By the time Europe got to the 1800s, the textile industry had exploded, and the making of clothing was a full scale economy of its own. During this time, people had access not only to different textiles and materials, but also had access to already made clothing, or they had access to people who could make the clothing for them. With all this access, the world of fashion had been created. When fashion first becomes, fashionable, for lack of a better word, it followed the court of the royals whether that court was English or French. At least for the most part. Then there was the invention of the fashion magazine or plates. Now people had access to all the latest trends and could duplicate them in their own town or village far from court life (although by the time fashion plates were being published, fashion was dictated not from the court, but from the elite class).
During the 1800s, fashion had gone through many different changes and silhouettes. However, during this time, there was a woman named Jane Austen who included many different aspects and styles of fashion in her novels. Austen also wrote many letters to her sister that included gossip and fashion. From these letters and novels, one can construct the fashion styles of her day.
In the early 1800s, the era was known as the Regency Era and the Empire dress was the main fashion trend. The Empire dress was inspired by Grecian-Roman style. It was made usually from muslin or lawn, which would cling to the body, emphasizing the natural feminine form. The dresses were preferably white, but since white was so hard to keep clean, many women saved their white dresses for the evening or important events. During the day, some women preferred to wear pastels. Another important aspect of the Empire dress was the fact that the waist line started directly under the bust line. The dress would be gathered under the bust line and then fall to the ground in a straight line, forming a long column. The neckline would be cut very low, with a tight bodice forming the back. The dress also had cap sleeves that were attached to the bodice. This way, the dress would restrict arm movement somewhat and it would make the wearer appear daintier in their movements.
Since the dress was so sheer (it was more like wearing a night gown in public), undergarments also changed to be adapted to the dress. One important change was that of the corset. Before the Regency era, corsets were made of whale bone and laced up so tight that it would often hinder a woman from breathing correctly. During the Regency era, the corset went from the hip to the breast. It also had straps over the shoulders, making it more like the modern day bra. During the day, some women would also add a chemisette to their dress. A chemisette is like a little shirt that went under the dress to cover up the cleavage from the low cut Empire dress. Also under the dress, some women opted to wear pantaloons. Since the Empire dress clung to the body, the pantaloons acted like long underwear to give women an element of modesty with their dress. The pantaloons were usually flesh colored so that they would not stand out from the dress.
For my project, I first decided to construct a mini Empire dress, just so I could get the full experience of what Austen and other women of the middle class would have done to create the fashions that they saw in the fashion plates. While I figured that women like Austen would have access to not only the fashion plates, but also access to readymade textiles like Muslin or lawn, from which they would purchase from the local shop, I went to Wal-Mart in search of my “plate” and my textiles. The textile was easy. There was a variety of textiles to pick from. I choose a simple white muslin and moved my way over to the patterns section to find my “plate”. I figured that I would not find a pattern for an Empire dress, but I found another one that had a similar silhouette and hoped that I could use it as an outline for my dress. Once home, I laid out all my materials and grew excited to get started. However it seemed that from the beginning I was doomed to not make a dress. At first my idea had been to reduce the pattern to at least half its size, but was unaware that the pieces in the pattern were not easily sketched to simply a reduced size as I had planned. The short version of this experiment ended up with me sitting in the floor with a lot of penciled measurements, cut up pieces of poster board, and jagged pieces of muslin that didn’t even come close to the pictures of the pattern, all the while using some choice words.
As I sat and looked at what would never become the Empire dress I had pictured in my mind, I wondered how women in the 1800s could simply look at a fashion plate and know how to make the dress that they wanted. I wondered about the women who didn’t have the time or the talent. I assumed that they could have gone to a dress maker, but wondered how much that would cost to a woman who was simply a part the middle class. Perhaps more than what she would be willing to spend for simply a day dress. She may have wanted to go to a dress maker for her evening gown, but a simple day gown I assumed she could make it herself, unless she was utterly hopeless such as I was. I then thought of how even if a woman could make a dress herself, then she might go to a milliner to add the little touches to her gown. Maybe some light embroidery at the sleeve or waist. I wondered what little something she would choose. I would have liked small flowers around the sleeves of my dress, and since I was unable to make it, I could imagine anything I wanted on it.
With the pieces of what should have been my dress lying in disarray around me, I wondered what other part of my project I could butchered. I faintly thought about hats and undergarments, but as I stroked the ravaged muslin, I decided that it probably would not be the best thing to recreate another garment of any type. Although I was interested in trying to recreate a Regency corset and matching pantaloons, I knew that to follow down that road would end in yet another travesty. This is when I turned to the safe, friendly poster board project in hopes that I could save my fashion project.
All in all, I have to say that I have learned a lot from this little project. Perhaps the Empire dress was merely a passing fad, but I learned more than just this dress. I mean, I know about undergarments now too. But that’s just icing on the cake. I learned that fashion meant the same thing to women in the 1800s just as much as it means to me now. Austen had fashion plates; I have magazines and What Not to Wear. Austen had dress makers; I have Kohl’s. Perhaps the greatest difference is that Austen had the freedom to make her clothes what she wanted them to be, and I have the ability to buy my clothes however I want them. And in the end, is that really that big a difference? I don’t think so. Which is why in the end, perhaps my attempt to recreate an actual Empire dress wasn’t such a horrible disaster that I thought it was. Because in the end, I achieved what I wanted to do, which is try to walk in the shoes of women such as Austen and see what it felt like to create my own clothes. And while I didn’t create my own dress, I can still relate to what these women did, and how these women felt. And in the end, I have to say, that’s the real source of knowledge, experience.