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Fashion in the period 1795–1820 in European and European-influenced countries saw the final triumph of undress or informal styles over the brocades, lace, periwigs and powder of the earlier 18th century. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, no one wanted to appear to be a member of the French aristocracy, and people began using clothing more as a form of individual expression of the true self than as a pure indication of social status. As a result, the shifts that occurred in fashion at the turn of the 19th century granted the opportunity to present new public identities that also provided insights into their private selves. Katherine Aaslestad indicates how "fashion, embodying new social values, emerged as a key site of confrontation between tradition and change."
For women's dress, the day to day outfit of the skirt and jacket style were practical and tactful, recalling the working class woman. Women's fashions followed classical ideals, and tightly laced corsets were temporarily abandoned in favor of a high-waisted, natural figure. This natural figure was emphasized by being able to see the body beneath the clothing. Visible breasts were part of this classical look, and some characterized the breasts in fashion as solely aesthetic and sexual.
In Britain, Beau Brummell introduced trousers, perfect tailoring, and unadorned, immaculate linen as the ideals of men's fashion. In Germany, republican city-states relinquished their traditional, modest, and practical garments and started to embrace the French and English fashion trends of short-sleeved chemise dresses and Spencer jackets. American fashion trends emulated French dress, but in a toned down manner with shawls and tunics to cope with the sheerness of the chemise. However, in Spain, members of the Aristocracy, as well as citizens of the lower class, united and rebelled against French enlightenment ideals and fashion by dressing as majas and majos to contain their Spanish pride.
By the end of the eighteenth century, a major shift in fashion was taking place that extended beyond changes in mere style to changes in philosophical and social ideals. Prior to this time, the style and traditions of the “Ancien Régime” prevented the conceptualization of “the self”. Instead, one’s identity was considered malleable; subject to change depending on what clothes one was wearing. However, by the 1780s, the new, “natural” style allowed one’s inner self to transcend their clothes.
During the 1790s, there was a new concept of the internal and external self. Before this time, there had only been one self, which was expressed through clothing. When going to a masquerade ball, people wore specific clothing, so they could not show their individuality through their clothing. Since, for everyday dress, most people wore similar clothing, people used accessories to show their individuality. These accessories and the detail on the clothing were more important than the shape of the dress.
Incorporated in this new “natural” style was the importance of ease and comfort of one's dress. Not only was there a new emphasis on hygiene, but also clothing became much lighter and more able to be changed and washed frequently. Even upper class women began wearing cropped dresses as opposed to dresses with long trains or hoops that restricted them from leaving their homes. In a sense, women were influenced by male fashion, such as tailored waistcoats and jackets to emphasize women’s mobility. This new movement toward practicality of dress showed that dress became less of a way to solely categorize between classes or genders; dress was meant to suit one's personal daily routine. It was also during this time period that the fashion magazine and journal industry began to take off. They were most often monthly (often competing) periodicals that allowed men and women to keep up with the ever-changing styles.
In the late 18th century, clothes were mostly sold by individual shopkeepers who were often the artisans who made the goods. Customers usually lived in the same neighborhood as the shops and the shops would gain popularity by their customers’ word-of–mouth recommendation, with the exception of warehouses (i.e., any retail on wholesale), where goods being sold were not necessarily made in the shop. However, things started to change during the transition to the 19th century. People sought efficiency and variety; under the influence of the Industrial Revolution, improved transportation and introduction of machines in manufacturing allowed fashion to develop at an even faster pace.
The first sewing machine emerged in 1790, and later, Josef Madersperger began developing his first sewing machine in 1807, presenting his first working machine in 1814. The introduction of the sewing machine sped up garment production. Meanwhile, advanced spinning, weaving and cotton-printing techniques developed in the 18th century had already brought detailed, washable fabrics. These durable and affordable fabrics became popular among the majority population. These techniques were further developed by the introduction of machines. Before, accessories like embroidery and lace were manufactured on a small and limited scale by skilled craftsmen and sold in their own shops; in 1804, a machine for embroidering was constructed by John Duncan, and people started producing these essential accessories in factories and dispatching the products to shops throughout the country. These technical developments in clothing production allowed a greater variety of styles; rapid changes in fashion also became possible.
