Every now and then, I have people request that I design “Jane Austen character dresses.” What I suspect they want is a dress with an “empire waist.”
As you can see in the image below, the vintage Simplicity doll clothes pattern number 8466 actually offers a ball gown with an empire waist (see View 4):
However the empire waist style of dress that women actually wore in the late 1700’s would have had short puffy sleeves instead of straps. I wonder, though, how hard it would be to add puffy sleeves to this bodice…?
According to a book about fashion history entitled, Western World Costume (by Carolyn G. Bradley), the period from 1789 to 1794 is considered a “transition period,” and women often dressed in “a bodice and skirt joined to form a 1-piece dress, extremely low neckline; puffed fichu smaller than that of [the] preceding period…”
The “fichu” she mentions is the scarf women wore to cover their bosom when the necklines were cut low. People in Jane Austen’s time would have worn them over the front of the dress for modesty, although we see these very infrequently in movies. Here’s a view of a fichu on an actress from a BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.
But have you ever thought about why it’s called an “empire” waist? Wikipedia suggests (and I’ve heard it said elsewhere as well) that “the word empire refers to the period of the First French Empire; Napoleon’s first Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais was influential in popularizing the style around Europe.”
However women in Jane Austen’s time were not wearing the style of dress we see in Simplicity doll clothes pattern number 8466. That’s a much later rendition of the empire waist.
Rather, the “waist” part refers to the fact that the bodice and skirt meet just under the woman’s bosom. So this dress pattern from my collection wouldn’t count:
Instead, the dress needs to join bodice-to-skirt about an inch higher than that. The bodice darts won’t be nearly as long.
If you’re wondering why they called this the “transition period,” I’m guessing France was transitioning from the gaudy clothing of the royals to the post-French-Revolutionary period. Just like here in the United States, where I live, there was a renewed interest in ancient Greece and Rome — a sort of Greco-Roman revival — in the areas of art, architecture, thought, and even fashion.
So paintings of Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais show her with a Romanesque ambiance. Of course only wealthy women could afford to wear white chiffon dresses like hers, so keep in mind that not everyone looked like paintings of the empress! But if you click on the links to the Wikipedia page on Joséphine de Beauharnais, you can really see how her fashion sense harkened back to ancient Greece and Rome.
And this was the inspiration for the “empire waist” we all know and love today — the same style we see in Jane Austen movies — a low cut bodice with puffy sleeves and a skirt that starts just below the bustline.
I’ll leave you with a Romanesque photo I took of my Lammily dolls at the Palace of Versailles. How ironic that the Lammily Traveler doll is dressed more like Joséphine de Beauharnais than Marie Antoinette!
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Chelly Wood and the ChellyWood.com website are not affiliated with the pattern company or companies mentioned in this blog post, but Chelly finds inspiration in the doll clothes designed by these pattern companies. To purchase patterns from Simplicity, McCall’s, Butterick, or other pattern companies shown and discussed in this blog post, please click on the links provided here. These links below the “Disclaimer” section do not help raise money for this free pattern website; they are only offered to give credit to the company that made these patterns.