Dress of muslin embroidered with wool. Circa 1808.

Dress of muslin embroidered with wool. Circa 1808.

At the time of the first Empire fashions had streamlined to such an extent that the lightest and most delicate of fabrics were employed in day wear as well as evening wear. The gown depicted in this image represents the ideal in neo classical dress.1 Throughout the eighteenth century the saturation of the textile market with cottons imported through the East India Company led to a wider uptake across the fashionable classes. It was only after several technological and social triggers that light cottons became more widely accessible to persons across the social strata.2  English cotton mills were able to produce the textile at a much lower cost than the imported alternative and the French mills were equally fastidious in their work to improve the availability of cotton. As with many moments in the history of textiles and dress, it is a convergence of factors which resulted in long lasting and sustained progress. Thanks to Marie Antoinette's radical adoption of the chemise as a form of day dress, the mode shifted towards a less constrained and considerably lighter interpretation.3 The resulting ensembles left the female sex in figure skimming translucent gowns, invoking the then popular classical ideal.

When Napoleon I ascended to power his keenness to revive the flagging Lyon silk industry resulted in a shift in emphasis away from immodest cotton towards the sumptuous grandeur of silk.4 The revival saw court gowns in white silk  elaborately brocaded and supplemented by immense trains attached from the waist.5 A similar situation presented itself to Napoleon III who inherited a mode that tended towards tulle and lace – he also chose to dress his consort in Lyon silk which again served to buoy up the industry there.
Zoe Viney 2009

Image: Dress of muslin embroidered with wool. Circa 1808. [T.684-1913]. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.


1 Johnston, L (2005) Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail (London: V&A Publications) [p. 46]
2 Bourhis, K (1990) Costume in the Age of Napoleon (Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) [p. 79] The spinning Jenny being one of these developments. Edwards, M (1967) The growth of the British cotton trade, 1780-1815 (Manchester: Manchester University Press)
3 Ribeiro, A (2002) Dress in Eighteenth Century Europe (London: Yale University Press) [p. 227]
4 Bourhis, K (1990) [pp. 80, 84]
5 Marly, De (1980) Worth: Father of Couture (Southampton: Camelot, 1980)  [p. 27]