FABULOUS! | EMPIRE PERIOD | 1800-1836

FIDM MUSEUM & GALLERIES

“Dress is at one and the same time a science, an art, a custom, a feeling.” - Honoré De Balzac, 1799–1850 

FABULOUS! | EMPIRE PERIOD | 1800-1836
The dawn of the nineteenth century commenced a sartorial age that witnessed many changes of silhouette, each defining periods of shifting imperial powers. Trade enriched nations and gave rise to a middle class with a taste for all things splendid. Merchants grew wealthy through bourgeois spending, but aristocracies set fashion trends, particularly in France.  No one exerted more influence in the first decades of the century than Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), who crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804. His wife, Empress Joséphine (1763–1814), became the century’s first fashion icon, setting the mode for semitransparent high-waisted gowns echoing the tunics and togas seen on classical Greek and Roman statuary. The fashion for imported Indian cottons ruined Lyon’s silk weavers, whose luxury textiles were the lifeblood of France’s economy. Though Jacquard-loomed brocades and satins had fallen from favor during the bloody French Revolution of 1789, Bonaparte quickly revived them by reestablishing a court system that required elaborate displays of opulence.
Britain’s King George III (1738–1820) maintained a constitutional monarchy throughout Napoléon’s Continental upheavals. His country’s influence broadened not only from colonization, but through the tinkering of inventors eager to mechanize manufacturing. On the fashion front, British tailoring led the field in menswear, redefining what it meant to be a gentleman at a time when powdered wigs and breeches were no longer indicators of nobility. Double-breasted frock coats and long pantaloons in stout woolens based on country sporting attire became the standard city suit for serious-minded businessmen.
Across the Atlantic, the United States settled into its role as an independent, democratic republic—straddling a fine diplomatic line between its French war-time supporters and its defeated British foes. First Lady Dolley Madison (1768–1849), the female fashion leader of the Federalist period, looked to France for her style, copying the latest, revealing trends which scandalized politicians who favored dark, conservative English styles. The general population wore much less extreme “homespun” fashion. America’s northern textile manufacturers, though, were cutting edge, quickly expanding in New England towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts. In the southern states, slave-driven agriculture helped to fuel a strong foreign trade in cotton and indigo. 
After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoléon’s empire collapsed and European nations from Italy to Poland regained independent sovereignty. Neoclassicism fell from favor, and was superseded by Romanticism: an intellectual and artistic movement built on heightened emotional expression and intense nationalism. Elaborate court dress remained grounded in the past, while fashionable clothing ballooned into ever larger proportions throughout the 1820s and 30s. Massive bonnets towered with novelty trims, gigantic sleeves required interior supports, and bell-shaped skirts were filled out with corded petticoats. The ascension of Britain’s Queen Victoria (1819–1901) in 1837 quieted this sartorial exuberance, ushering in a new era that expanded globally to the end of the century.

THIS DIAPHANOUS GOWN EXEMPLIFIES the Empire silhouette: a fitted bodice with an elevated waistline and low neckline exposing ample décolletage; armscyes curved inward to create a narrow center back and dropped shoulder line; and a gently flared skirt elongated into a squared-off train. For decency, semitransparent cotton gowns required undergowns, often made of flesh-colored silk that simulated the nude body. Though this daring style appears simpler and less cumbersome than the previous century’s elaborately constructed garments, the dress was equally challenging to wear both because of its body conscious cut and the difficulty of maintaining it.

After every wearing, the fabric would be limp and wrinkled, requiring fresh laundering, bluing, and ironing—a tedious, labor-intensive process of scalding the cotton in boiling water, applying indigo to highlight the white cloth optically, and smoothing its surface with a fire-heated iron. The gown retains traces of its last bluing. Monochromatic white was neoclassical in inspiration and allowed for a wide range of fashionable accessories, either to complement its tone, such as this embroidered cotton shawl, or to provide a distinct contrast, like these knitted silk mitts.

IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, fashionable ensembles were never complete without an array of accessories, including parasols for ladies and walking sticks for gentlemen. While many walking sticks were vain strutting devices, some contained hidden swords or pistols to fend off highwaymen, or to protect a lady’s honor. Canes could be crafted from tree branches for mountain hikes or exotic woods for city promenades. Base metal or precious alloy pommels delineated their owners’ status.

