So I was reading a book the other day when I came across the following (paraphrased) sentence:
“The empire line dress she wore accentuated her small waist.”
No. No, it didn’t. Because this is what empire line dresses actually look like.
And, you’ll notice, the one thing they don’t accentuate? Yup. The waist. They do wonders for the bosom though.
Now, I am by no means an expert on 19th century fashion (or any fashion, if we’re being honest) and I’m sure I make plenty of mistakes in my books when it comes to clothes. But this was an egregious error for someone writing in the regency era to make. So, thought I, let’s track those waistlines and other major fashion developments in a handy beginner’s guide using lots of pretty pictures of extant dresses and movie costumes. That way, we still won’t get it right all the time but hopefully we can avoid any major howlers. And, lo, this post was born.
I think women must have breathed a bit easier in those empire-line gowns. Their corsets wouldn’t have needed to be cinched quite so tightly. Unfortunately, by the 1820s, waists had dropped again and skirts were fuller.
By the 1830s, when Queen Victoria took the throne, the waist drop is complete, corsets are cinched tight again, and the skirts are taking on the bell-shape we associate with the Victorians.
In the 1840s, necklines became lower (note the fichu in the image on the left below, which preserved a lady’s modesty despite “plummeting” necklines) and waists narrowed to a V. See how the waistline has continued to descend?
The 1850s is when the first artificial cage crinoline was invented and, not coincidentally, the decade in which skirts got really, really wide. And you did not want to stand next to an open flame while wearing one of these:
The silhouette of the 1860s is very familiar to people because of films like Gone with the Wind. Skirts got narrower at the top, but even wider at the bottom and fuller in the back.
The 1870s are when the bustle era began. Skirts slowly narrowed and the backside ended up piled with fabric. The costume from The Age of Innocence below is perhaps my favorite film costume of all time.
The bustle had a resurgence in the the early 1880s and became more shelf-like. One well known caricature shows women re-imagined as snails. At the same time, the reform dress movement was catching on, which resulted in a more natural shape as with the tea gown in the middle below.
Which brings us to the 1890s when the bustle and crinoline were both abandoned completely. The waist was extra small but skirts followed the natural line of a woman’s body. It was also the decade of massive sleeves.
Now in a work of fiction, most of this doesn’t matter, first because fashion-sense varied then just as it does now, and, second, because how much detailed description of dresses do you really need to include? But if you say a gown has an empire waist, don’t also say that it accentuates the wearer’s waist because that’s… well, it annoys me and, more importantly, it might take your reader out of the story.
Mostly though, I just wanted to post pictures of pretty dresses.