The Industrial Revolution bridged Europe and America with regards to travel. When Louis Simond first arrived to America, he was struck by the mobility of the population and frequency of people made trips to the capital, writing "you meet nowhere with those persons who never were out of their native place, and whose habits are wholly local — nobody above poverty who has not visited London once in his life; and most of those who can, visit once a year.’ New canals and railways not only transported people, but created national and even broader markets by transporting goods that manufactured in factories in great distances. The rise of industry throughout the Western world increased garment production and people were encouraged to travel more widely and purchase more goods than ever before.
Communication was also improved in this era. New ideas about fashion were conveyed by little dolls dressed in the latest style, newspapers, and illustrated magazines; for example, La Belle Assemblée, founded by John Bell, was a British women's magazine published from 1806 to 1837. It was best known for its fashion plates of Regency era styles, showing how women should dress and behave. When fashion became available for everybody, people were expected to dress according to the latest fashion. Dressmakers would show the fashion-plates to their customers, so that customers could catch up to the latest styles.
In this period, fashionable women's clothing styles were based on the Empire silhouette — dresses were closely fitted to the torso just under the bust, falling loosely below. In different contexts, such styles are commonly called "Directoire style" (referring to the Directory government of France during the second half of the 1790s), "Empire style" (referring to Napoleon's 1804–1814/1815 empire, and often also to his 1800–1804 "consulate"), or "Regency" (most precisely referring to the 1811–1820 period of George IV's formal regency, but often loosely used to refer to various periods between the 18th century and the Victorian).
These 1795–1820 fashions were quite different from the styles prevalent during most of the 18th century and the rest of the 19th century, when women's clothes were generally tight against the torso from the natural waist upwards, and heavily full-skirted below (often inflated by means of hoop skirts, crinolines, panniers, bustles, etc.). The high waistline of 1795–1820 styles took attention away from the natural waist, so that there was then no point to the tight "wasp-waist" corseting often considered fashionable during other periods. Without the corset, chemise dresses displayed the long line of the body, as well as the curves of the female torso.
Inspired by neoclassical tastes, the short-waisted dresses sported soft, loose skirts and were often made of white, almost transparent muslin, which was easily washed and draped loosely like the garments on Greek and Roman statues. Since the fabric clung to the body, revealing what was underneath, it made nudity à la grecque a centerpiece of public spectacle. Thus during the 1795–1820 period, it was often possible for middle- and upper-class women to wear clothes that were not very confining or cumbersome, and still be considered decently and fashionably dressed.
Among middle- and upper-class women there was a basic distinction between "morning dress" (worn at home in the afternoons as well as mornings) and evening attire — generally, both men and women changed clothes in preparation for the evening meal and possible entertainments to follow. There were also further gradations such as afternoon dress, walking dress, riding habits, travelling dress, dinner dress, etc.
In the Mirror of Graces; or the English Lady's Costume, published in London in 1811, the author ("a Lady of Distinction") advised:
In the morning the arms and bosom must be completely covered to the throat and wrists. From the dinner-hour to the termination of the day, the arms, to a graceful height above the elbow, may be bare; and the neck and shoulders unveiled as far as delicacy will allow.
A Lady of Distinction also advised young ladies to wear softer shades of color, such as pinks, periwinkle blue, or lilacs. The mature matron could wear fuller colors, such as purple, black, crimson, deep blue, or yellow.
Many women of this era remarked upon how being fully dressed meant the bosom and shoulders were bare, and yet being under-dressed would mean one's neckline went right up to one's chin.
Due to the importance of showing social status, the fashion industry was very much influenced by society during the Regency era. One's position was determined by the person’s wealth, etiquette, family status, intelligence, and beauty. Women financially and socially relied on their husbands. The only socially-acceptable activities in which women could participate centered around social gatherings and fashion, the most important component of which was attending evening parties. These parties helped to build relationships and connection with others. As etiquette dictated different standards of attire for different events, afternoon dress, evening dress, evening full dress, ball dress, and different type of dresses were popular.
Women’s fashion in the Regency era started to change drastically. It popularized the empire silhouette, which featured a fitted bodice and high waist. This “new natural style” emphasized the beauty of the body's natural lines. Clothing became lighter and easier to care for than in the past. Women often wore several layers of clothing, typically undergarments, gowns, and outerwear. The chemise, the standard undergarment of the era, prevented the thin, gauzy dresses from being fully transparent. Outerwear, such as the spencer and the pelisse, were popular.
