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

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 1800's 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.

(All images courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

The Empress Josephine - Fashion Icon of the Regency Era

Painting by Francois Gerard
Painting by Francois Gerard | Source

Early 19th Century Fashion in France

Directoire style refers to the new 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 same period, when Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor.

In 1804, Napoleon hoped that France would 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, the Empress Josephine was a fashion icon, a trend setter of the day.

Regency Style Empire Dress Showing Classical Greek Influence Circa 1799

Regency Style - Women with a Child Circa 1805


Dancing Dress

From Wilson's Analysis of Country Dance 1811
From Wilson's Analysis of Country Dance 1811

Empire Style

The Empire style dress has a high waist, a style that appeared in the late 1790's 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 style at the beginning of the 19th century was made of a soft, light weight 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, were worn to 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 we often see 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 high 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 a 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 form 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. The tiered sleeves extended below the wrist and were trimmed in velvet or braiding.

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 their own look.

Around 1811, a Gothic influence appeared in Britain. Based on styles 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 wars, French waists stayed 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.

Romantic Period 1826 - Normal Waistline, Fuller Skirt, Leg-o-Mutton Sleeves

The Romantic Period 1825 - 1835

The Gothic influence of the Middle Ages continued and the Empire style faded as waist finally 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 corsets for a trim looking waist, 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.

The Spencer Jacket


Regency Short Cloak Over Long Sleeved Dress Circa 1813

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 - 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 oriental designs. Short and long cloaks were worn as well.

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 worn during the day 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. A short boot was worn for cold weather.

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

1810 saw the appearance of flat heeled boots made of leather or cloth.


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 recticules.

19th Century Fashions

While Regency refers to the early part of the 19th century, the early 1800's, the rest of the century is called Victorian after Queen Elizabeth who rose to the thrown of England in 1837. Fashions evolved, 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 Circa 1809


Beautiul Regency Fashion Video

A Scene From "Pride and Prejudice" Depicts Regency Styles

© 2011 Dolores Monet

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    Dolores Monet2,825 Followers
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    Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

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