Empire Style

views updated May 18 2018


In its broadest sense as a term in contemporary fashion, "empire style" (sometimes called simply "Empire" with the French pronunciation, "om-peer") refers to a woman's dress silhouette in which the waistline is considerably raised above the natural level, and the skirt is usually slim and columnar. The reference is to fashions of France's First Empire, which in political terms lasted from 1804 when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor, to his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It should be noted that the styles of this period, when referring specifically to English or American fashions or examples, may be termed "Regency" (referring to the Regency of the Prince of Wales, 1811–1820) or "Federal" (referring to the decades immediately following the American Revolution).

None of these terms, whose boundaries are defined by political milestones, accurately encompasses the time frame in which "empire style" fashions are found, which date from the late 1790s to about 1820, after which skirts widened and the waistline lowered to an extent no longer identifiable as "empire style."

The Empire style in its purest form is characterized by: the columnar silhouette—without gathers in front, some fullness over the hips, and a concentration of gathers aligned with the 3–4" wide center back bodice panel; a raised waistline, which at its extreme could be at armpit-level, dependent on new forms of corsetry with small bust gussets, cording under the breasts, and shoulder straps to keep the bust high; soft materials, especially imported Indian white muslin (the softest, sheerest of which is called "mull"), often pre-embroidered with white cotton thread; and neoclassical influence in overall style (the silhouette imitating Classical statuary) and in accessories and trim.

Neoclassical references included sandals; bonnets, hairstyles, and headdresses copied from Greek statues and vases; and motifs found in ancient architecture and decorative arts, such as the Greek key, and oak and laurel leaves. The use of purely neoclassical references was at its peak from about 1798 to just after 1800; after that, they were succeeded by other influences.

The adoption of these references has been linked with France's Revolution and adoption of Greek and Roman democratic and republican principles, and certainly the French consciously sought to make these connections both at the height of their Revolution, and under Napoleon, who was eager to link himself to the great Roman emperors.

Applying this political reference to America is more problematic. The extremely revealing versions of the style were seldom seen in America, where conservatism and ambivalence about letting Europe dictate American fashions ran deep. However, Americans did adopt the general look of the period, and plenty of dresses survive to testify that fashionable young women did wear the sheer white muslin style. Moreover, there is ample evidence that women of every class, even on the frontiers, had some access to information on current fashions, and usually possessed, if not for everyday use, modified versions of them.

The origins of the neoclassical influence are visible in the later eighteenth century. White linen, and later, cotton, dresses were the standard uniform for infants, toddlers, and young girls, and entered adult fashion about 1780. During the 1780s and early 1790s, women's silhouettes gradually became slimmer, and the waistline crept up, the effect heightened by the addition of wide sashes, whose upper edge approached the level that waistlines would in another decade. After 1795, waistlines rose dramatically and the skirt circumference was further reduced, the fullness no longer equally distributed but confined to the sides and back. By 1798, fashion plates in England and France show the form-clinging high-waisted neoclassical style, with England lagging a little behind in its adoption of the extreme of the new look.

As England and France were at war for nearly all of this period, English styles sometimes took their own direction, showing a fluctuating waistline level (which should not be taken literally, as garments from this period show remarkably little deviation from a norm) and numerous decorative details borrowed from peasant or "cottage" styles, historic references, especially medieval and "Tudor," and regional references such as Russian, Polish, German, or Spanish. Often, contemporary events inspired fashions, such as the state visit of allies in the Napoleonic wars; military uniforms also inspired trim and accessories in women's fashions during these years.

Several myths persist about the styles of this period, including the idea that the style was invented by Josephine Bonaparte to conceal her pregnancy, and that ladies of fashion dampened their petticoats to achieve the clinging-muslin effects seen in classical statues. Fashions can rarely be attributed to one person (although a hundred years earlier, a pregnancy at the French court did inspire the invention of a style) and the most cursory glance at fashions of the 1780s and 1790s shows a clear progress of internal change in fashion.

The dampened petticoat myth may have arisen from some early historians', and historical novelists', misunderstanding of some comments on the new style. Compared to the heavier fabrics and stylized body shapes (created by heavily-boned, conical-shaped corsets and side-hoops) that immediately preceded them, the new sheer muslins, worn over one slip or even, by some European ladies, a knitted, tubular body stocking, would have revealed the contours of the natural body to an extent not seen in centuries. Several contemporaries and early fashion historians wrote that women looked as if they had dampened their skirts. However, no evidence, including scathing denunciations of the indecent new style, as well as gleeful social satirists' commentary and caricatures, exists to document that this was ever done.

