'Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.'
HMS ladies fashion in our portrayal of life at the middle to upper class end during the period of Nelson's Navy usually consist of those from 1795 to 1815.
Fashion is determined by a great many factors, including, for example art, architecture, politics, trade, manufacture and personality to name a few. There is no disputing that women's dress dramatically
changed after 1795. Those outside London, and those with less money and position in society would be somewhat slower to adopt the new and latest fashions, so within the society there is always a good mixture of styles.
The 'Empire' line style as popularised in so many adaptations of Jane Austen reflected the hostilities with France and their impact on fashion.
Dress suddenly became less extravagant, breaking drastically with tradition and the past. Corsets, paniers and bustles were discarded and with them the formal shapes of previous decades. Gone also were the rich sumptuous fabrics as the new cottons and silks allowed the draping called for by the new classical style.This classical style had been informed by the revival of classical architecture from the 1760s, which was reflected in the portraiture of the 1770s. Sir Joshua Reynolds popularised the classical dress of ancient Rome and Greece artistry with plain white gowns. You will find many examples of Reynolds portraiture in the collections of many museums including the National Portrait Gallery (http://www.npg.org.uk/collections).
Although this style was seen in portraits in the 1770s they do not seem to have been actually worn until the 1790s.
The classical style consisted of a 'robe en chemise', a simple white high waisted muslin or calico garment which looked a bit like those under-chemises that had been worn in previous decades. The dress was long, down to the feet and could be so transparent that it was necessary to wear white or pink tights underneath to preserve modesty. Those who were very fashionable, and brave enough to bear the cold would dampen the material of their dress so it would cling to the body to emulate the folds of cloth from Greek statutes.
Shoes, hair and accessories became simpler in reflection. Shawls, muffs, tippets and jackets all became popular to add some much needed warmth to the fashion. 'Pockets' were impractical as would show and ruin the line of the dress, so little bags or reticules became popular.
Military influences, or 'a la militarie' were popular as the wars with France continued, but after the end of hostilities and definitely by 1822 fashion was changing again. The high waist of the style resumed a lower more normal position and the 'Empire' style was gone.
There are lots of excellent examples of costume, accessories and fashion plates in museums, many of which have their collections online.
Try: the Victoria and Albert Museums Collections where you can email, print and download records for personal use, and The Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall ,Manchester
A Regency Repository Cupidity - The Regency Collection Eighteenth-Century Resources Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion Austen.com Chawton House Republic of Pemberley