Skip to main content

Madame Récamier – Regency Fashion Icon

London got quite a shock in 1802 when the famous Madame Récamier crossed the English Channel for a visit. With one garden stroll, she turned heads and transformed women's fashion.

In a moment I’ll describe how Madame Récamier rattled the beau monde. But first, here’s a little of her backstory:

By the early 19th century Juliette Récamier was already a much-admired society hostess in Paris. Born in Lyon in 1777, in 1793 at the tender age of 15 she married Jacques-Rose Récamier, a banker almost 30 years her senior. (Récamier was related to renowned gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who is credited with being one of the world’s first food writers.)

By most accounts, Juliette and Jacques had a happy marriage despite their age difference and the fact that it was apparently a completely platonic union. That may have been because, according to many sources, Jacques was actually Juliette’s father. It’s believed he married his illegitimate daughter to make her his heir.
Movie poster for 1928 French silent film

I suspect the French Revolution may also have had something to do with Récamier’s decision to ensure the safety of his daughter, if indeed that's what she was, through marriage. After all, 1793 was the year the King and Queen of France were guillotined and the Reign of Terror was at its height. No one was safe from the violence of the mob.

The young Madame Récamier quickly attracted attention in Parisian society. In his book, The World in 1800, Olivier Bernier describes her as a beauty, a good listener, and a woman of great charm. 

She dressed in simple muslin gowns, often went barefoot, and wore no jewelry. Even without adornments, Bernier claims, she still outshone her peers. She was known as a woman of virtue, remaining faithful to her husband, which was unusual for fashionable women at that time. Also unusual, says Bernier, was that she had female friends as well as male admirers.

Juliette in the outfit that shocked London
by Richard Cosway
Madame Récamier used her talents to establish a popular salon at her home in Paris. She drew the literary and political celebrities of the day to her drawing room, people such as Napoleon and his brothers and François René Chateaubriand. 

(Chateaubriand was a member of the endangered noble class in France, a Vicomte. He traveled to North America to escape the French Revolution and also spent years in exile in England. He was a noted author and later in life a diplomat. All of which is to say that he’s famous for more than just a cut of beef, which is what often gets associated with his name.) 

Juliette’s fame as a hostess lasted from the days of the French Consulate in the late 1790s almost until the end of July Monarchy, the period in which the Bourbon kings were temporarily restored to power in France. Her contemporaries said that she kept her salon, along with her charm and attractiveness, into her old age. She died in 1849.  

But back to her scandalous London visit: during the brief peace between England and France in 1802, Madame Récamier came to England where she proceeded to dazzle and shock the ton by wearing clothing that was on the cutting edge, even in Paris. She showed up at Kensington Gardens wearing a simple, body-hugging gown made of very thin white muslin, which displayed a generous amount of her cleavage.

Bust of Juliette by Joseph Chinard
Her hair was arranged in tight ringlets which were rather greasy, at least according to the account of an eye-witness, the Countess of Brownlow. (Although her report may have been colored by envy.) These curls were clustered around Juliette's face and accompanied by a long braid down her back.

In addition, to her shocking attire, Juliette’s head was covered with a long veil, another unconventional clothing choice.

In short, Madame Récamier was an eye-catching sight that day, with many observers staring at her or even following her through the gardens. It would be as if Lady Gaga showed up in one of her notorious outfits (like her meat dress) at Disneyland. 

Fashionable London society decried Madame Récamier’s immodest mode of dress, and then, of course, set about copying her. 

Besides helping to popularize the fashion for simple white muslin gowns, which became an iconic Regency style, Madame Récamier also popularized a type of furniture. She was fond of reclining on a chaise longue that was similar to a day bed but intended for the drawing room. This style of sofa now bears her name and is known as a récamier.

Jacques-Louis David's unfinished portrait of Juliette, 1800

For someone who was so influential during the Regency era and beyond, Madame Récamier is little known today, although you might see her character in the cast of a film about Napoleon. There were also a couple of silent films made about her in the 1920s, one in Germany and one in France.

And, of course, there is the récamier sofa, a version of which many people may have in their homes without knowing its origins.

That’s something—even Napoleon doesn’t have a sofa named after him!

If you’re interested in her hairstyle and want to try and recreate it for yourself, here’s a step-by-step tutorial:

Sources for this post include:

The Regency Companion, by Sharon H. Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London, 1989.

 The World in 1800, by Olivier Bernier, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 2000


Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Well, dressing your hair in this Napoleonic style would take all day! If you ask a woman for a date, in this case, it better not be last-minute! Better be prepared to wait on dinner reservations since "touch ups" could take an hour or more. And to think, guys just have to shower, shampoo, put on clean clothes and we're good to go!

    1. Yes, getting dressed was a lot more complicated for women during the Regency. Thanks for your comment!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Cato Street Conspiracy

Conspiracy and treason go hand in hand. Throughout history, conspirators have huddled in back rooms and dark corners in secret, concocting schemes that are both dangerous and illegal. So it’s no surprise that their plans often spiral out of control and end in disaster. 
A good example of a conspiracy plot gone wrong happened during the Regency. It’s been dubbed the Cato Street Conspiracy because of where the conspirators were caught. This is a tale that, according to historian J.B. Priestley (author of The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency) “begins in absurdity and ends in horror.”
The year was 1820. Though the Napoleonic Wars were over, Britain had paid a heavy price for its victory against the French. The costs of the war had strained the country’s economy. The working classes were hit hard by periods of famine, rising food prices due to the Corn Laws, and high unemployment, the latter driven by soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe and looking for work. And of course, t…

The end of the Holy Roman Empire, or what happens when the Empire doesn't strike back

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper
T.S. Eliot wasn't actually describing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire when he wrote those words in his poem, “The Hollow Men.” Nonetheless, his words are an extremely apt way to describe the end of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended quietly with a stroke of a pen exactly 212 years ago in August of 1806. That’s when the last emperor decided it was his duty to abdicate, letting the ancient dominion under his protection dissolve rather than allow Napoleon to usurp the role of Holy Roman Emperor and everything that came with it. By that August the end of the empire had become inevitable. Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 and his formation of the Confederation of the Rhine the following July (after he convinced 16 German princes to renounce their allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire and join him) were fatal blows. Throughout its thousand-year history, the Empire e…

At the drop of a hat: a history of headgear

“Cock your hat – angles are attitudes,” said Frank Sinatra. While I would never disagree with Ol’ Blue Eyes, because I believe that a hat set at a rakish angle makes a statement in any era, I’d take it a step further. Sometimes the hat itself speaks volumes, all by itself, no matter how it sits on someone's head.
Cast your mind back to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January of 2017. The hundreds of thousands of pink knitted or crocheted hats atop the heads of a sea of protestors made an unforgettable sight and sent a clear visual message concerning the marchers' support of human rights, along with their criticism of the newly inaugurated President Trump.
Likewise, a red mesh trucker hat emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again” has become an unmistakable badge of a Trump supporter.
And hats were especially important during the French Revolution, just prior to our Regency era. During that turbulent time a poor unfortunate who wasn’t wearing a hat associated …