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Fashion History: Early 19th Century Regency and Romantic Styles for Women

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Regency style—white dress circa 1808.

Regency style—white dress circa 1808.

British Regency, Empire, and Romantic Style

Fashion design of the early 19th century is called Regency style, named for Britain's George Prince Regent who ran the country when his father, King George III, became mentally ill and unable to perform his duties. The detested and debauched Prince Regent became king in 1830.

Ladies' clothing styles of the early 1800s are characterized by the Empire waist dress and classical Greek lines; the styles worn by characters in Jane Austen novels.

Included in the Regency period is the Romantic era, influenced by a new romantic sensibility typified by writers like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott.

Empress Josephine—fashion icon of the Regency Era; painting by Francois Gerard.

Empress Josephine—fashion icon of the Regency Era; painting by Francois Gerard.

Early 19th Century Fashion in France and England

Directoire style refers to the interest in neoclassical styles of costume and home décor that became popular during the Directory Period in France from 1795-1799, and includes dresses with high waistlines and a sleek silhouette.

Regency style also includes fashions worn in France during the period when Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor.

In 1804, Napoleon hoped that France would, once again, become a fashion leader. He halted the import of British textiles, revived French lace making, and forbade women to appear at court in the same dress more than twice. Napoleon's wife, Empress Josephine, was a fashion icon and a trendsetter of the day.

Queen Charlotte of England was not an influential style tastemaker preferring to wear the fashions of her youth. In this simpler fashion era, Queen Charlotte ordered court dresses to include passee hoops though her one surviving lace dress follows the Empire style of the day.

La Belle Assemblee was a British monthly magazine that featured fiction; articles on science, politics, theater and book reviews; and fashion plates. Many of these beautiful illustrations can be found online.

Regency style circa 1805.

Regency style circa 1805.

Empire Style

The Empire style dress has a high waist, a style that appeared in the late 1790s and has reappeared frequently in women's clothing design for the past 200 years. The period is significant in that women did not need to wear the stiff, restrictive corsets that ruled fashion from the Middle Ages, and except for this brief time, until the 20th century.

The Empire styles at the beginning of the 19th century were made of a soft, lightweight fabric gathered just under the breasts. It featured a low square neckline and small, short, puffed sleeves with a low shoulder line.

Although lawn and batiste were used, muslin was the fabric of choice as it was easy to clean. The thin muslin clung close to the body and emulated styles worn in ancient Greece. Shades of white predominated, with the addition of pale pastel shades worn for day wear.

The thin, fine fabric used to create Regency dresses proved chilly during the winter months and demanded additional undergarments for modesty as well as for warmth. Flesh-toned pantalettes, a loose kind of trouser, fell to just below the knee or to the ankle. Pantalettes were basically two tubes of fabric, one for each leg, joined by a drawstring at the waist.

The gowns associated with Empire or Regency style have a low neckline and short sleeves and were usually worn for evening, dress, or dancing. Toward the end of the era, dancing dresses featured higher hemlines that rose several inches above the ankle. Day dresses had a higher neckline and long sleeves.

The chemisette was a wardrobe staple for fashionable ladies. This white undershirt or short dickie, made of flimsy fabric, was used to fill in a neckline, giving the appearance of an under-blouse for day wear. Evening wear exposed the neckline.

After Napoleon returned from Egypt, a new eastern look began to appear in ladies' clothing. While still an Empire style, the Egyptian influence showed up in 1804-1807 with embroidered borders along the hemline.

Mameluke sleeves took the place of tiny capped sleeves. In 1808, sleeves grew longer. Sometimes called Marie sleeves, Mamelukes were full long sleeves sectioned into puffs by bands or ribbons.

Gothic Style

While Britain and France were at war, styles in the two countries varied. Women did not know what the enemy was wearing, so each country developed its own look.

Around 1811, a Gothic influence appeared in Britain. Based on garments worn during medieval times, dresses lost the pure classical Greek lines. The bodice developed more shape and shoulder seams widened for comfort. (Low shoulder lines can restrict arm movement)

Ruffles appeared on the bodice recalling an Elizabethan style and skirts were embellished with flounces and padding.

In England, the waist level lowered to a relatively normal line.

During the war, French waists remained high. Hemlines evolved into an A-line or bell shape.

In 1815, after the wars, waistlines in Britain rose again as the English started to follow French fashion. The French copied the British Gothic styles and after 1820, waists lowered and were accentuated with a sash.

Walking dress circa 1820.

Walking dress circa 1820.

The Romantic Period 1825-1835

The Gothic influence of the Middle Ages continued and the Empire style faded as waists dropped to the normal waistline after years of rising and falling. Middle classes wanted to appear gentrified and the new Romantic movement came to influence women's fashion.

Bodices developed a V shape and women began to wear tight corsets for a trim look, although the lower classes wore high waists until 1830.

Sleeves changed as well, becoming larger. Beret sleeves were cut in a circle creating a large, balloon-like sleeve.

Gignot sleeves, large at the upper arm, tapered toward the wrist in what is also called leg-o-mutton sleeves. The puffiness at the top eventually grew so large, the fabric often needed support.

Skirts gained width at the bottom with ruffles, floral embellishments, Italian quilting and padding, but lost the puffed hemline by 1835.

Spencer jacket.

Spencer jacket.

Regency Coats, Jackets, and Outer Wear

Spencer Jacket

The Spencer Jacket, popularized in the late 18th century, was a short bolero-type jacket worn by men over a tailed jacket. The style was picked up in women's wear and stayed in style for 20 years.

Worn both indoors and out, in silk or wool, the Spencer Jacket could be decorated with cord or braiding. Italian quilting often added texture and pattern.

