It is hard to say how long the ornate fashions of the late eighteenth century would have continued. As with all fashion, changes would have come, probably with slow transitions to a new style. But towards the end of the 1700s there was a drastic change. The French court, that arbiter of fashion, was overthrown by the French Revolution. During the Terror it was not politic to bring attention to oneself and fashion languished.
It came back with a look drastically changed from the previous decades. Instead of ornate clothes and artificial make-up, a classical natural look was embraced. Instead of wigs, men and women wore their own hair in styles reminiscent of classical Greece. With simpler hair, hats became more important. To protect that natural complexion out of doors, bonnets with large brims were popular for females. Women’s silhouettes were also closer to how nature made them. Skirts were slim and waistlines of women’s dresses rose to just below the bosom in what became known at the “Empire” style. Flimsier skirts didn’t allow for pockets and females started carrying a “reticule”, a small handbag for the bits and bobs necessary to bring along.
While women’s fashion was influenced by what was happening in France, men’s fashion was influenced what was happening in England. Unlike their French counterparts, men in England spent more time on country estates, being landowners and chasing the hunt. The silks and satins popular in the French court were not practical for the outdoor pursuits Englishmen enjoyed. The well tailored coats, boots, sturdy breeches and, eventually, trousers that they wore became preferred male attire throughout Europe.
The change in male attire had begun earlier so the more aged males, while still clinging to wigs and powder long after younger men, were more ready to adopt the comfortable English fashion, hence the iconic image of old John Bull. Society’s matriarchs, however, were more likely to retain the wide skirts and wigs of their youth, indeed, young women still had to master the wide skirts when they were presented at court. For older women who were ready to wear the new fashions there was head wear that was geared to their more advanced years. Matrons and elderly women wore caps indoor and, on dresser occasions, there were ornate turbans to dress up their look.
Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. Sourcebooks, Napierville, Illinois, 2010.
Laver, James. A Concise History of Costume. Thames and Hudson, London, 1977
Lofts, Norah. Domestic Life in England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1976
Murray, Venetia. High Society: In the Regency Period 1788-1830. Penguin Books. 1998