This table aligns the content to the center of the page.
This table contains the banner graphic for the page sliced into 21 smaller rectangles.

Empire/Directoire Review

Empire/Directoire-Women (~1800-1820)

While the French Revolution (1789) cuts the history of costume like a knife, the initial effect on women's clothing is merely a deflating of silhouette. The line and construction of this 1790 walking dress closely resembles that of any other late 18th Century dress. It especially reflects the fad for "country" attire that swept women's fashion during the late Rococo/Georgian period (click here to view styles of dresses from the previous period. Click the "back" button on your browser to return).

Nonetheless, never before has fashion changed as radically or as quickly as it did between the years of 1789 and 1800.

This is mostly due to the new French Empire led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Due to Napoleon's multitude of military campaigns into Italy many statues and artifacts from Greco-Roman ruins found their way back to France. Historians believe this to be the main fuel for a revival of all things "classical" (meaning Greek & Roman) at the tail-end of the 18th Century. These classical ideas affected everying--literature, governments, and most importantly to

The saying goes, "It's all been done before." This is as true of fashion as anything else. For the first time in costume history, the prevailing fashion clearly imitated fashions of the past--a trend that reoccurs frequently through the rest of the history of dress. Women's fashion of the Empire/Directoire period clearly "reinterprets" Greek and Roman dress. However, it is done without a true understanding of how the garments actually functioned.

Vase paintings and statuary were studied intently and garments were created in imitation of their findings. However, the resulting dresses were much more complicated in construction than the rectangles and squares of fabric draped around the bodies of the past. (Click here to see examples of Greek dress. Click here to see examples of Roman dress. Click the "back" button on your browser to return).

The fashion plate pictured at the left features morning dresses from 1794--merely four years after the previous plate. The shift towards the "classical" line is obviously in place. There is still quite a bit of poofiness and fussiness (especially in their accessories). View this image as a transition between the styles characteristic of the 18th century and those of the simpler, "Neo-Classical" line.

Initially, lightweight--sometimes relatively sheer--white fabrics prevailed for the new fashion. The once colorful Greco-Roman statues had been bleached white from exposure to the elements. The imitators of the late 18th/early 19th century interpreted this fact to mean that all of the clothing was also white, thus the choice of white for the neo-classical dresses. Eventually, pastel dresses became fashionable as well.

Underpinnings went through a revolution of their own. For the first time since the onset of the Elizabethean Era, the desired female silhouette allowed the body to be of a fairly natural "columnal" shape. The required understructure was minimal. Most corsets served to support and lift the breasts (the zone of emphasis for this period). As a result, most women favored a short corset that stopped just below the underbust, since this is the point that becomes the fashionable waistline. (Some women still wore a long corset. However, these did not cinch the waist as corsets of the previous and following periods did, but instead slimmed the hips into a space slightly bigger than the waist. Thus, a curvy woman could acheive the desired column-like sihouette). Chemises and petticoats were optional. The most fashion forward women dispensed with them altogether.

As a rule: Empire/Directoire gowns were universally high waisted, emphasis was on the bosom, and the resulting silhouette was tall and vertical. Headdresses were generally either a variation of a bonnet-style or a Greco-Roman inspired headwrap.

Other common accessories included reticules/indispensibles (small pouch-like hand bags that dangle from ladies' wrists), tall gloves (that covered the forearm), and parasols (used to protect a ladies' complexion from the sun). Also, dainty matching jewelry sets that included necklaces, earrings, and bracelets were very common. All of these things can be found in the fashion plates at the right.

Large rectangular shawls were also very popular during this period. These were very reminiscent of the pallas and himations used in fashionable Greco-Roman attire. These accessories were fashionable as well as functional. They provided much needed warmth that the fashionably thin dresses could not provide.

Also, notice the woman's hairstyle on the right. It shows strong Greco-Roman influence. Statues and artifacts influenced ALL aspects of fashion.


This woman is wearing a spencer (a tailored short jacket that ended at the fashionable waist--or underbust--of this period). These "cropped" jackets featured fairly complex construction for their diminuative size. Notice the seam lines in the back of this particular example.

The subjects of this plate could be considered an incroyable (the man) and a merveilleuse (the woman). Literally translated as the "incredible ones" and the "marvelous ones," incroyables and merveilleuses took Empire/Directoire fashion to the extreme.

The extremely tall cravat, nipped in waist, very wide lapels, unkempt hair, and what seems to be extremely tight pantaloons are the signs of an incroyable. The extreme sheerness of her gown and the lack of substantial undergarments resulting in an embracing of the natural female form are signs of a merveilleuse. Merveilleuses were also reported to favor pale pink tights (as if their legs were blushing from being exposed), very low necklines (emphasizing their breasts), skirts with exceptionally long flowing trains, oversized hats, and wild unkempt hair.

Notice her Greco-Roman inspired footwear.

(Any guess as to what the third figure in the plate is doing? Extra credit to the first person who comes up with a documented answer.)

Back to 130 Index

Back to 334 Index

Back to Home