Fashion in the period 1795-1820 in European and European-influenced countries saw the final triumph of undress or informal styles over the brocades, lace, periwigs, and powder of the earlier eighteenth century. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, no one in France wanted to appear to be an aristocrat, while in Britain, Beau Brummell introduced trousers, perfect tailoring, and unadorned, immaculate linen as the ideals of men's fashion.
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.
Inspired by neoclassical tastes, the short-waisted gowns sported soft, flowing 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. 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 somewhat 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.
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 two.
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. A few adventurous women wore short hairstyles.
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 untrammelled 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.
No respectable woman would leave the house without a hat or bonnet. The antique head-dress, or Queen Mary coiff, 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.
Fashionable women of the Regency Era wore several layers of undergarments. The first was the chemise, or shift, a thin garment with tight, short sleeves (and a low neckline if worn under evening wear), made of white cotton and finished with a plain hem that was shorter than the dress. These shifts were meant to protect the outerclothes from perspiration and were washed more frequently than outer clothes. In fact, washer women of the time used coarse soap when scrubbing these garments, then plunged them in boiling water, hence the absence of color, lace, or other embellishments, which would have faded or damaged the fabric under such rough treatment. Chemises and shifts also prevented the transparent muslin or silk gowns from being too revealing.
The next layer is a corset. However, high-waisted classical fashions required no corset for the slight of figure, and there were some experiments to produce garments which would serve the same functions as a modern bra. "Short stays" (corsets extending only a short distance below the breasts) were often worn over the shift or chemise (not directly next to the skin), and "long stays" (corsets extending down towards the natural waist) were worn by a minority of women trying to appear slimmer than they were (but even such long stays were not primarily intended to constrict the waist, in the manner of Victorian corsets.)
The final layer was the petticoat, which had a scooped neckline and was sleeveless, and was fitted in the back with hooks and eyelets. These petticoats were often worn between the underwear and the outer dress. The lower edge of the petticoat was intended to be seen, since women would often lift their outer dresses to spare the relatively delicate material of the outer dress from mud or damp (so exposing only the coarser and cheaper fabric of the petticoat to risk). Often exposed to view, petticoats were decorated at the hem with rows of tucks or lace, or ruffles.
"Drawers" (underpants with short legs) were only beginning to be worn by a few women during this period. They were tied separately around the waist.
In the Mirror of Graces, a "divorce" was described as an undergarment that served to separate a woman's breasts. Made of steel or iron that was covered by a type of padding, and shaped like a triangle, this device was placed in the center of the chest.
Throughout the period, the Indian shawl was the favored wrap, as English town houses and the typical English country house were generally draughty, and the sheer muslin and silk gowns popular during this era provided scant protection. Shawls were made of soft cashmere or silk or even muslin for summer. Paisley patterns were extremely popular at the time.
Short (high-waisted) jackets called spencers were worn outdoors, along with long-hooded cloaks, Turkish wraps, mantles, capes, Roman tunics, chemisettes, and overcoats called pelisses (which were often sleeveless and reached down as far as the ankles). These outer garments were often made of double sarsnet, fine Merina cloth, or velvets, and trimmed with fur, such as swan's down, fox, chinchilla, or sable. On May 6, 1801, Jane Austen wrote her sister Cassandra, "Black gauze cloaks are worn as much as anything."
Thin, flat fabric (silk or velvet) or leather slippers were generally worn (as opposed to the high-heeled shoes of much of the eighteenth century).
Metal pattens were strapped on shoes to protect them from rain or mud, raising the feet an inch or so off the ground.
Gloves were always worn outside the house. When worn inside, as when making a social call, or on formal occasions, such as a ball, they were removed when dining. About the length of the glove, A Lady of Distinction writes:
If the prevailing fashion be to reject the long sleeve, and to partially display the arm, let the glove advance considerably above the elbow, and there be fastened with a draw-string or armlet. But this should only be the case when the arm is muscular, coarse, or scraggy. When it is fair, smooth, and round, it will admit of the glove being pushed down to a little above the wrists.Longer gloves were worn rather loosely during this period, crumpling below the elbow. As described in the passage above, longer gloves were fastened by "garters".
Parasols (as shown in the illustration) protected a lady's skin from the sun, and were considered an important fashion accessory. Slender and light in weight, they came in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes.
Fans, made of paper or silk on sticks of ivory and wood, and printed with oriental motifs or popular scenes of the era, were used by fashionable ladies (and gentlemen) to cool themselves and enhance gestures and body language. These ubiquitous accessories were constructed in a variety of shapes and styles, such as pleated or rigid. Fans and their use in body language and communication are described in this information sheet from the Cheltenham Museum (click and scroll to page 4).
It was during the second half of the 1790s that fashionable women in France began to adopt a thoroughgoing Classical style, based on an idealized version of ancient Greek and Roman dress (or what was thought at the time to be ancient Greek and Roman dress), with narrow clinging skirts. Some of the extreme Parisian versions of the neo-classical style (such as narrow straps which bared the shoulders, and diaphanous gowns without sufficient stays, petticoats, or shifts worn beneath) were not widely adopted elsewhere, but many features of the late-1790s neo-classical style were broadly influential, surviving in successively modified forms in European fashions over the next two decades.
White was considered the most suitable color for neo-classical clothing (accessories were often in contrasting colors). Short trains trailing behind were common in dresses of the late 1790s.
During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, fashions continued to follow the basic high-waisted empire silhouette, but in other respects neoclassical influences became progressively diluted. (In many countries, the strictest or most uncompromising versions of the neoclassical style were never quite as popular as in Paris.) Gowns remained narrow in front, but fullness at the raised back waist allowed room to walk. Colors other than white came into style, the fad for diaphanous outer fabrics faded (except in certain formal contexts), and some elements of obvious visible ornamentation came back into use in the design of the gown (as opposed to the elegant simplicity or subtle white-on-white embroidery of the gown of ca. 1800).
