Flimsy Female Fashion in the age of Napoleon

Louis-André-Gabriel BOUCHET (attributed to)
French 1759-1842

The garments worn by fashionable young women following the Revolution were famously dominated by muslin. In imitation of the ancient Greeks and Romans whose simplicity and elegance of dress was synonymous with democracy and the Roman Republic, post-Revolutionary Fashion set itself in opposition to the opulent artificiality of the Ancien Régime with its hooped and panniered skirts and elaborate embroidery and trimmings, by strutting a pared down simplicity in both style and material. Simply gathered, high waisted dresses of fine soft fabric, especially muslin, became the rage. The French interpretation of these classical garments came to be known as Empire style, whereas in England it became known as the Regency style. While muslin was the preferred fabric it came to have political and economic ramifications that were highly problematic for Napoleon.

Muslin is most typically an unbleached or white cloth, produced from finely combed cotton yarn. It originated in Northern India and first appeared in Europe in the 17th century. Becoming increasingly available with the English occupation of India in the 18th century, it found great popularity at the end of that century in France. Popular with British women in India, its open weave allowed the movement of air, and therefore was suitable for hot, dry climates. Muslin clothes were traded by ancient Greeks from the Indian port of Maisolos (or Maisala) and perhaps the name muslin originated from that place name. Marco Polo apparently praised the muslins available from India. The word muslin is also used colloquially. In the United Kingdom, many sheer cotton fabrics are termed ‘muslin’ and their uses are many; for instance, muslin is used for making various cheeses which require the milk solids to be separated from the whey.

Because the muslin trade was essentially cornered by the British, this delicate fabric had to be imported from England. This posed a serious problem for Napoleon – not only because he has closed French ports to English trade because of the hostilities between their countries (the Continental Blockade), but also because Napoleon was anxious to re-establish the textile industries in France following the Revolution. He was famously impatient with women around him who continued to wear muslin and was known to lose his temper with both Josephine and his step-daughter, Hortense, reportedly either tearing their fashionable dresses or spoiling them by dousing them with coffee and officially banning the wearing of muslin. His reasons were serious (though his temper must have been irksome) and connected with propping up France’s textile industry. He required formal dress to be worn at all times at court, thereby reintroducing a clientele for silks and velvet largely made in Lyon.

On another occasion, earlier in his career, Napoleon is recorded as damaging a lady’s dress for quite a different reason: he is known to have spilled a drink on the dress of one of his Officer’s wives while in Egypt as a seductive ruse to get her into a private room to undress her!