When you hear the term “empire line outfit” (or dress), this is the sort of thing that is referred to; the signature style of Emperor Napoleon I’s first wife Joséphine de Beauharnais. Or, if you were English (and at war with France), it would be Regency style. (Think Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice). Though technically Regency style followed Empire.
The style has its roots in the 18th century Greek Revival movement, and the main reason it was popular was its informality. In France in particular, if you didn’t want to attract the attention of Madame La Guillotine, you put away your powdered wig, corsets, and panniers and took to a less formal, more natural and democratic style. It was so natural that you could clearly see the body under the dress, a good eyeful of bosom, and an utterly scandalous amount of bare arm.
Sadly, by 1820 the fashion had passed and we were back into the heavily corseted Victorian style hourglass outfit.
I think that the Empire Line outfit makes an excellent all-purpose outfit; it can be dressed up or down for most climates, locations, and activities. Except maybe the gym.
In fact, another reason for its popularity was that its comparative lightness and flexibility made it incredibly comfortable for a long night of dancing. And its simple structure, in a durable new cotton fabric made it much easier to take care of so your servants could wash it more frequently.
According to a number of internet sources, this style of dress is useful for disguising any number of figure “faults” from bulging bellies to heaped hips to short stature. Not that I believe in figure faults.
The real reason the Empire Line outfit works for everyone no matter their size and shape, is Geometry. A dress that fits just under your bust divides your body into the same proportions you see in the Ancient Greek statues. It’s what I call the “Strangely Interesting Line” (you can read more about it in Build Your Signature Wardrobe).
The identifying features of the Empire Line outfit are a closely fitted top that ends just below the bust, with a skirt that loosely skims the body.
A dress is more in keeping with the style, but providing you get the geometry right, you could wear an empire line top with jeans or a skirt. Or if you were inclined, tuck a closely fitted top into a very high waisted skirt.
During the period, you wore a light chemise (to protect the dress), topped with a type of corset that served to support the breasts rather than constrict the waist. Then a petticoat, which was a detached layer of your dress; the hem was decorated to look attractive when glimpsed as you lifted the outer layer. And you lifted it frequently, to protect it from damp ground or damage as you climbed stairs. Given that the previous dress styles didn’t allow much in the way of bending or sitting, it wasn’t customary to wear underpants at the time.
You can please yourself on this one, but I would advise that you embrace your naturalness and avoid spanx.
You wore flat slippers made from leather or fabric. When you went outside, you’d put overshoes on to protect your fragile slippers. Only men wore heels; they were trying to look taller and more powerful.
Despite what some “experts” say, I think you can wear flat shoes with dresses; the main thing is for you to feel comfortable, because when you are comfortable you feel more confident.
You would wear a wool or silk shawls and a cap to keep warm in your light frock in your drafty old house. You might accentuate your “waist” with a contrast ribbon belt.
When you went out, you would add a long coat in a similar line (pelisse) or cape. The most popular was a “waist-length” jacket (spencer) with a long cloak. Not to mention gloves, a small drawstring purse (reticule), a parasol for sun protection, and a fan.
So, pretty much the same as you would usually wear.
Inspired by Greek statues, hair was parted in the middle with short curls on either side and a loose bun at the back. It was common to wear hats in and out of doors, probably for warmth and hiding manky hair, though for evening events you might tie ribbons through your hair. During this time women stopped wearing head coverings indoors, and very daring, (some might say racy) women left their homes without hats!
Wear your hair and makeup as you like them, according to where you are going and what you are doing.
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