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Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Fashion Revolution of 1795

In her blog Austen Only, Julie  Wakefield recently wrote an intriguing article, analysing whether Thomson’s illustrations for Sense and Sensibility from 1896 were accurate, as they portray Jane Austen’s characters dressed in the old, pre-revolution fashions. Fascinated by the fashion of Jane Austen’s time, the article inspired me to look into of the changing fashions of the time.

At around the time when Jane Austen was 20 years old and writing her first great novels, social change brought about a great change in fashion, too. 1794-1795 was a turbulent time in Europe, with the French revolution shaking the foundations of feudal society and with it, the upper classes.  Marie Antoinette preferred the simpler ‘English’ styles to the prevailing fashion of ornate gowns and hoops, which she hated wearing. Rousseau agreed with the more casual styles, as these were viewed to be more ‘democratic’, and this also encouraged the shift in style. 


         Napoleon’s wife Josephine in an empire dress. Image from Wikipedia.

With France at the forefront of European fashion, the social change in France had a marked influence on fashion all across Europe. During these years, fashions shifted from the large, hooped, frilly styles to easy flowing, thin silhouettes. Fashion reverted back to the classical, neo-Grecian style, emulating the democratic republics of the ancient world. Marie Antoinette was the first person to embrace the so-called ‘empire style’ in dress, which was soon adopted by gentry and nobility all over.

The 20-year-old Jane – and her characters – probably underwent these changes, although we fail to see this in the more recent film adaptations of her novels, which tend to display only the newer Regency fashions.

This engraving by Chataignier from 1797 shows the contrast between old and new fashions, the followers of new fashion mocking the old “Oh! What relics!” and the more conservative dressers disapproving of the new “Oh! What a foolish new fashion!”

Quelle Antiquite!

                                                                                      Image from the British Museum.

The new styles brought great relief to ladies, as the tightly-laced corsets and hoops were abandoned and the dresses had a more comfortable, natural flow to them. The gowns were short-sleeved, made of soft, thin muslins, which were tied with a ribbon right below the bosom.  Underwear consisted of simple petticoats and cotton bodices. Men ridiculed the fashions, as the natural waistline had disappeared and the shape of the body was largely hidden below the chest; however, the new fashion was welcome to women, as it was less restricting and easy flowing, the footwear was more comfortable and the hairstyles were easier to manage.

While the old fashion had men and women wearing buckled, heeled shoes, the new fashion introduced flat shoes for ladies, which resemble the modern ballerina slipper. For men, boots were in fashion.  This caricature contrasts the hoop-skirts and high-heeled shoes of 1742 with the high-waisted narrow skirts and flat shoes of 1794.


Image from Wikipedia.

The gowns before the Revolution were heavily ornamented, with plenty of ruffles and bows adorning the dress. The ornamentation changed into simple designs, and the empire dress would nearly always be white and often transparent, at the most embroidered with intricate patterns.

                                                  The changing silhouette:

                                                              A hooped ornamented dress.

                                                                                             Delicate muslin gowns.

                                                                         (Images taken at the Fashion Museum in Bath). 

As the earlier fashion was characterised by large silhouettes, the hairstyles were large as well. Hair was gathered in a huge pyramid, backcombed, powdered and decorated with ornaments. On top of the pyramid, there might be a tall hat as well. The men, on the other hand, would either wear a wig, or wear their powdered hair long, clubbed with a black ribbon to hold the pigtail. All this changed when a tax on hair-powder was introduced in 1795, and men would gradually move towards cropped hairstyles. Women, on the other hand, now preferred shorter hair with loose curls around the face. Instead of large hats, long ostrich feathers were worn to display high status for evening gatherings.

For men, it was a time of more masculinity in style. It was goodbye to white stockings and buckled shoes, and hello to a more outdoors, sporty style suited to an active life in the countryside. While the earlier fashion placed a great deal of importance to shirts, with lace ruffles on the front and in the cuffs, shirts were now less important and neck-cloths were more prominent. Men would wear long riding coats with long tails, and breeches lengthened into skin-tight pantaloons tucked into boots. Later on, the fashion guru of the time, Beau Brummell, introduced trousers, and there was no going back. The new style was complete with stylish top hats, which emerged later in the period. 

         Towards a more natural style:

V&A Men's Dress

A man’s outfit from 1790. Image from V&A.


                     A model of a Regency outfit.

     Image taken at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.

Predictably, there was a generation gap between those who sported the new styles with enthusiasm and those who disapproved of the new fashions, preferring to cling to the fashions of their youth. While we may assume that the characters from Jane Austen’s later novels - Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion – certainly followed the new style, the characters from the earlier novels – Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey – written in 1795-6, 1796-7 and 1798 respectively – will almost certainly have portrayed a mixture of old and new fashion. The older, more conservative and rustic characters would have stuck to the old fashions, while the younger, more fashionable characters would have proudly embraced the new styles.


References and further reading:

  • Downing, S.J. (2010) Fashion In the Time of Jane Austen. Shire Library.

This book gives a very interesting and useful introduction, with a clear outline of the fashion in the time of Jane Austen and excellent images.  


  1. Very nice article on Austenian fashion. Love the concept of your blog too!


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