The empire silhouette was created in the late 18th century to about early 19th century, and referred to the period of the First French Empire. This adoption had been linked with France’s Relation and adopted of Greek and Roman principles. The style was often worn in white to denote as a high social status. Josephine Bonaparte was the one of the figureheads for the Empire waistline, with her elaborated and decorated Empire line dresses. Regency women followed the Empire style along the same trend of raised waistlines as French styles, even when their countries were at war. Starting from 1780s and early 1790s, women’s silhouette became slimmer and the waistlines crept up. After 1795, waistlines rose dramatically and the skirt circumference was further reduced. Few years later, England and France started to show the focus of high waist style and this led to the creation of Empire style.
The style began as part of Neoclassical fashion, reviving styles from Greco-Roman art which showed women wearing loose fitting rectangular tunics known as peplos which were belted under the bust, providing support for women and a cool, comfortable outfit especially in warm climate. The empire silhouette was defined by the waistline, which was positioned directly under the bust. The Empire silhouette were the key style in women’s clothing during the Regency era. The dresses were usually light, long and fit loosely, they were usually in white and often sheer from the ankle to just below the bodice which strongly emphasized thin hem and tied around the body. A long rectangular shawl or wrap, very often plain red but with a decorated border in portraits, helped in colder weather, and was apparently lain around the midriff when seated—for which sprawling semi-recumbent postures were favored. The dresses had a fitted bodice and it gave a high-waist appearance.
The style had waxed and waned in fashion for hundreds of years. The shape of the dresses also helped to lengthen the body’s appearance. The clothing can also be draped to maximize the bust. Lightweight fabrics were typically used to create a flowing effect. Also, ribbon, sash, and other decorative features were used to highlight the waistline. The empire gowns were often with low neckline and short sleeves and women usually worn them as evening dresses. On the other hand, day gowns had higher neckline and long sleeves. The chemisette was a staple for fashionable ladies. Although there were differences between day dresses and evening dresses, the high waistline was not changed.
During this period, the classical influence extended to hairstyles. Often masses of curls were worn over the forehead and ears, with the longer back hair drawn up into loose buns or Psyche knots influenced by Greek and Roman styles. By the later 1810s, front hair was parted in the center and worn in tight ringlets over the ears. Adventurous women like Lady Caroline Lamb wore short cropped hairstyles "à la Titus", the Journal de Paris reporting in 1802 that "more than half of elegant women were wearing their hair or wig à la Titus", a layered cut usually with some tresses hanging down.
In the Mirror of Graces, a Lady of Distinction writes,
Now, easy tresses, the shining braid, the flowing ringlet confined by the antique comb, or bodkin, give graceful specimens of the simple taste of modern beauty. Nothing can correspond more elegantly with the untrammeled drapery of our newly-adopted classic raiment than this undecorated coiffure of nature.
For the first time in centuries, respectable but daringly fashionable women would leave the house without a hat or bonnet, previously something often associated with prostitutes. However most women continued to wear something on their head outdoors, though they were beginning to cease to do so indoors during the day (as well as for evening wear). The antique head-dress, or Queen Mary coif, Chinese hat, Oriental inspired turban, and Highland helmet were popular. As for bonnets, their crowns and brims were adorned with increasingly elaborate ornamentations, such as feathers and ribbons. In fact, ladies of the day embellished their hats frequently, replacing old decorations with new trims or feathers.
Artist Rolinda Sharples wears her hair in a mass of curls; her mother wears a sheer indoor cap, c. 1820.
Mme Seriziat wears a straw bonnet trimmed with green ribbon over a lace mob cap, 1795 (painting by Jacques-Louis David
Fashionable women of the Regency era wore several layers of undergarments. The first was the chemise, or shift, a thin garment with tight, short sleeves (and a low neckline if worn under evening wear), made of white cotton and finished with a plain hem that was shorter than the dress. These shifts were meant to protect the outer-clothes from perspiration and were washed more frequently than outer clothes. In fact, washer women of the time used coarse soap when scrubbing these garments, then plunged them in boiling water, hence the absence of color, lace, or other embellishments, which would have faded or damaged the fabric under such rough treatment. Chemises and shifts also prevented the transparent muslin or silk dresses from being too revealing.