This example made of rosewood and ivory is a luxurious everyday object owned by Austrian court composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). Born into the peasant class, Haydn set the musical standard during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. He strongly influenced the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), and his friend Johann Hummel (1778–1837). It was at the sale of Haydn’s estate that Betty Hummel, Johann’s wife, purchased this walking stick as a cherished memento.

FOR CENTURIES, gloves were tokens of love and esteem, given by admirers not only for wearing, but also for displaying tucked into belts or hatbands. They were procured at parfumeries, fragranced with the fashionable floral scents of the season. Glove production was highly specialized; by the late eighteenth century the finest examples were made to measure in glacé kid leather, delicately embroidered in silk and metallic flosses, and fit so snugly that they revealed their wearer’s fingernails. This long, white glove (one of a pair) was a stylish, expensive novelty that would be quickly discarded after wearing due to unsightly soiled finger tips.

BONNETS PROTRUDED TO IMPRESSIVE LENGTHS by 1810. Children were not immune to this fashionable caprice; they, too, wore the style known to contemporaries as close bonnets, poke bonnets, or, humorously, invisibles. This baby’s bonnet features a brim measuring an impractical eleven-inches long; the infant’s face would be completely obscured by its dramatic span. Bleached cotton—grown in India or the United States, woven in Great Britain, and exported across the globe—was a popular choice for layettes and women’s gowns at the turn of the nineteenth century. Gleaming white, it was in step with the fashionable neoclassical movement. This example is a miniature version of mother’s headwear.

Embellishments include French knots, satin and buttonhole stitches, and insertions of delicate netting; diagonal corded channels provide both decoration and structure. The bonnet required copious amounts of starch to prevent its elongated brim from collapsing onto the baby’s face.

CUPID, THE MISCHIEVOUS OFFSPRING of Venus, goddess of beauty and fertility, continually aimed his love-tipped arrows at unsuspecting mortals. This silver and gold arrow is just the type of weapon found in Cupid’s quiver, but his trajectory was off; instead of piercing the victim’s heart, it lodged in her “Apollo’s knot” coiffure and became a stylish hairpin. According to The Ladies’ Magazine of January 1802, these amorous arrows were to be worn with “the feathered end up, like an esprit,” as if they darted from the heavens. [1] Such symbolic accessories were popular during this period when classical Greek and Roman mythology permeated all forms of design, from statuary and furniture to textiles and fashion.

THIS THREE-PIECE COURT SUIT is the height of extravagance in materials and workmanship. Created late in the reign of Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (r. 1804–1814 / 15) by handloom weavers and master embroiderers, its uncut voided velvet with gold, silver, rhinestone, and sequin decoration is truly regal.

Such opulence was beyond the attainment of all but the most privileged. European courts vied with one another for political survival, particularly as Napoléon overthrew ancient monarchies and filled their vacant thrones with his own family members. When paying homage at court, a splendid appearance was de rigueur. This extremely rare ensemble is historically valuable not only for its beauty and excellent condition, but also for its documented ownership.

Austrian composer Johann Hummel (1778–1837) commissioned it for an important performance, possibly at the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) held to reposition the boundaries of Europe after Napoléon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. [2] Hummel was a former child prodigy whose success afforded him the means to purchase such a resplendent ensemble. A contemporary biographer noted: “Having been always very prudent in the management of his affairs, M. Hummel is now in the possession of an independent fortune, such as enables him to keep a carriage, and to live in every respect in the style of the opulent and grand.” [3]

THE PELISSE OF THE BRITISH REGENCY ERA (1811–1820) was originally a component of men’s military garb that was inducted into the female wardrobe in the early nineteenth century. The feminine version retained long sleeves and an ankle-length hem, but incorporated the raised waistline of fashionable dress. Many pelisses were constructed without closures, necessitating a careful insertion of pins down the center front opening to secure them—a dressing technique held over from the eighteenth century. Bleached cotton muslin was a popular choice for this outer garment. Ackermann’s Repository of Arts noted: “There is nothing worn but muslin either for morning, dinner, or evening dress.” [4]

Colorful ribbons and accessories prevented monochrome monotony. Many pelisses had historic details, such as this example’s slashed and puffed “Mary Stuart” sleeves, named after the sixteenth-century Scottish queen who was a popular subject in contemporary novels. The cap, meanwhile, is Tudor in inspiration and incorporates the high, puffed crown, ribbon rosettes, and ear-covering side panels worn when King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547) ruled Great Britain.

THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY was an extravagantly creative period for women’s headwear. Daytime options included close-fitting cotton or linen indoor caps worn under enveloping straw or net bonnets; eveningwear showcased exotic flowered and feathered headdresses designed to be seen in candlelit parlors. This elegant, monochrome example formed of lightweight buckram and wire borrows its exaggerated silhouette from men’s top hats—an unusual choice when bonnets were more common.

The oyster-colored silk satin and gauze woven with crimped silk floss provide textural interest, forming puffs and swags that produce a turban-like effect at the crown—another popular millinery type for women. This hat is associated with the prominent Ten Eyck family who settled in New Amsterdam (now New York) in the seventeenth century and was highly influential in politics and fashion. As the United States did not have successful sericulture at this time, the hat—or at least its silk materials—had to be imported from Europe by sailing ship.

BEFORE THE ADVENT of ready-made clothing and department stores, a great deal of study, time, and money went into assembling a fashionable ensemble. Poring over the latest issues of popular fashion magazines such as La Belle Assemblée or Ackermann’s Repository of Arts was the first step in acquiring a dress. After selecting a favorite design in a tinted fashion plate, a lady consulted with her dressmaker to find out which supplies were needed to construct her hand-sewn gown. She then went door to door procuring the desired silk brocade, taffeta trim, fastenings, and even thread. Drapers specialized in all types of fabrics—the silk of this example is in the popular hue of the year, “canary” or “lemon” yellow—but not ribbons or notions, which were purchased from a haberdasher or milliner. [5]

Accessories, too, were bought at a variety of shops located along fashionable thoroughfares such as Regent Street in London or the Palais Royal in Paris. According to the intact label, this unworn pair of American slippers was sold by Gregory and Cahill, importers and manufacturers of ladies’ shoes at 367 Broadway, New York City. Shoe merchants generally offered their wares ready-made, in vast quantities that were selected by trial and error as standardized sizes were then unknown.

WILD AND DOMESTICATED BIRDS have a long history of fashionable display. Peacock, pheasant, and parrot plumes ornament this pelerine. The feathers were sewn one by one in color blocks onto a linen base lined with marabou puffs, creating an extremely lightweight, shimmering outer garment. Various explanations have been put forth regarding garments of this type, including American Indian or Chinese origins. The most plausible inspiration is the state visit of King Kamehameha ii (1797–1824) and Queen Kamamalu (1802–1824) to London in 1824, after a six-month voyage from their Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) homeland in the Pacific. [6]

The royal entourage wore indigenous feathered capes while attending official court functions and entertainments; the party presented at least one of these garments to King George IV (1762–1830). [7] Sadly, the visit ended in tragedy when the long-isolated rulers died from measles after only two months. Similar pelerines in museum collections exhibit designs often found on traditional Hawaiian feather work; not only arcs, but also triangle and crescent shapes. [8] Perhaps they were created first as beautiful fashion novelties, then as tributes to the late Hawaiian king and queen.

SET BETWEEN THE GLORIES of Napoléon Bonaparte’s rule (r. 1804–1814 /15) and Queen Victoria’s namesake era (r. 1837–1901) was the age of Romanticism, a time of heightened emotional expression, intense nationalism, and widespread interest in the medieval period. White cotton was a holdover from neoclassical taste of the late eighteenth century.

In this example, the dress acts as a blank canvas for the myriad accessories needed for fashionable life. Delicate wired and shirred net bonnets, imported silk brocade shawls, and patterned waist ribbons with precious buckles revealed one’s knowledge of prevailing fads and enlivened an ensemble according to the wearer’s mood or the formality of the occasion.

FASHIONABLE DRESS OF THE 1820s and 30s relied on body-shaping devices to achieve the desired silhouette. First, a woman donned a linen chemise, the undermost layer of dress, which protected the other garments from body oils and perspiration. Over this was laced her corset of soft, corded cotton, nipping in the waist and separating the elevated bosom by the insertion of a busk, a long strip of wood or bone at center front.

In this example, the owner’s name was inked on the side of the corset to identify it from others sent to the laundry. To keep the enormous sleeves of the dress from collapsing, large cotton pillows—termed “plumpers”—filled with eiderdown attached at the upper arms. These pillows were squeezed through the narrow dress armscyes and puffed back into shape to support the exterior fabric. Corded petticoats were worn to support the full skirt. Like the corset cording, the insertion of cotton ropes into casings around the petticoat made the material firm, yet flexible. Only after these undergarments were secured was the outer gown slipped over a woman’s head and settled onto this ideal foundation.

AT VERY FEW TIMES IN HISTORY have Western women’s skirts been short enough to show their feet, let alone upper ankles. Historically, full skirts dragged on the ground, concealing all traces of lower limbs. The 1830s was one of those rare periods to witness tiny feet shod in ballet-like slippers and dainty ankles encased in boldly patterned stockings. Only the most daring woman, though, would have consented to this blue and white striped pair with multiple openwork patterns encircling her legs.

Contemporary commentary found some of this display too indiscreet: “To affect wearing a dress excessively short…discovers a want of modesty….How ridiculous are stockings when embroidered on the instep! Such coquetry can only find excuse from an opera dancer, who wishes to fix all the eyes…on her legs and feet.” [9] Fashion was moving quickly from hand labor to industrialized production; such complex stocking designs were being produced on mechanized apparatus in the knitting centers of Germany and Great Britain.

THE PRODUCTION OF FASHIONABLE printed cottons increased significantly in the late eighteenth century with the transition from manual wood blocks and copper plates to mechanized cylindrical rollers capable of printing 10,000 yards per day. [10] The British-led Industrial Revolution, coupled with American cotton, meant that by 1830 vast quantities of patterned fabrics were being produced quickly and cheaply, making it affordable for most women to have at least one new dress each year. This cotton day gown is ornamented with pointillist scrolls and foliate designs in a quartet of colors; four calibrated rollers each containing a different dye were passed over the length of cloth during its printing process.

This bodice features massive balloon sleeves called “imbeciles” by contemporaries, possibly a reference to the jacket style worn by restrained patients at insane asylums. [11] Perhaps this term also functioned as satirical commentary on women’s “insanity” for submitting to sartorial extremes.

FROM THE LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY, France’s style leadership influenced clothing choices throughout Europe and America by way of traveling dolls dressed in miniature versions of fashionable dress. By the late eighteenth century, these small ambassadors of fashion competed with published sources, such as The Ladies’ Magazine and Le Journal des dames et des modes, with their hand-tinted plates depicting the latest modes.  [12]

This papier-mâché and leather doll—known as a “milliner’s model”—was created to display contemporary female dress and hairstyles for adult women and functioned as an educational toy for wealthy children. [13] It is rare for its height: thirty-four-and-one-half-inches. The finely printed floral cotton gown is superbly draped and sewn, perfectly replicating the construction of a full-sized garment. Though molded and painted hairstyles were more typical, this example retains its original human hair wig twisted into a fashionably looped “Apollo’s knot.”

THE EXTREME BREADTH of the sleeves on this day dress is the last vestige of the “imbecile” style. The shoulders have been banded down in tight pleats which, over the next few years, would elongate and push the fullness down the arms. The bodice is stiffened with a built-in, thick wood busk at center front, anticipating the boning that defined the female torso for the rest of the century. The striking color—variously described as “amber,” “apricot,” and “citron” in fashion periodicals—was symbolically linked to the sunlit heavens. [14, 15]

THE FEMININE IDEAL OF THE 1830s AND 40s owed a great deal to the popularity of ballerinas, who embodied demure poise and refinement onstage. Their costumes were a major influence on fashion, particularly their delicate, flat-soled slippers. This pair, made of straw and horsehair, was for use at home. The shoes are fragile and required a light, graceful step. [16]

The horsehair mesh supports a variety of intricate bordures—straw plaits, braids, and ornaments—that were likely surplus trimmings from the bonnet industry. The crimson silk linings highlight these miniscule twists, spirals, loops, and weaves. Improvements in agrarian practices during the first decades of the nineteenth century resulted in a glut of straw, a by-product of cereal crops such as barley and wheat. The stalk’s successful transition from farm to fashion was due to its seemingly endless supply, unique fragility, and much-admired golden sheen.

THE TOP HAT was an indispensable part of a gentleman’s wardrobe throughout the nineteenth century. The style is British in origin and was first worn as hunting attire in the country before being incorporated into formal urban dress. It was most often made of sheared beaver fur and wool felt, although straw or silk plush was substituted during summertime.

Beaver was an obvious choice for inclement weather, as the animal’s fur is naturally water repellent. It also readily took to dye, making black, gray, and even blue top hats options for the well-dressed gent. Consumer demand for these accessories, called “beavers” by contemporaries, reached an all time high in the 1820s, decimating the animal’s population in the United States and forcing manufacturers to use other mammals, such as the rabbit, mole, and nutria. [17] This example is made from rare white beaver fur, created by felting a base of wool with the hairs, then laying the damp mixture over a wooden block to shape it. [18] A man’s social rank was easily ascertained by the quality and upkeep of his top hat, which, as one period source noted, “should always have a look of newness, as no one article of dress casts a greater gloom over the wearer than a shabby hat.” [19]

Credits: Story

ENDNOTES
1. The Lady’s Magazine Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex: Appropriated Solely to Their Use and Amusement, volume 33 (London: Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, January 1802), 264.
2. The suit’s coloring and tri-part floral motif may reference the Bourbon monarchy, restored to power in 1814. The white fleur-de-lis was the symbol of the House of Bourbon.
3. “Memoir of Johann Nepomuk Hummel” in The Harmonicon, number xviii (London: W. Pinrock, June 1824), 104.
4. Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c. (October 1, 1817), 234.
5. For popular shades of yellow see La Belle Assemblée (London: December 25, 1825), 258; and The Kaleidoscope (Liverpool: February 1825), 268.
6. Adrienne L. Kaeppler. “The Feather Cape Enigma: English or American Indian? A Response to Lurie and Anderson’s ‘Lost Art Form: A Case Study of 19th Century Feathered Capes Produced by American Indians in the Great Lakes Region’” in Museum Anthropology, Volume 23 (3), (2000), 97–103.
7. Memoirs of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History, Volume VII (Honolulu, Hawaii: Bishop Museum Press, 1918), 17.
8. See for example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1976.55 and 1981.527.1); the Cleveland Museum of Art (1996.14); Historic New England (1923.508); the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (20.806); and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (m2007.211.141).
9. The World of Fashion (June 1829), 138; and Jeremy Farrell. The Costume Accessories Series: Socks & Stockings (London: B.T. Batsford Limited, 1992), 46–47.
10. The Hudson Print Works factory in Stockport, New York, produced 10,000 yards of printed cotton per day. See George S. White. Memoir of Samuel Slater, The Father of American Manufactures (Philadelphia, 1836), 402.
11. C. Willet Cunnington. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Dover Publications, 1990 [orig. 1937]), 79; and Jill Condra, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing through World History: Volume 3, 1801 to the Present (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2007), 46.
12. Pam Parmal, et al. Fashion Show: Paris Style (Boston: MFA Publications, 2006), 41; and Alice Mackrell. An Illustrated History of Fashion: 500 Years of Fashion Illustration (New York: Costume & Fashion Press, 1997), 84.
13. Eleanor St. George. The Dolls of Yesterday (New York: Bonanza Books, 1948), 69–75.
14. Otto Charles Thieme. Simply Stunning: 200 Years of Fashion from the Cincinnati Art Museum (Cincinnati, OH: Cincinnati Art Museum, 1988), 31.
15. Miranda Bruce-Mitford. The Illustrated Book of Signs & Symbols (New York: DK Publishing, 1996), 38–39.
16. See similar pair of slippers in the Kyoto Costume Institute (ac9012 93-48ab) photographed in: Akiko Fukai. Fashion A History from the 18th to the 20th Century (Taschen, 2002), 199. See also The Metropolitan Museum of Art (c.i. 38.23.140ab).
17. The London Encyclopaedia: or Universal dictionary of science, art, literature, and practical mechanics, comprising a popular view of the present state of knowledge, volume 3 (London, 1829), 717.
18. Ibid., 716.
19 . An Annual of Politeness Comprising the Principles of Etiquette and Rules of Behavior for Genteel Society, for Persons of Both Sexes (Philadelphia: W. Marshall and Co., 1837), 194.

© FIDM Museum & Library, Inc.

Kevin L. Jones and Christina M Johnson. FABULOUS! Ten Years of FIDM Museum Acquisitions, 2000-2010. Los Angeles: FIDM Museum Publications, 2010.

Photography by Brian Sanderson.

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