Three Things I Learned about Fashion from BECOMING JOSEPHINE

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks with an empress. Napoleon’s wife, Josephine Bonaparte, to be exact. Heather Webb’s Becoming Josephine is such a vivid and engaging read, it’s hard to believe that the novel is based on real historical events. And Heather brings those events to life beautifully on the page. You can hear the swish of a flowing gown on a marble floor, feel the chill of a haunted palace chamber, and smell the splendor of fresh brioche.

I learned a lot about the French Revolution and the years following it from reading this book. And, being a fashion junkie, I picked up a few new facts about fashion, too.

Portrait of Empress Josephine in 1801 by Francois Gerard
Empress Josephine by Francois Gerard, 1801

1. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know, before reading this novel, that the term “empire waist,” meaning a high-waisted bodice ending just under the bust (think: Jane Austen), comes from the First French Empire. Josephine Bonaparte, who favored this loose, low-necked silhouette, had a large hand in making this style popular throughout Europe.

2. I also found it fascinating that, as the French Revolution turned social and political norms on their heads, fashion was also undergoing a sea change.  The  panniers, corsets, wigs, and heavy fabrics popular with the noble classes were replaced by slimmer skirts and softer materials like muslin. White, the simplest of colors, became the hue of choice for the fashion forward.

Court gown of Josephine Bonaparte

3. After Napoleon came into power, more elaborate fashions made a comeback. What I did not realize is that there was a patriotic bend to this extravagance. During the French Revolution the French textile industry suffered. In order to coax women buy more material he forbade them to wear the same dress more than once to court.  Ladies’ gowns had extra fabric gathered into the back and trains were once again seen for evening wear.  Bonaparte also had fireplaces at the Tuileries palace blocked up so that women would wear more clothing.

And, from the looks of the gorgeous gowns shown in the portraits here, I say, “Vive la revolution!

From The Coronation of Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David, 1807




Author: Susan Gloss

Susan Gloss is the author of the novel VINTAGE (William Morrow/HarperCollins, March 2014). When she's not writing, toddler wrangling, or working as an attorney, she blogs at Glossing Over It and curates an online vintage store, Cleverly Curated.

3 Replies to “Three Things I Learned about Fashion from BECOMING JOSEPHINE”

  1. Ha! And me in my sweat pants.

    How fascinating that the comeback of extravagance was an economical strategy rather than simply a trend. I’m sure it resulted in some fabulous dresses (though if it were me, I’d hate to only wear one of those gowns just once!).

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