The next layer was a pair of stays or corset. However, high-waisted classical fashions required no corset for the slight of figure, and there were some experiments to produce garments which would serve the same functions as a modern brassiere. (In the Mirror of Graces, a "divorce" was described as an undergarment that served to separate a woman's breasts. Made of steel or iron that was covered by a type of padding, and shaped like a triangle, this device was placed in the center of the chest.) "Short stays" (corsets extending only a short distance below the breasts) were often worn over the shift or chemise (not directly next to the skin), and "long stays" (corsets extending down towards the natural waist) were worn by a minority of women trying to appear slimmer than they were (but even such long stays were not primarily intended to constrict the waist, in the manner of Victorian corsets.)
The final layer was the petticoat, which could have a scooped neckline and was sleeveless, and was fitted in the back with hooks and eyelets, buttons or tapes. These petticoats were often worn between the underwear and the outer dress and was considered part of the outer clothing not underwear. The lower edge of the petticoat was intended to be seen, since women would often lift their outer dresses to spare the relatively delicate material of the outer dress from mud or damp (so exposing only the coarser and cheaper fabric of the petticoat to risk). Often exposed to view, petticoats were decorated at the hem with rows of tucks or lace, or ruffles.
"Drawers" (underpants with short legs) were only beginning to be worn by a few women during this period. They were tied separately around the waist.
Stockings (hosiery), made of silk or knitted cotton, were held up by garters below the knee until suspenders were introduced in the late 19th century and were often of a white or pale flesh color 
During this time period, women's clothing was much thinner than in the eighteenth century so warmer outerwear became important in fashion, especially in colder climates. Coat-like garments such as pelisses and redingotes were popular, as were shawls, mantles, mantelets, capes and cloaks. The mantelet was a short cape that was eventually lengthened and made into a shawl. The redingote, another popular example, was a full-length garment resembling a man's riding coat (hence the name) in style, that could be made of different fabrics and patterns. Throughout the period, the Indian shawl was the favoured wrap, as houses and the typical English country house were generally draughty, and the sheer muslin and light silk dresses popular during this time provided less protection. Shawls were made of soft cashmere or silk or even muslin for summer. Paisley patterns were extremely popular at the time.
Short (high-waisted) jackets called spencers were worn outdoors, along with long-hooded cloaks, Turkish wraps, mantles, capes, Roman tunics, chemisettes, and overcoats called pelisses (which were often sleeveless and reached down as far as the ankles). These outer garments were often made of double sarsnet, fine Merino cloth, or velvets, and trimmed with fur, such as swan's down, fox, chinchilla, or sable. On May 6, 1801, Jane Austen wrote her sister Cassandra, "Black gauze cloaks are worn as much as anything."
Thin, flat fabric (silk or velvet) or leather slippers were generally worn (as opposed to the high-heeled shoes of much of the 18th century).
Metal pattens were strapped on shoes to protect them from rain or mud, raising the feet an inch or so off the ground.
Gloves were always worn[by whom?] outside the house. When worn inside, as when making a social call, or on formal occasions, such as a ball, they were removed when dining. About the length of the glove, A Lady of Distinction writes:
If the prevailing fashion be to reject the long sleeve, and to partially display the arm, let the glove advance considerably above the elbow, and there be fastened with a draw-string or armlet. But this should only be the case when the arm is muscular, coarse, or scraggy. When it is fair, smooth, and round, it will admit of the glove being pushed down to a little above the wrists.
Longer gloves were worn rather loosely during this period, crumpling below the elbow. As described in the passage above, "garters" could fasten longer gloves.
Reticules held personal items, such as vinaigrettes. The form-fitting dresses or frocks of the day had no pockets, thus these small drawstring handbags were essential. These handbags were often called buskins or balantines. They were rectangular in shape and was worn suspended by a woven band from a belt placed around the figure above the waist.
Parasols (as shown in the illustration) protected a lady's skin from the sun, and were considered an important fashion accessory. Slender and light in weight, they came in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes.
