Fashion condemns us to many follies; the greatest is to make oneself its slave. — Napoleon Bonaparte.
Throughout history, evolution within a society has been closely connected with the evolution of fashion. The social upheaval initiated by the French Revolution of 1789 had a profound effect on the costume of the day. No consequence of the French Revolution was more noticeable than the effect upon women’s fashion. With the stage cleared for a complete change in France’s social structure, Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the extravagance found in the Baroque and Rococo styles favored by the Ancien Régime. Extremes in fashion once seen on the privileged class were banished along with the over-the-top ornamentation of architecture and furnishing. A period of strict simplicity was to follow.
The new establishment believed the path to real change was to abandon all reference to the Bourbon monarchy and return to the ways of the Roman republic, their political ideal. The new style of antiquarianism was dubbed neoclassical. The effect upon women’s dress was noticeable; simplicity and symmetry were now the order of the day. To appear in the guise of a classical Greek or Roman statue was now the aim of any woman desiring to be in fashion.
Fashion prior to the French Revolution strongly differentiated the rich and the titled classes from the poor and modest ones. Before 1789, the panniers of the tightly-corseted women of the court of King Louis XVI bulged out at the hips almost a meter. Wigs and powdered hair were piled perilously atop the heads of wealthy women. Lavish fabrics, powders and rouges were signs of riches and riches meant oppression in the eyes of the common people. These extravagances disappeared abruptly after the Revolution when looking moneyed wasn’t in anyone’s best interest. When differences in dress were leveled the distinctions between rich and poor were obliterated, or so they believed.
As Napoleon’s wife, Empress Joséphine held sway over the new empire. Trendsetters of the time, Joséphine and the socialite Madame Juliette Récamier, a beautiful and elegant banker’s wife, were exemplars of the new classical standards and incorporated them into every aspect of their personal attire.
Empress Joséphine and Juliette Récamier hosted salons for ambitious politicians and French socialites where attendance was practically obligatory. These two women exerted a powerful influence on the social fabric of France and almost single-handedly reinvigorated the French textile industry along with it. As with style-makers of any era, people aimed to copy them. Empress Joséphine and Madame Récamier discarded their corsets and adopted sleeveless, transparent tunics. By wearing clothes inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity, Joséphine and Juliette demonstrated the ancient tenets of Athenian democracy, political liberty and artistic excellence.
Everything antique became the craze and Joséphine and Juliette played out their roles as neoclassical goddesses. Fashion plates from the times revealed how quickly Joséphine’s fashion sense passed into vogue throughout Europe. The mid 18th century archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum had also inspired French dressmakers. A product of that mania for antiquity was the high-waisted columnar chemise dress. True adherents would dampen the fabric to replicate the folds and swirls found in ancient Greek and Roman statuary. These dresses were created without waists except for a belt or bandeau worn high under the breasts and under the armpits. The political and social overturning that had taken place with the Revolution seemed to have relaxed morality as well. The bodices of these gowns were extremely décolleté, with much cleavage revealed and the fabric very translucent.
Ribbons fastened Greco-Roman sandals onto women’s naked feet and Athenian-style anklets and toe rings became fashionable. Joséphine was adept at draping and posing with a shawl, an accessory hearkening back to the classical era. Her influence was such that French women took lessons in how to arrange their scarves à la Joséphine. Juliette and Joséphine wore their hair in styles reminiscent of the classical period. Short, tousled and close to the head, their hairstyles were known by such names as the Titus, or à la Agrippine, or à la Phèdre.
Napoleon knew that his wife’s style could be used a method of propaganda. Financial blows delivered to the textile industry during the Revolution made fine silks and velvets rare and expensive. An average French woman could only afford cottons, muslins and calicoes. Napoleon wanted to invigorate the French textile industry. The Empress’s magnificent court costumes of Lyons silk and Alençon lace served to promote the French fabric industry and provided a model adopted by ladies of the court and throughout the Empire. Her coronation gown, shown in Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Coronation of Napoleon completed in 1807, highlighted the embroidered silk and lace used to adorn her. The distinctions in dress between rich and poor once again prevailed. Stendhal, a writer during the First Empire and a one-time soldier of Napoleon ironically summed it up, saying, “Only great minds can afford a simple style.”
The artist Jacques-Louis David, noted for his political involvement and classical taste, also painted a portrait of Juliette Récamier in 1800 in the favorite pose of contemporary goddesses, reclining on a couch and loosely dressed in a Grecian gown. Juliette Récamier was an arbiter of the fashion found within the new society and David, who was its enthusiastic advocate, chose to show her modeling a simple white chemise that he felt was the correct interpretation of classical fashion. David and his art students persuaded their female friends to wear gowns imitating antique draperies à la Récamier. Roman and Greek designs became the order of the day thanks to the influence of Madame Récamier. The term “Recamier” has infiltrated the vernacular to denote an upholstered chaise longue similar to the backless settee Madame Récamier reclines on in David’s portrait.
By the end of his marriage to Joséphine in 1810, Napoleon had tired of Madame Récamier, his wife, and other women of his court parading around in flimsy muslin. The label “Muslin Disease” was first used in 1803 after many women caught influenza or pneumonia from wearing too little clothing. Although Napoleon once championed designs that were reminiscent of antiquity, promoting heavier French fabrics was now more important to him than the revealing garments that had formerly been fashionable. His taste was trending toward higher necklines. Napoleon made his position quite clear when he commented on the translucent décolletage of a guest, “I assume you are still breastfeeding your child.” It was time to cover up.
The fashions of Empress Joséphine and Juliette Récamier came to epitomize what is today known as the Empire style. The neoclassicism demonstrated in their attire exemplified the noble virtues of classic simplicity, dignity and virtue.