The empire waist, in which the waist-line of a garment is just below the bust, is a fashion trend that reappears throughout history.
The style takes its name from its popularity in France during the Napoleonic wars. The style was a radical shift from the clothes of an earlier age which were voluminous, heavily corseted and extremely restrictive. Empire-waist dresses were, by contrast, designed to echo the ideals and aesthetics of ancient Greece and Roman aesthetics, which were an extremely popular artistic motif of the time. In stepping away from the heavily-bound styles of the past, women suddenly had much more freedom of motion, although society still restricted them from most physical activity and treated all unmarried women as children.
The empire waist has had periodic resurgences since then, all at times of social upheaval. It was hugely popular in the 1960s, and again represented a moment in time where women were freed from extremely restrictive undergarments. The 1960s resurgence also maintained the Napoleonic era’s interest in the dress form’s Greek and Roman origins. A key difference from the Napoleonic era did emerge though with both long version of the dress, and mini-dress versions appearing. And, instead of only using light-color gauzy fabric, bright colors, crochets and a mix of patterns were suddenly a welcome part of the style.
The empire waist also enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1990s as U.S. politics went from being dominated by Republicans to Democrats. The short form of the dress and darker colors remained popular.
Today, a time of political upheaval and technological change, the empire waist remains popular at all lengths, and has even migrated into a blouse form (usually presented in vivid patterns), which many of today’s women appreciate because it hides a range of figure flaws, is alluring yet demure, and looks appropriate on a broad age range.
For a fashion named after a fallen empire, it’s not going away anytime soon.