Fashionable ladies (and gentlemen) used fans to cool themselves and to enhance gestures and body language. Made of paper or silk on sticks of ivory and wood, and printed with oriental motifs or popular scenes of the era, these ubiquitous accessories featured a variety of shapes and styles, such as pleated or rigid. An information sheet from the Cheltenham Museum describes fans and their use in body language and communication (click and scroll to page 4).
By the mid-1790s, neoclassical clothing had come into fashion in France. Several influences had combined to bring about this simplification in women’s clothing: aspects of Englishwomen’s practical country outdoor-wear leaked up into French high fashion, and there was a reaction in revolutionary France against the stiffly boned corsets and brightly colored satins and other heavy fabrics that were in style in the Ancien Régime (see 1750–1795 in fashion). But ultimately, Neo-classicism was adopted for its association with classical republican ideas [with reference to Greece, rather than republican Rome, which was now considered politically dangerous]. This renewed fascination of the classical past was encouraged by the recent discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and would likely have not been possible outside such a specific geographic and historical setting that allowed the idea of the past made present to become paramount.
Along with the influences of the Pompeii and Herculaneum excavations, several other factors came together to popularize neoclassical dress. Starting in the early 1790s, Emma Hamilton began her performances of attitudes, something that was considered by contemporaries as entirely new. These attitudes were based loosely on the ancient practice of pantomime, though Emma’s performances lacked masks and musical accompaniment. Her performances created a fusion between art and nature; art came alive and her body became a type of art. As an aid to her performances of tragic mythological and historical figures, Emma wore the clothing á la grecque that would become popular in mainstream France in the coming years. A simple light colored chemise made from thin, flowing material was worn and gathered with a narrow ribbon under the breasts. Simple cashmere shawls were used as headdresses or to give more fullness to the drapery of the chemise. They also helped to prevent broken lines in the performance so that the outstretched arms were always connected with the body, escalating the effect of fluid movement, and oftentimes, a cape or a cloak was worn to emphasize the lines of the body in certain poses. This highlighted the continuity of surface of line and form in the body of the performer to emphasize the unity, simplicity, and continuously flowing movement from one part of the body to the next. The hair was worn in a natural, loose, and flowing fashion. All of these properties blended together to allow an extensive play of light and shadow to reveal and accent certain parts of the body during the performance, while covering others. Emma was highly capable in her attitudes, and the influence of her dress spread from Naples to Paris as wealthy Parisians took the Grand Tour.
There is also some evidence that the white muslin shift dress became popular after Thermidor through the influence of prison dress. Revolutionary women such as Madame Tallien portrayed themselves in this way because it was the only clothing they possessed during their time in prison. The chemise á la grecque also represented the struggle for representation of the self and the stripping down of past cultural values. Also, a simplification of the attire worn by preteen girls in the 1780s (who were no longer required to wear miniature versions of adult stays and panniers) probably paved the way for the simplification of the attire worn by teenage girls and adult women in the 1790s. Waistlines became somewhat high by 1795, but skirts were still rather full, and neoclassical influences were not yet dominant.
It was during the second half of the 1790s that fashionable women in France began to adopt a thoroughgoing Classical style, based on an idealized version of ancient Greek and Roman dress (or what was thought at the time to be ancient Greek and Roman dress), with narrow clinging skirts. Some of the extreme Parisian versions of the neoclassical style (such as narrow straps which bared the shoulders, and diaphanous dresses without sufficient stays, petticoats, or shifts worn beneath) were not widely adopted elsewhere, but many features of the late-1790s neoclassical style were broadly influential, surviving in successively modified forms in European fashions over the next two decades.
With this Classical style came the willingness to expose the breast. With the new iconography of the Revolution as well as a change in emphasis on maternal breast-feeding, the chemise dress became a sign of the new egalitarian society. The style was simple and appropriate for the comfort of a pregnant or nursing woman as the breasts were emphasized and their availability was heightened. Maternity became fashionable and it was not uncommon for women to walk around with their breasts exposed. Some women took the “fashionable maternity” a step further and wore a “six-month pad” under their dress to appear pregnant.
White was considered the most suitable color for neoclassical clothing (accessories were often in contrasting colors). Short trains trailing behind were common in dresses of the late 1790s.