The Empire style has seen numerous revivals, although modern eyes must sometimes look closely for the reference, as it is always used in tandem with the silhouette and body shape fashionable at the time. Tea gowns of the 1880s and 1890s are sometimes described as "empire style." Reform dress often borrowed the high waist and slender skirt of the Empire period, perhaps finding the relatively simple construction notably different from the styles it rejected, the high waist providing freedom from the era's constrictive corsets. By about 1908, "empire style" dresses were a large segment of fashionable offerings. The 1930s saw another minor revival, as did the 1970s. The release in the late 1990s of several film and television adaptations of Jane Austen's novels, all set during the Empire period, inspired another revival.

See alsoDress Reform; Maternity Dress; Tea Gown .


Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500–1914. Great Britain: The National Trust. Distributed in the United States by Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1996.

Bourhis, Kate, ed. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire, 1789–1815. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Cunnington, C. Willet. English Womens' Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1937. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1990.

Ribeiero, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988.

——. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750–1820. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Alden O'Brien

Empire State Building

views updated Jun 11 2018

Empire State Building

Constructed in 1930-31, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world for forty years, until the construction of New York's World Trade Center in 1971 and, despite being overtaken in terms of its height, both in the United States and abroad, has remained America's most internationally famous architectural icon. It is both a shining example of the aesthetic and functional possibilities of the skyscraper form, and a potent symbol of the Manhattan metropolis it inhabits. The Empire State has played a prominent role in several Hollywood movies and has been the subject of countless essays and artworks, while an infinite number of products have been marketed, capitalizing on its familiar image.

The building demonstrated the extent to which corporate capitalism came to represent America to the rest of the world. It was the fruit of a speculative real estate venture by the Empire State Company, an organization whose major investors were John J. Raskob of General Motors and Coleman and Pierre du Pont. The former New York governor and presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith served as the company's president and front man. The project began with the purchase of land, formerly owned by the Astor family, on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets in midtown Manhattan. From the start, there was no "anchor tenant" or big company to occupy and associate with the building, unlike the nearby Chrysler Building or the famous downtown Woolworth Building. In 1929, just two months after the first public announcement of the Empire State venture, "Black Friday" struck on Wall Street, but the developers gambled on an economic turnaround and proceeded with their plans.

On May 1, 1931, at a ceremony attended by President Herbert Hoover and New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Empire State Building was officially opened. Construction had taken only 12 months—a remarkable rate of progress, during which the building's steel skeleton was erected in a mere 23 weeks. (During one period in 1930, workers put up 14 floors in ten days!) For promotional purposes, the developers had specifically set out to build the tallest building in the world. They achieved their goal. Reaching a height of 1,250 feet, the Empire State was almost 200 feet taller than its rival, the glitteringly flamboyant Chrysler Building, by comparison with which its design style, by the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, was relatively sedate. The building's form was determined by its height and the setbacks required by the 1916 New York Zoning Laws. There was no elaborate decoration on the limestone exterior to attract the eye; instead, the building relied on its graceful form, enlivened by the conscientious use of setbacks, to provide an aesthetic effect. At the top, on the 102nd floor, was an open-air observation deck beneath a huge mooring mast intended by the developers to serve as an enticement for zeppelin landings. (No zeppelin ever docked, though).

The first years, however, were lean. The building was only half-full when it opened, and with only a twenty-five percent occupancy rate during the 1930s, was often dubbed the "Empty State Building." At times it seemed that only the income from the popular 86th and 102nd floor observation decks were keeping the premises alive. Nonetheless, almost immediately after opening, the Empire State Building became a cultural icon. In its first year of operation, over one million sightseers visited the observation decks, and Hollywood soon spotted its movie potential. The building's association with the movies famously began with King Kong in 1933, and surfaced as an integral plot strand many times since, including in An Affair to Remember (1957) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). The building is a ubiquitous icon of the city's tourist trade, and millions of replicas of varying sizes have been sold to visitors and native New Yorkers alike.

