This last post of BFGB Fashion Week is for the Jane Austenites. When you’ve paused your latest BBC rewatch or turned the last page of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, this catalog from a Milan exhibition is just the eye candy to take you back to the era of Empire waists, flawless white muslin, and feather headdresses. Taken from a private collection of original Napoleonic-era dresses and accessories, exhibit photographs are accompanied by plates from Costume Parisien, the Vogue of the Empire period, and a handful of essays.
Taking their inspiration from the tunics of classical Greece and Rome, ladies put away their corsets in favor of thin-to-transparent cotton muslin gowns that fit the figure. If you associate Empire dress primarily with novels of manners, as I tend to do, it’s easy to overlook what a wild, sensual freedom these dresses actually represent. Gone were the panniers, farthingales, and other heavy infrastructure of earlier court dress—now one could actually dress oneself without a maid… in a gown that silhouetted one’s actual body!
Illustrating trends from 1795 to 1815, this catalog is a great browsing book. Photographs of the preserved and restored clothing are its chief draw, but the essays touch on many topics to do with fashion, trade, and daily life:
- The exhibition demanded specially-made mannequins, because the made-to-measure dresses—worn by women whose ribcages and shoulders were shaped by years of corsetry and deportment lessons—wouldn’t fit properly on a modern silhouette.
- Napoleon assigned uniforms for all official positions partly in order to plough some money back into France’s silk and lacemaking industries, still reeling from the beheading of many of their main clients. He also encouraged consumer spending by cultivating a fashionable horror of being seen twice in the same dress, and was not above publicly ridiculing women who dared to repeat an outfit.
- Where men’s fashion was judged by its close tailoring, a woman’s loose dresses were distinguished by her accessories. First among these was the cashmere shawl, which represented as many as three years of craftsmanship, not counting traveling time from Kashmir to the shops of Paris. Fashionistas like this woman, artfully draped in red, were sporting the financial equivalent of a new car… thus leading to shawl theft, a shawl black market, and, not to be missed, “the affair of the infernal machine” (pages 125-126) in which a shawl saves Joséphine’s life! while Mlle Beauharnais receives a slight hurt on her hand! and an unnamed fashion magazine founder is regrettably killed.
You can preview some of these elegant outfits at the exhibition web site.
Check the WRL catalog for Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion.