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, periwig, and powder of the earlier 18th century. A major shift in fashion was taking place that extended beyond changes in mere style to changes in philosophical and social ideals.
Overall, the impression created by the chemise dress was one of ease and offhand simplicity, and one may imagine that women found their dresses nonconstrictive. Simply put, the Regency, which never fails to call to mind images of a self-indulgent aristocracy, is not remembered for its denunciation of fashion as a morally corruptive influence
Introduced from the 1780s, roller or cylinder printing represented a mechanised improvement on the older technique of block printing, producing the final patterned fabric far more quickly and cheaply. Block printing laboriously pressed each individual block onto the fabric, but rollers allowed the textile to be drawn through in one continuous process. More rapid production ensured that cottons, in particular, became much cheaper, and thus more accessible to a wider market.
Throughout the Regency Era the lightweight robes needed other garments or accessories to make the wearer warmer. Tulle shawls which were delicate and light particularly suited fine evening dresses. White muslin net shawls embroidered with tambour work were made in Essex where a thriving cottage industry was set up by a Flemish refugee. Not far away Norwich produced silk warp and wool weft twill Norwich shawls which were almost Chinese in design.
During the mid-Regency, tied shoes went out of fashion as lace-up half-boots became popular for outdoor wear. Made of leather or nankeen (a durable natural cotton from China, with a distinct yellow color), these boots were more geared for long walks in the country than the delicate slippers they replaced. But the boots were deceptive, for the leather was quite thin by today’s standards and tore and scuffed easily or were quickly ruined by the elements. As a general rule, thick leather shoes with sturdy wooden soles were worn by laborers. The ruling classes, it was felt, needed no such rough and tumble items.
There was an interesting split that occurred in English and French fashion during this period. The hostilities between the two countries prevented the exchange of fashion information. As a result, English fashion went its own way for several years. Styles became more and more romantic, with "Renaissance" lace collars and slashed puffed sleeves, richer colors, and so on. Waists also started dropping noticeably. Meanwhile, in France, dresses retained the very high waists and light colors, but started developing frills of fabric and a more cone-like shape. Hairdressing and hats started an upward climb, probably in an effort to combat the widening effect of the broadened skirt-hems.
Early on in the 1800s, female garments were decorated with Greek symbols and patterns at the hem, around the neckline, or as a trim for the sleeve. More ornate trims were exported from France. The Empress Josephine remained a fashion icon through the early 1800s. Egyptian symbols and marking replaced those of the Greek line. With the onset of the Napoleonic Wars, frogging, braids, and cording were seen on both the male and female form.
Although gowns enjoyed thin fabric and plunging necklines for evening wear, day dresses required something a little more substantial both for the sake of modesty and comfort in drafty old houses. A tucker or chemisette (a side opening half blouse) answered perfectly, filling in during the day, and able to be removed in the evening should the occasion so require it. They had the additional benefit of being able to be worn with any number of gowns further expanding the wardrobe.
Unlike afternoon dress, for evening it was quite proper to show one's bosom. Indeed, some bodices were so low they were in danger of showing even more. Wide scoop necklines were popular for evening wear, as were low squared necklines and low bodices cut straight across. In some paintings of bodices of this type, it's hard to imagine how the sleeves even attached.
Since the dresses were often short-sleeved and light-weight, the pelisse was a necessary and essential item. The pelisse is a coat following the lines of the dress-styles of the day. Ankle-length, with the waist just under the bosom, it was close-fitting, and had closures across the bust or all the way from neck to hem. They were usually elegant and ornamental and their trimmings often matched a particular dress. The sleeves were long and extended over the hand, and could be puffed, or trimmed with fur at the shoulders.
The Empire style dress has a high waist, a style that appeared in the late 1790's and has reappeared frequently in women's clothing design for the past 200 years. The period is significant in that women did not need to wear the stiff, restrictive corsets that ruled fashion from the Middle Ages, and except for this brief time, until the 20th century.
At the dawn of the 19th century, fashions were simple. Women's dresses were generally made of fine white cotton fabrics, with a high waistline, simple trims, and low necklines. As the century progressed, color was added in the dress fabrics, jackets, shawls or overdresses.