During the first two decades of the 19th century, fashions continued to follow the basic high-waisted empire silhouette, but in other respects neoclassical influences became progressively diluted. Dresses remained narrow in front, but fullness at the raised back waist allowed room to walk. Colors other than white came into style, the fad for diaphanous outer fabrics faded (except in certain formal contexts), and some elements of obvious visible ornamentation came back into use in the design of the dress (as opposed to the elegant simplicity or subtle white-on-white embroidery of the dress of ca. 1800).
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This era signaled the loss of any lingering neoclassical, pseudo-Grecian styles in women's dress. This decline was especially evident in France due to the Emperor Napoleon's suppression of trade in the fabrics used in neoclassical dress. While waistlines were still high, they were beginning to drop slightly. Larger and more abundant decoration, especially near the hem and neckline foreshadowed greater extravagance in the coming years. More petticoats were being worn, and a stiffer, more cone-shaped skirt became popular. Stiffness could be supplemented by layers of ruffles and tucks on a hem, as well as corded or flounced petticoats. Sleeves began to be pulled, tied, and pinched in ways that were more influenced by romantic and gothic styles than neoclassical. Hats and hairstyles became more elaborate and trimmed, climbing higher to balance widening skirts.
This period saw the final abandonment of lace, embroidery, and other embellishment from serious men's clothing outside of formalized court dress—it would not reappear except as an affectation of Aesthetic dress in the 1880s and its successor, the "Young Edwardian" look of the 1960s. Instead, cut and tailoring became much more important as an indicator of quality. This transformation can be attributed in part to an increased interest in antiquity stemming from the discovery of classical engravings, including the Elgin Marbles. The figures depicted in classical art were viewed as an exemplar of the ideal natural form, and an embodiment of Neoclassical ideas. Therefore, in the 18th century, dress was simplified and greater emphasis was put on tailoring to enhance the natural form of the body.
Breeches became longer—tightly fitted leather riding breeches reached almost to the boot tops—and were replaced by pantaloons or trousers for fashionable street wear. The French Revolution is largely responsible for altering standard male dress. During the revolution, clothing symbolized the division between the upper classes and the working class revolutionaries. French rebels earned the nickname sans-culottes, or "(the people without breeches," because of the loose floppy trousers they popularized.
Coats were cutaway in front with long skirts or tails behind, and had tall standing collars. Lapels were not as large as they had been in years before and often featured an M-shaped notch unique to the period.
Shirts were made of linen, had attached collars, and were worn with stocks or wrapped in a cravat tied in various fashions. Pleated frills at the cuffs and front opening went out of fashion by the end of the period.
Waistcoats were high-waisted, and squared off at the bottom, but came in a broad variety of styles. They were often double-breasted, with wide lapels and stand collars. Around 1805 large lapels that overlapped those of the jacket began to fall out of fashion, as did the 18th century tradition of wearing the coat unbuttoned, and gradually waistcoats became less visible. Shortly before this time waistcoats were commonly vertically striped but by 1810 plain white waistcoats were increasingly fashionable, as did horizontally striped waistcoats. High-collared waistcoats were fashionable until 1815, then collars were gradually lowered as the shawl collar came into use toward the end of this period.
Overcoats or greatcoats were fashionable, often with contrasting collars of fur or velvet. The garrick, sometimes called a coachman's coat, was a particularly popular style, and had between three and five short caplets attached to the collar.
Boots, typically Hessian boots with heart-shaped tops and tassels were mainstay in men's footwear. After the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, Wellington boots, as they were known, became the rage; tops were knee-high in front and cut lower in back. The jockey boot, with a turned-down cuff of lighter colored leather, had previously been popular but continued to be worn for riding. Court shoes with elevated heels became popular with the introduction of trousers.
The clothes-obsessed dandy first appeared in the 1790s, both in London and Paris. In the slang of the time, a dandy was differentiated from a fop in that the dandy's dress was more refined and sober. The dandy prided himself in "natural excellence" and tailoring allowed for exaggeration of the natural figure beneath fashionable outerwear.
In High Society: A Social History of the Regency Period, 1788–1830, Venetia Murray writes:
Other admirers of dandyism have taken the view that it is a sociological phenomenon, the result of a society in a state of transition or revolt. Barbey d'Aurevilly, one of the leading French dandies at the end of the nineteenth century, explained:
- "Some have imagined that dandyism is primarily a specialisation in the art of dressing oneself with daring and elegance. It is that, but much else as well. It is a state of mind made up of many shades, a state of mind produced in old and civilised societies where gaiety has become infrequent or where conventions rule at the price of their subject's boredom...it is the direct result of the endless warfare between respectability and boredom."
