THE INSIDER: Miss Waterman on the empire waist, the chemise robe, and more ahead of her talk at Spencerville Fair
Shop Talk

THE INSIDER: Miss Waterman on the empire waist, the chemise robe, and more ahead of her talk at Spencerville Fair

Shop Talk is written by OM senior editor Dayanti Karunaratne and Sarah Fischer, OM account executive and fashion maven.

This week on SHOP TALK, we’re doing something a little different — we’re talking historical fashion. It’s a stretch for us, we who love the street style slideshows and other sartorial eye candy. But when we heard about a historical costume expert coming all the way from Tennessee for a series of workshops at the Spencerville Heritage Fair, well, we had to take the opportunity to pick her brain a bit.

Miss Maggie Waterman runs theatrical presentations that touch on various aspects of period clothing, but her expertise is in the Regency period, ie., clothing of the late 18th and early 19th century. She’s become something of a Regency poster girl, known for making history come alive through these unique workshops. Check out her blog Undressing the Regency Lady for a taste of what’s in store this weekend in Spencerville.

Reflective of the fashion at the beginning of the 19th century, when the waistline was high. At this time, Miss Waterman notes, corsetry was not required.

We were fascinated by her niche field, and as we researched further, found out that it was really this period that the empire waist took off. While it’s now seen mostly in bridal wear, it’s still a fashionable style. And who doesn’t love dissecting archived fashion plates?

Herewith, our Q&A with Miss Waterman.

SHOP TALK: Who started the empire waist trend? And when? Where did the trend start?
There really was no one person who started the trend of the empire waist at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century; however, there were a handful of women who were certainly the pioneers of its popularity. The French were truly the authority on the empire waist at its conception with women like Madame Recamier — a wealthy socialite and public figure considered a great beauty by all who knew and saw her, as well as of course Empress Josephine who used her position of power to really bring the trend into full.  Even before Josephine and Recamier one could see the seeds of the trend beginning in Marie Antoinette and her taste for what were called chemise gowns — the filmy, white, loose fitting gowns that were generally made of muslin. This was a very drastic change from the rigid, stiff, silk gowns of generations before her on into the late 1780’s.

ST: Why do you think the empire waist become popular during the Regency period?
MW: The Empire waist was a product of France’s revolution. In France, the complete annihilation of the Monarchy spawned a movement of the Republican ideals and views of ancient Rome, bringing with it the images of Greek and Roman goddesses, muses, and priestesses — images easily obtained since the unearthing of statues, busts, carvings, and other artifacts in the mid 18th century in Pompeii. The early stages of the Revolution saw women wearing gowns of filmy sheer muslins with not a stitch underneath, baring all to the world in a shocking display of nudity.  Though the country was in utter turmoil and turned completely on its head, not all could so easily stomach the lack of previous propriety and many women were condemned by their peers publicly for their extreme choices in dress, no matter how like their republican inspirations they were.

Why do they call it an ‘empire’ waist?
It is known as the Empire Waist because of its connection to Rome and then to the Empire of France — associated with Bonaparte and Josephine though the fashion did come into being before there was even an “Empire” of France at all.  Josephine’s penchant for being the most fashion forward of her day coupled with her position of power caused the iconic image to stick in her reign as Empress, lending the title “Empire Gown” or “Empire Waist” to any dress, modern or otherwise, with a raised waistline falling blow the bust and above the natural waist.

Undressing the Regency Lady. June 22 and 23, Spencerville Mill. See website for times and prices.