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Louise Contat: 1780-1790

Louise Contat (1760-1813) was a French actress who made her stage debut in 1776 and rose to fame in 1784 from her performance in Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s play, The Marriage of Figaro. Contat was not only renowned for her acting skills, but also for her glamorous fashion sense. Even though, despite their popularity, actresses were often equated with prostitutes in men’s eyes, many women mimicked the costumes and hairstyles Contat wore in her stage plays. Contat was particularly known for her hairstyles, which were elaborate and involved powdered curls and rolls piled on top of the head, which became a trend among French women. For example, the French publication Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français depicted a fashion illustration in which a woman is wearing her hair “à la Contat” (Galerie des Modes). Moreover, Contat was such a trendsetter that her unique style was talked about in fashion magazines.

“In its issue of November 20, 1786, the Magasin des Modes nouvelles referred to bonnets ‘à la Turque’ and ‘à la Randan’ (known by some as ‘à la Bayard’) that owed their origin to the ‘exquisite taste of the famous Actress who played the role of Madame de Randan in Les Amours de Bayard, a new comedy by M. Monvel’. Lest its readers were unaware of the identity of this ‘famous Actress,’ the editor added a note clarifying that she was ‘Mademoiselle CONTAT, who had already created hats à la Suzanne, à la Figaro, &c’” (Majer). 

1780-1820: Text

Emma, Lady Hamilton: 1790-1800

Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765-1815) was an English model, actress, and socialite. She famously spent many years of her life modeling for painters, especially by the renowned artist George Romney, who was fascinated by her beauty and mystery. In fact, Lady Hamilton was even the most painted woman in Europe at one point in time. Notably, she was partially responsible for starting the trend of ancient-Greek-inspired fashion, which persisted throughout the Regency era up until about 1820. Lady Hamilton was known among her contemporaries for performing what she called her “Attitudes,” in which she “would drape herself in simple cloth and strike, in graceful succession, a variety of poses modeled after classical themes” (Zapata). However, this classical-inspired clothing she wore was not limited to her performances. Indeed, she wore similar garments in her daily life, even though its simplicity contrasted with the elaborately-decorated, structured garments that were fashionable at the time. 

“Instead of stacking countless layers upon each other, the new trend favored dresses that combined only three pieces of clothing: the corset, the chemise, and the gown. The gowns, like those we see in classical paintings, featured mostly light colors, and they were loose fitting, with the waistline set just below the bosom” (Zapata).

Through her influence and high-regard in society, Lady Hamilton helped to spread this new trend all across Europe until every woman was wearing simple, classic dresses with a higher waistline that resembled that of an ancient Greek statue.

1780-1820: Text

Empress Joséphine: 1800-1810

Empress Joséphine (1763-1814) was the wife of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and was empress consort of the French from 1804 until 1810. She was known for her elegant fashion sense and became an icon of style at the time. Joséphine often wore white because it was seen as luxurious yet simple. She continued the trend of wearing ancient-Greek-inspired dresses that began in the 1790s, but the fashionable waistline rose even higher when she was empress. This new waistline was called the “Empire waistline” and was named after Napoleon’s French empire. The new style allowed for freedom of movement because the waist was less restricted, which contrasted with the rigid and over-the-top styles of the ancien régime. The empire waist silhouette was not only popular in France; in fact, it spread all throughout Europe and even reached America. 

“Very light and loose dresses, usually white and often with shockingly bare arms, rose sheer from the ankle to just below the bodice, where there was a strongly emphasized thin hem or tie round the body, often in a different colour. The shape is now often known as the Empire silhouette although it predates the First French Empire of Napoleon, but his first Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais was influential in spreading it around Europe” (Hisour).

Thanks to Empress Joséphine’s influence, the empire style became the most fashionable type of women’s dress in all of the western world at the time. 

Empress Joséphine 1
Empress Joséphine 2
1780-1820: Text

Dolley Madison: 1810-1820

Dolley Madison (1768-1849) was the First Lady of the United States from 1809 to 1817 and was known for her lively personality and impeccable fashion sense. Madison is responsible for shaping what is now seen as the role of a First Lady by being an excellent entertainer and hostess. She loved throwing parties and being the center of attention. At the inaugural ball that she hosted for her husband, James Madison, she famously wore a low-cut, velvet gown with a long train. She loved to adorn herself with the most unique styles. For example, Madison was known for wearing turban-style headdresses decorated with expensive feathers, jewels, or pearls. Even though she dressed like royalty, however, her contemporaries saw her as humble and down to earth. “Her demeanor is so far removed from the hauteur generally attendant on royalty, that your fancy can carry the resemblance no further than the headdress,” remarked one admirer (Seaton). When the white house burned down during the war of 1812, Madison saved a few of her favorite items, including some red velvet curtains. Some historians speculate that a bright, red velvet dress they found in Madison’s possession after she died was actually made from these drapes. Though there is no proof, it seems fit with Madison’s personality and resourcefulness that she would have done something as bold as this. 

Known for her flashy fashion sense, Dolley Madison’s personality shone through in everything she wore. Even though simplicity was still in style, Madison’s own personal style was over-the-top--just the way she liked it. 

Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison dress
1780-1820: Text
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