Deciphering Historical Fashions of the Times

When writing historical stories, I try really hard to make the details as authentic as possible. From language to furniture to outside to the weather and, of course, to what the ladies and gentlemen may have been wearing.

It’s quite possible that I don’t get the details correct – after all, it’s not like I can ask a contemporary about very late 18th century France! We have a plethora of resources online and at libraries, and, oh my lord, so many knowledgeable people who know so much more than I do about EVERYTHING, but I still worry that the details aren’t quite right.

Take, for example, the introduction of the ‘Empire waistline’ – the waistline that rode just underneath the bust. The fashion was not called that at the time, but early in 20th century Britain it was named the Empire waist (or Empire silhouette or Empire line) because it originated in Empirical France, Marie Antoinette basing the earliest of these dresses on the blousy, easy lines of the dresses worn by maidens in the rural areas, as a direct protest against the crazy structured fashions that were the only costume allowed at the French court. Here is Marie herself, dressed in an early chemise a la reine (the portrait dates from 1783):

The fashion soon jumped across the channel and made its way to England, but I cannot work out when the waistline went from this:

To this:

The best I can manage is “sometime between 1795 and 1796”.

The question then becomes: If my story is set in 1796, can I still have people of fashion in low waisted dresses? I have a heroine who, let’s face it, has no boobs at all, to speak of. For her, the lower waisted dress would be much more flattering, because we can load it up with ruffles and roses and ribbons until she looks like the most well-endowed lady on the planet! The high-waisted Empire line was much less forgiving for those with no bust. (With a reasonable bust, they were beautiful. With too much bust…well, let’s just say a nice fichu never goes astray!)

So, looking at portraiture and fashion plates from 1796 in England, I find this:

AND I find this:


So, we employ our artistic license. I need my heroine to be as lovely as she can be, and I’m afraid that means downplaying her less attractive… assets… so that the good parts shine through. Fashionable or not, she will have low waisted gowns.

Please don’t hate me.


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Deciphering Historical Fashions of the Times
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