There is no obvious explanation as to why the Empire State Building has continued to attract successive generations of visitors and admirers. People remain fascinated by the sheer (and ever increasing) size of skyscrapers, but impressive edifices such as Chicago's Sears Tower or New York's World Trade Center, have failed to capture the public affection in which the Empire State is held. The Empire State has not been the world's tallest building in decades; neither is it universally considered to be the most beautiful or the most interesting of the world's skyscrapers. Nevertheless, its special place in the hearts of Americans has not been superseded. During the Depression, the building was a stalwart symbol of optimism. As Alfred E. Smith said at the dedication ceremony, the Empire State Building is "the greatest monument to ingenuity, to skill, to brain power, to muscle power" And he might have added, to triumph in the face of adversity. After World War II, it was the emblem of America's triumphant emergence as the world's preeminent economic and cultural power; from the 1950s onwards, the building's elegant beauty put to shame (with certain honorable exception such as Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building) the forest of impersonal glass boxes that came to alter the face of Manhattan. With its many historic and romantic resonances, The Empire State Building represents much more than just a pioneering triumph of scale.

—Dale Allen Gyure

Further Reading:

Douglas, George H. Skyscrapers: A Social History of the Very Tall Building in America. Jefferson, North Carolina and London, McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996.

Goldman, Jonathan. The Empire State Building Book. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1980.

James, Theodore, Jr. The Empire State Building. New York, Harper & Row, 1975.

Reynolds, Donald Martin. The Architecture of New York City. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984.

Tauranc, John. The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark. New York, St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.

Willis, Carol, ed. Building the Empire State. New York, W.W.Norton, 1998.

Empire State Building

views updated May 18 2018


EMPIRE STATE BUILDING is on the west side of Fifth Avenue between Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth Streets in New York City, the site of the original Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In the center of Manhattan Island, it is roughly equidistant from the East and Hudson Rivers and the northern and southern tips of Manhattan. The building's 102 stories rise 1,250 feet, and the tower adds 222 feet for a total height of 1,472 feet. Primarily an office building, it has retail shops on the ground floor and observation facilities on the 86th and 102d floors.

The building was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. The financier John J. Raskob and the former New York governor Alfred E. Smith built it between 1929 and 1931. The building company of Starrett Brothers and Eken, Inc., managed the construction.

Conceived during the prosperous 1920s, the Empire State Building was intended to be the largest and most prestigious office building in New York. Originally estimated to cost $50 million, it actually cost only $24.7 million (approximately $500 million in year 2000 dollars). For forty years the Empire State Building was the tallest office building in the world, and its prominence made it a symbol of New York City. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the building has been renovated regularly for modern convenience and continued to attract prestigious tenants in the twenty-first century.


Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City. New York: Coward-McCann, 1966.

Goldberger, Paul. The Skyscraper. New York: Knopf, 1981.

James, Theodore, Jr. The Empire State Building. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Pacelle, Mitchell. Empire: A Tale of Obsession, Betrayal, and the Battle for an American Icon. New York: Wiley, 2001.

Scully, Vincent. Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Tauranac, John. The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark. New York: Scribner, 1995.


See alsoArchitecture ; New York City ; Skyscrapers .

Empire State Building

views updated May 23 2018

Empire State Building

Opening on May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building was for forty years the tallest building in the world. Dubbed the "Empty State Building" during the 1930s because most of the 102 floors remained untenanted, the building was constructed in just twelve months. Over a million visitors viewed Manhattan from the open-air observation deck in its first year and it has been popular with the public ever since.

At 1,250 feet, the Empire State Building is less decorative than its smaller 1930s skyscraper (see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) rival, the Chrysler Building (see entry under 1920s—The Way We Lived in volume 2). But its clean lines and elegant "set-backs" are instantly recognized and admired around the world. In 1933, the film King Kong (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) made the building a movie star. It has appeared in many films since, including An Affair to Remember (1957) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Forever linked to the Great Depression years (1929–41; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2), and touched by the glamour of Hollywood (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2), the Empire State Building has become a symbol for New York itself.

—Chris Routledge

For More Information

"Empire State Building." Great Buildings Collection.http://www.GreatBuildings.com/buildings/Empire_State_Building.html (accessed February 14, 2002).

Goldman, Jonathan. The Empire State Building Book. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Touranc, John. The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.

Empire style

views updated May 14 2018

Empire style Neo-classical style in interior decoration, associated with the reign of Napoleon I of France. It made affected use of Egyptian decorative motifs and corresponded to the Regency style in England.

Empire State Building

views updated May 14 2018

Empire State Building Skyscraper in New York City. Completed in 1931, it was the highest building in the world until 1972. It is 381m (1250ft) tall, or 449m (1472ft) to the top of its television mast. Its name derives from the nickname of New York state, USA.

About this article

Empire style

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic