Empire Line Dress

AKA: Empire waist dress, Empire silhouette dress, Empire dress

How to say it:  em-pahyuh-r  lahyn dress

Traditional Features: 

Empire Dress

  • high waistline just under the bust
  • long, narrow skirt with a slight flare to aid movement
  • low, open neckline
  • sash or obvious seam used to highlight the high waistline
  • can have sleeves or be sleeveless/strapless

21st Century Empire Line Dresses

Comfortable, flattering and available in numerous necklines, colours and fabrics, the Empire Line dress is a classic style that suits just about everyone and is suitable at just about every occasion.

J.Crew Marc Jacobs

J.Crew, Marc Jacobs

Nicole Miller Rag & Bone

Nicole Miller, Rag & Bone


…of the style: The history of the Empire Line dress dates back to late-18th century France, apparently on the brink of a so-called ‘Second Age of Enlightenment‘(that didn’t really happen). The philosophies and ideals of the Ancient Greeks and Romans had returned to popularity and with them, the classical fashion stylings of these civilisations. Early Empire Line dresses took the form of chemise shifts, gathered under the bust and back, and are believed to have been inspired by the chitons and peplos seen in Greco-Roman Art (the early Empire style was often called “à la grecque”).This style of dress, with its short-sleeved or sleeveless bodice, low, open neckline, high waistline (often highlighted with a coloured sash) and softly body-skimming skirt in airy, light fabrics marked a huge shift in women’s fashion at the end of the 18th century; the corsets and highly decorative skirts and bodices of the 1770s gave way to the more comfortable and natural Empire Line style in the 1790s.

By 1800 the Empire style had spread to Britain, popularised by Emma, Lady Hamilton who wore the style while performing poses in imitation of classical antiquity (apparently these performances were very popular in Europe at the time).

The Empire Line dress remained popular throughout the Napoleonic Era until the hour-glass silhouette of the Victorian period became more fashionable, and women’s bodies were once again squeezed into corsets and big skirts in a vain attempt to emulate the current ideal body shape.

Despite the banishment of corsets from women’s fashion in the 1920s, the comfortable, flattering Empire Line didn’t regain popularity until the 1960s, after the New Look styles and circle skirts had run their course and the social rules around dressing had relaxed. Since then the Empire Line dress has been a mainstay on the fashion landscape. Popular in formal wear and beloved in maternity wear, the style is extremely kind to the female figure, making small busts look bigger, lengthening the legs and hiding wide hips and bumpy tummies – the Empire Line can do no wrong.

In the 21st century the Empire Line dress is considered a classic and styles are available every year, in every area of the market. It is constantly being reinvented to meet the changing fashion trends, moving away from the traditional white, light fabrics, narrow skirts and cap sleeves of the 1800s to utilise a variety of fabrics including stretch fabrics and leather, different skirt shapes and endless necklines to keep the style fresh and relevant.

…of the name: The Empire Line dress named for the First Empire of France as Napoleon’s first Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais is attributed with helping to popularise the style in Europe.

Random Facts

  • the word ’empire’ is sometimes pronounced in a strange French style by members of the fashion world, making the it sound like om-peer when spoken.
  • for wear in the 19th century court, the Empire Line dress often had a train that hung from the shoulders.

For more info on Empire Line Dresses try Wikipedia, Fashion-Era, eHow, History of Fashion or check out the Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion

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