The Redingote

The Redingote was a coat or robe-like garment also worn both indoors and out. Worn indoors open to reveal a dress, the outdoor version was made of heavier materials and of darker colors than the type worn indoors. The name comes from the term 'riding coat.'

The Pelisse

The Pelisse ruled outerwear from 1800 to 1850. The Empire-style coat reached the hip or knee in the early part of the 19th century. By 1810, the Pelisse grew to full length.

In 1812, the Pelisse developed a broad, cape-like collar with fur trim.

While the terms Redingote and Pelisse are often used interchangeably, the Redingote usually features a close-fitted top and flares out at the hemline with a more tailored or military look than a Pelisse.


Shawls made of cashmere, a fine wool, were often woven with Asian-inspired designs. Short and long cloaks were worn as well.



Regency short cloak over long-sleeved dress—1813.

Regency short cloak over long-sleeved dress—1813.

Regency Hats, Bags, and Shoes

Hair and Hats

Regency hair styles could be ornate with curls at the sides or piled up in straight or off-center chignons.

White caps were worn during the day and often covered tied ringlets that would be let out on display in the afternoon or evening.

Soft crowned bonnets decorated with ruffles and bows grew larger until 1811 when Leghorn hats featured wide brims and heavy ornamentation.


Footwear of the Regency period consisted of flat or low heeled shoes occasionally decorated with a bow or floral embellishments. Made of soft kid or cloth, these delicate shoes were flimsy and wore out quickly.

Poor women, workers, and peasants did not wear the flimsy shoes but went barefoot or wore sandals, short boots, or sabots (clogs).

1810 saw the appearance of flat-heeled boots made of leather or cloth. Though made for walking, the boots were flimsy and did not stand up to rugged wear.


The purse or handbag came into being during the Regency period. Earlier, women had carried 'pockets' tied at the waistline and hidden in the folds of their skirts. The new, slim style of high-waisted dress made it impossible to tie on a pocket. Women then carried small, decorated bags called reticules, which closed at the top with a drawstring.

19th Century Fashions

As the Regency period came to an end, fashions continued to evolve, and the Industrial Revolution ushered in big changes in technology and society. Women's clothing became more ornate, waistlines rose, and skirts became huge as the century progressed into Victorian style.

Regency costume—dancing dress 1809.

Regency costume—dancing dress 1809.

Regency Fashion As Seen In This Clip From "Pride and Prejudice"

Questions & Answers

Question: How/why did ladies’ fashion go from this simple, less restrictive Regency style to the ornate Victorian style with corsets and giant hoop skirts?

Answer: Look at it this way. Say you were young in the 1960s. Sixty years before that time of jeans and mini skirts, the Edwardians were wearing stiff corsets, floor-length hemlines, and high collars. Think of the vast difference in those styles and you will see how ideals change over the years.

The simple lines of those Regency garments were a reaction to the extravagance of the 1780s. Society no longer admired the over the top extravagance of royalty. The American and French Revolutions ignited a more democratic sense of style as well as political ideal. Lines of clothing simplified. Social mores change over the years. By the mid-1800s, people wore their success. A well-dressed woman was supposed to show that she did little work (you can't do much when your shoulder line is down on your upper arm - you can't even reach above your shoulder line), and could afford tons of fabric. Material wealth was confused with moral stature.

By early 1812, flounces were added to skirts near the hemline. By 1828, skirts became fuller with more embellishment. You can see that change came over 30 years. Each decade added more width to skirts and more flounces, bows, etc. It actually took quite a long time. It's easy to lump the past into one large time. But when you think about the passage of years, you will understand that the changes were not swift.

Look up a timeline of fashions of the 1800s. You can find plenty of these online. Some sites will show fashion plates by the year. By looking at these old fashion plates in order, you will see how the changes crept in little by little.

Question: Why was white a popular color during the Directoire period?

Answer: After the French Revolution (1789), people turned away from the previous styles of ornamentation and luxury, now seen as passe. Fashion turned toward simpler styles based on ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassical garments loosely copied ancient classical statuary. As the old statues were white people thought that the ancients wore white. Also white has often been a color associated with purity.

White and off white colors need to be washed more often than colored garments. While women wanted to appear simply dressed, the wearing of white also indicates status. In other words, you can afford to pay someone else to be washing your clothes all the time.

Also, the French Revolution nearly collapsed the French textile industry. Muslin is inexpensive and was seen as a natural style. Oddly enough, it was Marie Antoinette who earlier wore a simple muslin gown for a portrait painted in 1783. Marie Antoinette's affinity for pastoral, rustic life created a new style that became the style after her death.

Question: Did American women wear similar styles during the Regency era? Can you suggest a source for American fashions around the War of 1812, especially in New England?

Answer: Elite American women embraced the pastoral look that was popular in France in the late 1700s. At the turn of the century (1700 - 1800), American women wore the Empire style with its high waist and somewhat flimsy fabric but in a more modest manner. You can find out more about how women in the United States of America dressed during that time by reading some books including:

"The Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Volume 3 United States and Canada" by Phyliss G. Tortora

"Historic Dress in America 1800 - 1870 Part 2 History of Fashion Book 18" by Elizabeth McClean

Also, take a look at the Colonial Williamsburg site. You can search the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute online. They even have at least one picture of a beautiful dress of that era. Also American Heritage Magazine online features "We Wore What We Wore," published Dec. 1988, Volume 39, Issue 8.

Check out the website called Historic New England. The group maintains a clothing collection that you can investigate online. I am sure you can contact them for information.

© 2011 Dolores Monet