.
For the first time in centuries, respectable but daringly fashionable women would leave the house without a hat or bonnet, previously something often associated with prostitutes. However most women continued to wear something on their head outdoors, though they were beginning to cease to do so indoors during the day (as well as for evening wear). The antique head-dress, or Queen Mary coif, Chinese hat, Oriental inspired turban, and Highland helmet were popular. As for bonnets, their crowns and brims were adorned with increasingly elaborate ornamentations, such as feathers and ribbons. In fact, ladies of the day embellished their hats frequently, replacing old decorations with new trims or feathers.