In Regency London dandyism was a revolt against a different kind of tradition, an expression of distaste for the extravagance and ostentation of the previous generation, and of sympathy with the new mood of democracy.
Beau Brummell set the fashion for dandyism in British society from the mid-1790s, which was characterized by immaculate personal cleanliness, immaculate linen shirts with high collars, perfectly tied cravats, and exquisitely tailored plain dark coats (contrasting in many respects with the "maccaroni" of the earlier 18th century).
Brummell abandoned his wig and cut his hair short in a Roman fashion dubbed à la Brutus, echoing the fashion for all things classical seen in women's wear of this period. He also led the move from breeches to snugly tailored pantaloons or trousers, often light-colored for day and dark for evening, based on working-class clothing adopted by all classes in France in the wake of the Revolution. In fact, Brummel's reputation for taste and refinement was such that, fifty years after his death, Max Beerbohm, wrote:
In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr Brummell's miracles.
Not every male aspiring to attain Brummel's sense of elegance and style succeeded, however, and these dandies were subject to caricature and ridicule. Venetia Murray quotes an excerpt from Diary of an Exquisite, from The Hermit in London, 1819:
Took four hours to dress; and then it rained; ordered the tilbury and my umbrella, and drove to the fives' court; next to my tailors; put him off after two years tick; no bad fellow that Weston...broke three stay-laces and a buckle, tore the quarter of a pair of shoes, made so thin by O'Shaughnessy, in St. James's Street, that they were light as brown paper; what a pity they were lined with pink satin, and were quite the go; put on a pair of Hoby's; over-did it in perfuming my handkerchief, and had to recommence de novo; could not please myself in tying my cravat; lost three quarters of an hour by that, tore two pairs of kid gloves in putting them hastily on; was obliged to go gently to work with the third; lost another quarter of an hour by this; drove off furiously in my chariot but had to return for my splendid snuff-box, as I knew that I should eclipse the circle by it.
During this period, younger men of fashion began to wear their hair in short curls, often with long sideburns. In 1795, Pitt's hair powder tax effectively ended the fashion for wigs and powder, and new styles like the Brutus and the Bedford Crop became fashionable. Older men, military officers, and those in conservative professions such as lawyers, judges, physicians, and servants retained their wigs and powder. Formal court dress also still required powdered hair.
Tricorne and bicorne hats were still worn, but the most fashionable hat was tall and slightly conical; this would evolve into the top hat and reign as the only hat for formal occasions for the next century.
Skeleton suit, c. 1806
During the first half of the Victorian era, there was a more or less negative view of women's styles of the 1795–1820 period. Some people would have felt slightly uncomfortable to be reminded that their mothers or grandmothers had once promenaded about in such styles (which could be considered indecent according to Victorian norms), and many would have found it somewhat difficult to really empathize with (or take seriously) the struggles of a heroine of art or literature if they were being constantly reminded that she was wearing such clothes. For such reasons, some Victorian history paintings of the Napoleonic wars intentionally avoided depicting accurate women's styles (see example below), Thackeray's illustrations to his book Vanity Fair depicted the women of the 1810s wearing 1840s fashions, and in Charlotte Brontë's 1849 novel Shirley (set in 1811–1812) neo-Grecian fashions are anachronistically relocated to an earlier generation.
Later in the Victorian period, the Regency seemed to retreat to an unthreateningly remote historical distance, and Kate Greenaway and the Artistic Dress movement selectively revived elements of early 19th century fashions. During the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, many genre paintings, sentimental valentines, etc. contained loose depictions of 1795–1820 styles (then considered to be quaint relics of a bygone era). In the late 1960s / early 1970s, there was a limited fashion revival of the Empire silhouette.
In recent years, 1795–1820 fashions are most strongly associated with Jane Austen's writings, due to the various movie adaptations of her novels. There are also some Regency fashion "urban myths", such as that women dampened their gowns to make them appear even more diaphanous (something which was certainly not practiced by the vast majority of women of the period).