This period saw the final abandonment of lace, embroidery, and other embellishment from serious men's clothing — it would not reappear except as an affectation of Aesthetic dress in the 1880s and its successor, the Young Edwardian look of the 1960s. Instead, cut and tailoring became much more important as an indicator of quality.
Breeches became longer — tightly-fitted leather riding breeches reached almost to the boot tops — and were replaced by pantaloons or trousers for fashionable street wear.
Shirts were made of linen, had attached collars, and were worn with stocks or wrapped in a cravat tied in various fashions. Pleated frills at the cuffs and front opening went out of fashion by the end of the period.
Waistcoats were relatively high-waisted, and squared off at the bottom, but came in a broad variety of styles. They were often double-breasted, with wide lapels and stand collars.
Overcoats or greatcoats were fashionable, often with contrasting collars of fur or velvet. The garrick, sometimes called a coachman's coat, was a particularly popular style, and had between one and three short capelets atached to the collar.
Boots, typically Hessian boots, already a mainstay in men's footwear, became the rage after the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Wellington boots, as they were known, sported low cut heels and tops that were calf-high.
In High Society: A Social History of the Regency Period, 1788-1830, Venetia Murray writes:
Other admirers of dandyism have taken the view that it is a sociological phenomenon, the result of a society in a state of transition or revolt. Barbey d'Aurevilly, one of the leading French dandies at the end of the nineteenth century, explained:
Some have imagined that dandyism is primarily a specialisation in the art of dressing oneself with daring and elegance. It is that, but much else as well. It is a state of mind made up of many shades, a state of mind produced in old and civilised societies where gaiety has become infrequent or where conventions rule at the price of their subject's boredom...it is the direct result of the endless warfare between respectability and boredom.
In Regency London dandyism was a revolt against a different kind of tradition, an expression of distaste for the extravagance and ostentation of the previous generation, and of sympathy with the new mood of democracy.
Beau Brummell set the fashion for dandyism in British society from the mid-1790s, which was characterized by immaculate personal cleanliness, immaculate linen shirts with high collars, perfectly tied cravats, and exquisitely tailored plain dark coats (contrasting in many respects with the "maccaroni" of the earlier eighteenth century).
Brummell abandoned his wig and cut his hair short in a Roman fashion dubbed à la Brutus, echoing the fashion for all things classical seen in women's wear of this period. He also led the move from breeches to snugly-tailored pantaloons or trousers, often light-colored for day and dark for evening, based on working-class clothing adopted by all classes in France in the wake of the Revolution. In fact, Brummel's reputation for taste and refinement was such that, fifty years after his death, Max Beerbohm, wrote:
In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr Brummell's miracles.
Not every male aspiring to attain Brummel's sense of elegance and style succeeded, however, and these dandies were subject to caricature and ridicule. Venetia Murray quotes an excerpt from Diary of an Exquisite, from The Hermit in London, 1819:
Took four hours to dress; and then it rained; ordered the tilbury and my umbrella, and drove to the fives' court; next to my tailors; put him off after two years tick; no bad fellow that Weston...broke three stay-laces and a buckle, tore the quarter of a pair of shoes, made so thin by O'Shaughnessy, in St. James's Street, that they were light as brown paper; what a pity they were lined with pink satin, and were quite the go; put on a pair of Hoby's; over-did it in perfuming my handkerchief, and had to recommence de novo; could not please myself in tying my cravat; lost three quarters of an hour by that, tore two pairs of kid gloves in putting them hastily on; was obliged to go gently to work with the third; lost another quarter of an hour by this; drove off furiously in my chariot but had to return for my splendid snuff-box, as I knew that I should eclipse the circle by it.
Older men, military officers, and those in conservative professions such as lawyers and physicians retained their wigs and powder into this period, but younger men of fashion wore their hair in short curls, often with long sideburns.
Tricorne and bicorne hats were still worn, but the most fashionable hat was tall and slightly conical - this would evolve into the top hat and reign as the only hat for formal occasions for the next century.
During the first half of the Victorian era, there was a more or less negative view of women's styles of the 1795-1820 period. Some people would have felt slightly uncomfortable to be reminded that their mothers or grandmothers had once promenaded about in such styles (which could be considered indecent according to Victorian norms), and many would have found it somewhat difficult to really empathize with (or take seriously) the struggles of a heroine of art or literature if they were being constantly reminded that she was wearing such clothes. For such reasons, some Victorian history paintings of the Napoleonic wars intentionally avoided depicting accurate women's styles (see example below), Thackeray's illustrations to his book Vanity Fair depicted the women of the 1810s wearing 1840s fashions, and in Charlotte Brontë's 1849 novel Shirley (set in 1811-1812) neo-Grecian fashions are anachronistically relocated to an earlier generation.
Later in the Victorian period, the Regency seemed to retreat to an unthreateningly remote historical distance, and Kate Greenaway and the Artistic Dress movement selectively revived elements of early 19th century fashions. During the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, many genre paintings, sentimental valentines, etc. contained loose depictions of 1795-1820 styles (then considered to be quaint relics of a bygone era). In the late 1960s / early 1970s, there was a limited fashion revival of the Empire silhouette.
In recent years, 1795-1820 fashions are most strongly associated with Jane Austen's writings, due to the various movie adaptations of her novels. There are also some Regency fashion "urban myths", such as that women dampened their gowns to make them appear even more diaphanous (something which was certainly not practiced by the vast majority of women of the period).