Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Empire Line Dresses, Pride and Prejudice and Some Sketches

The Regency is certainly not alone in it's love of high-waisted "empire-line" dresses (it crops up in the fifteenth century as well) and the Mercenary has spent long hours lamenting the ubiquitousness of its modern incarnation in fashion magazines with the Designer and the Heroine. So here are some of the results of the musings.

Starting with a potted history (incidentally, Seitou's Fashion Timeline is utterly beautiful), the long, clinging muslin skirts of the empire silhouette were thought to have developed from Marie Antoinette's infamous chemise dresses (via the more structured robe de gaulle).* The themes and pretensions towards the classical can be found throughout the period and it's always been tempting for fashion historians to draw comparisons between garments and events: 

"The aristocratic stiffness of the old regime in France is completely mirrored in the brocaded gowns of the eighteenth century. The republican licentious notions of the Directoire find their echo in the plain transparent dresses of the time."
James Laver, Taste and Fashion (1945), p. 198  

And it doesn't take much research to say it's a bit more complicated than that.

Returning to the empire silhouette, Joe Wright, the director of the "muddy hems" version of Pride and Prejudice is commonly quoted as saying that it made women "look like marshmallows"*. It was allegedly his main motivation for setting it as early as possible, to bring down the lofty waistlines.

Of course, there are those like this article which is built around the bold assertion that "the empire shape is one of the most flattering known to women." A claim that the very cruel, if apt, Following the Fashion cartoon quickly brings into question. 

High-waisted dresses aren't universally flattering, which is hardly a revolutionary statement. The ideal figure is tall, moderately busty and willowy, which is fairly elusive as figures go unless you're looking at period fashion plates.* The idea that all manner of "sins" can be hidden under the skirts is perhaps overly optimistic, especially as the bulk of the skirts can end up adding rather than obscuring.

That all said, I've had fun drawing some Regency era dresses on stupidly willowy fashion figures.

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* The terms chemise a la reine and robe de gaulle seem to be used interchangeably. The famous portrait of Marie Antoinette can be found with either in its title. I'm inclined to agree with the Dreamstress here and use the term chemise for the giant unshaped dresses that are sashed in and use the gaulle for the more structured dresses with a waist seam (as well as sometimes panelling in the back, etc). It's a frustrating world trying to bring concrete definitions to fashions and shapes. 

* There's plenty of very fine virtual ink spilt on the subject of the costumes from this particular incarnation of Pride and Prejudice: Art of Clothes' has some very insightful and illustrated Notes; this Telegraph interview with the costume designer; Pride and Prejudice Costumes; the woefully abandoned Fashionably Bennet; this Times article on muddy hems. Not to mention Elizabeth Bennet's Jumper Dress and the Teal Almost Empire Line Dress on this blog.

* I am greatly indebted to the Regency Fashion Page and Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion for inspiration, both excellent sources of period plates.

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