First Empire of France’s fashion illustrations (1804-1814)

The First Empire of France was a political regime in France. On the 18 May 1804, Napoleon 1st established the First Empire of France ; it lasted until the 6 April 1814. Napoleon 1st was sacred at Notre Dame of Paris on the 2 December 1804. To Louis Bonaparte Napoleon’s mind, fashion was a symbol of his Dynasty and a way to legitimate his power. He urged his entourage to wear stunning clothes in order to celebrate the Empire’s magnificence. Through this luxury, Napoleon also wanted to dissimulate his modest origins…

During the “Terreur” (1793-1794), signs of wealth and luxury were interpreted as a provocation. After the revolution, during the Consulat, new fashion magazines appeared in 1797 : Tableau général du Goût, des Modes et Costumes de Paris (Francesco Bonafide) and The journal des Dames et des modes (Sellèque, then La Mésangère). With the disappearance of the Monarchy, it was not anymore the Court who dictated fashion trends but the trendy Parisian places (promenades, balls, theaters…). Women wore new and fashionable outfits designed by couturiers and dressmakers. During the Directoire (1795-1799), fashion changed ; it was the return of frivolousness and freedom. The muses of French fashion  were Madame Tallien, Juliette Récamier and Josephine Beauharnais (Louis Bonaparte’s wife).

During the period of the First Empire of France, the Greco-Roman style was fashionable. The Empire dresses inspired of the Roman “Peplos” were popular. “Peplos” were outer robes or shawls worn by women in ancient Greece. Empire dresses were light and wide, long to the ankle, often white, with bare arms. The waist was high, below the chest. The basket, corset and “vertugadin” (armature worn by women which made puffing the skirt around the hips) disappeared. Women were free of their movements. The fabrics were light (muslin, cotton gauze, batiste, white lawn and percale). White gowns were generally worn on evenings and were a sign of social status. Pastel and colored gowns were preferred during the day.

Jacques-Louis David

Despite the tensions between England and France, English and French fashion were very similar. Nevertheless, the English women were more demure than the French women (neckline and transparency). The Empress Joséphine, the entourage of the Imperial couple’s entourage, fashion magazines and fashion makers such as the couturier Louis-Hippolyte Leroy dictated French fashion. This couturier dressed Napoleon 1st and his wife Josephine de Beauharnais ; he drew and cut costumes worn by the couple for their coronation in the cathedral Notre Dame of Paris in 1804. He was the first star couturier. 

The “Journal des dames et des modes” was one of the first illustrated fashion magazines in France. It was created by the bookseller Sellèque in 1797 and continued with Pierre Antoine Leboux (“La Mésangère“) in 1801. It ended in 1839. This periodic had been published under different names : Journal des dames, Costumes parisiens, Journal des modes or Journal des dames, Journal de la Mésangère and Gazette des salons. This magazine dictated fashion and lasted under several political regimes such as the Consulat, the First Empire and the first restauration. It was taken back by Tom Antongini and George Barbier in 1912.

Sources :,,,  Oxford Languages,, and

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