The popularity of the high-waisted regency gown can be attributed to both French fashion influence and the Neoclassical craze that swept Europe during the 18th century. The round gown of the 1790s, which is essentially a dress and robe joined together and tied in the front, is said to have been inspired by Marie Antoinette. Later, as a fashion icon, Josephine Bonaparte influenced the slim, high-waisted, gossamer thin chemise dress of the early nineteenth century.
The round gown, a forerunner to the Empire gown, featured a soft, round silhouette with full gatherings and a train, as well as straight, elbow-length sleeves. These gowns stood in stark contrast to the rococo period's stiff, brocaded, or rigid silk gowns. The round gown's train, which was popular for a short time for day wear and lasted until 1805-06 for evening wear, would be pinned up for the dance, just as Katherine and Isabella did in Northanger Abbey. One has to wonder how practical these long white muslin dresses with trailing trains were in England, a country known for rain and muddy roads.
Daytime dresses, particularly in England, were more modest than evening gowns. A few French images show young ladies in day gowns with plunging decolletes, but this was not the norm, and it is a point that film costume designers frequently overlook. Until 1810, the neckline was filled in with a fichu or chemisette. Embroideries on hems and borders were initially influenced by classical Greek patterns. Following Napoleon's return from Egypt in 1804, decorative patterns began to incorporate an eastern influence.
The softly gathered gowns gave way to a slimmer and sleeker silhouette around 1808. Darted bodices and rising hemlines became popular. Long sleeves and high necklines were worn during the day, while evening gowns had short sleeves and bare necklines. The sleeves were puffy and gathered, but the overall silhouette was sleek and narrow at the shoulders. The corset's shape evolved to reflect the looser, draped, shorter waisted style.
Because of the war between England and France, as well as travel restrictions to the Continent, the designs of English gowns began to take on their own personality as French influence waned. Between 1808 and 1814, the Romantic movement and British culture influenced English waistlines and decorations. Dresses began to feature decorations reminiscent of the Gothic, Renaissance, Tudor, and Elizabethan eras. Ruffled edges, Van Dyk lace points, rows of tucks on hems and bodices, and slash puffed sleeves debuted. The length of the gown was raised off the ground, making the dainty kid slippers visible.
Following the 1814 peace treaty, English visitors to France began to notice how far British fashion had diverged from its French counterpart. Parisian waists remained higher, and skirt hems were wider and trimmed with padded decorations, creating a cone-shaped appearance. English fashion quickly caught up with French fashion, and the silhouette changed yet again.
Dresses now had long sleeves, high necklines, and a very high waist. The simple classical silhouette had given way to a more fussy look. Ruffles could be found on hems, sleeves, bodices, and even bonnets. In 1816-1817, the waistline could only go up to just below a woman's breasts. Waistlines could only go one way, and by 1818, they were dropping by about an inch per year.
By 1820, the chemise dress's simple classic lines had vanished, giving way to a stiffer, wider silhouette with a rather short hem. New corsets were created to accommodate the wider waist. Surprisingly, Anglomania spread to France, and the French began to mimic the English style.
Rows of ruffles, pleats, appliques, and horsehair-padded decorations stiffened the skirt, giving it a puffy silhouette. Big hats were worn to balance out broad shoulders, similar to how big hair balanced out wide shoulder pads in the 1980s. The waist had reached a woman's natural waistline in fashion plates by 1825, but it would take another five years for this fashion to catch on with the general public, according to evidence in museums.
Leg of lamb sleeves (gigot sleeves) became popular, and dress decorations became more elaborate and theatrical.