The era spanning approximately 1795-1825 and the styles that
represent it, came to be known by the English as “Regency,” by the French as
“Empire” and by Americans as “Federal.” It was a period of war, political
upheaval and sweeping change which began with radical revolution and
ended with conservatism firmly back in control. The Regency era bridged the
gap between the old slow-paced order of the “Georgian” 18th
century and the new, faster, industrialized world of the “Victorian” 19th. Thus,
the launch of Robert Fulton’s steamship “Clermont” in 1807 was an early
harbinger of things to come.
The ideals of the French Revolution, though expressed through bloody excess,
betrayed from the inside and eventually defeated militarily from the outside,
would yet have a lasting impact on European civilization. In the young United
States of America this was a time of growth, expansion, religious revival,
defining of culture and testing of diplomatic and military willpower vis
the great powers of Europe. Leading figures of the age included political and
military icons such as Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, Lord Horatio Nelson,
the Duke of Wellington, Czar Alexander I, Queen Louise of Prussia and diplomat
Karl Metternich. In the United States it was the era of Thomas Jefferson and
the Louisiana Purchase, James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812, James
Monroe and his “Monroe Doctrine” and General (soon to be President) Andrew
It was a period of constant conflict during which several of the epic battles
of history were fought, including Trafalgar, Austerlitz, Waterloo and the Battle
of New Orleans. Napoleon Bonaparte was the greatest military genius of the
age. In fifteen years he rose from being an unknown to Emperor of France but
his downfall was perhaps equally climactic. Many of America’s greatest naval heroes made their mark during
this era when Stephen Decatur punished the Barbary Pirates, the U.S.S.
Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) shocked the world by triumphing over British
frigates and Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie under his banner
emblazoned “Don’t Give Up the Ship!”
On an individual level, dueling was quite common, perhaps the most famous
instance being that between rival New Yorkers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron
Burr, with fatal effects upon the former.
The Regency era was also a time of great elegance and beauty. Ludwig van
Beethoven, Joseph Haydn and others composed “classical” music.
Jane Austen wrote novels such as "Pride & Prejudice", "Emma" and "Sense &
Sensibility." Vigée Le Brun made her mark as a painter of famous persons.
“Federal” and later “Greek Revival” styles of architecture came into vogue.
English, French and American "country dances" were very popular with all
Women’s clothing of the Regency era reached heights of classic simplicity that had not been seen
for centuries. Caught up in at least a fashion oriented sense of “liberté,
clothing designers, artists and architects began to look back to the
democracies of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic for inspiration. Ladies
abandoned the panniers, horizontally emphasized dresses and heavy fabrics of
18th century fashions in favor of vertical, draping, more natural styles which were
light in both color and weight. Gone were heavy, rich brocades in favor of a
simple white cotton muslin similar to our modern batiste. Ornamentation, while
still existing, tended to be understated in comparison to the previous era
when opulence and overindulgence were often the norm among the wealthy
classes. Simplicity and understatement came to be viewed as beautiful,
tasteful and elegant.
Men’s fashion changed too. Thomas Jefferson set a trend, when at his
inauguration as our third president in 1801, he broke with past fashion by
wearing lace-up shoes rather than shoes with buckles. He did this to make a
statement regarding his sympathy for French Republican ideals. Though all
classes had worn shoe buckles, in France they had come to be viewed as a
symbol of aristocracy, perhaps because of the old boast that some rich men
wore buckles so jewel-encrusted that they had “the value of a good farm on
each foot”. In France breeches also came to be seen as “aristocratic” (again,
even though all classes had worn them) and revolutionaries took to wearing the
new tight-fitting, pantaloons and longer, somewhat looser trousers. Thus the
revolutionaries came to be referred to as “sans culottes”, basically
translated as “those without breeches”. To be seen wearing breeches and shoes
with fancy buckles during the “Reign of Terror” in revolutionary France was to
risk a rendezvous with Madame Guillotine. All this aside, though it would be
fair to say that France produced the ladies' styles of the time and certainly
affected men's styles as well, yet England had the predominant influence on
men's fashions. A well dressed gentleman of the Regency era in tailcoat and
boots was after all in essence imitating the equestrian attire of English
country gentlemen. But back to the ladies...
The ladies dress of the time was a long, draping, usually light colored,
always lightweight gown. It would have the classic, high “empire” waist
immediately beneath the bosom and would probably be made from
cotton or silk fabric in a solid, a small printed pattern or vertical stripes.
White was the favorite color of ladies during the Regency era though just
about any light color was used. At different points during the period either
short or long sleeves were in style. Sometimes light, transparent
“overdresses” were worn and the “Spencer Jacket” came into vogue as a
fashionable means of acquiring a bit of protection from cold temperatures
uninhibited by mere thin
gowns. Underneath would have been the Regency era corset. This corset was
designed to force an erect posture and to hold high the bosom in a manner
termed “lift and separate.” It was worn over a long linen or cotton chemise.
The “poke bonnet” was ubiquitous and for a time turbans and long plumes were
quite the fad for headwear. Diadems (another adaptation from classical Greece)
were popular for evening wear.
For middle or upper class men the tailcoat of the period was a must. Even the
lower classes often wore it. This tailcoat came up quite high behind the neck
and hung down in a long, split tail which was at first horizontal across the
bottom but in time the "clawhammer" variety appeared as well.
Early in the period the front rounded up in an arch but later it
was a bit lower and cut straight across. Either way it was designed so that
the waistcoat would show a little underneath. The tailcoat could be worn in
many colors for daywear but darker shades such as black and navy were best for
evenings. The coat would be worn over a high, standing-collared vest (either
single or double breasted) which in turn would be worn over a high-collared
white shirt of linen or cotton. “Drop-front” trousers and pantaloons were the
new fashion but for quite some time drop-front breeches coming to just below
the knees remained the preferred article for evening wear. (Except perhaps in
revolutionary France during the 1790s!) It was during this era that the top hat first made its appearance. The Regency version was
quite tall and straight with a narrow turned-up brim. The wide bicorn was also
popular, though unlike the top hat its general use faded quickly with
the end of the Regency era. A long linen or silk cravate which wrapped around
the neck was a necessity for a gentleman and could be tied in a variety of
Men wore knee high boots (similar to English riding boots), "Wellington Boots"
or a “Jefferson” style, ankle height, lace-up “bootee.” Low-cut men's slippers
were common as well. Ladies often wore a
shoe similar to a low-heeled modern ballet slipper or a style with a bit more
might perhaps be an ancestor of today’s pumps.
Many well known movies (most based on classic novels) have portrayed different
aspects of the Regency era. Among them are Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield
Park, Sense & Sensibility, The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, War and Peace, the Hornblower series, and Waterloo. There have
also been documentaries produced regarding such persons as Napoleon I and
Thomas Jefferson and events such as The Lewis & Clark Expedition, The War of
1812 and The Battle of New Orleans.
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