An Empire silhouette is created by a woman wearing a high-waisted dress, gathered near or just under the bust with a long, loose skirt, which skims the body. The outline is especially flattering to pear shapes wishing to disguise the stomach area or emphasise the bust. The shape of the dress helps to lengthen the body's appearance. Here the word "Empire" refers to the period of the First French Empire.
Early examples of the style can be seen on women from early Greco-Roman art wearing loose fitting rectangular tunics known as Peplos or the more common Chiton which were belted under the bust, providing support for women and a cool, comfortable outfit suitable for the warm climate.
The last few years of the 18th century first saw the style coming into fashion in Western and Central Europe (and European-influenced areas). The look was popularized in Britain by Emma, Lady Hamilton, who designed such garments for her performances of poses in imitation of classical antiquity ("attitudes"), which were a sensation throughout Europe. Paris in the second half of the 1790s was the center of adoption of strongly neo-classical influenced styles as mainstream fashion. In France the style was sometimes called "à la grecque" after decorations found on Grecian urns.
The Empire silouette contributed to making clothes of the 1795-1820 period generally less confining and cumbersome than high-fashion clothes of the rest of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The style evolved through the Napoleonic era until the early 1820s, after which the hourglass Victorian styles became more popular. The style was often worn in white to denote a high social status (especially in its earlier years); only women solidly belonging to what in England was known as the "genteel" classes could afford to wear the pale, easily soiled garments of the era. The complete and drastic contrast between 1790s styles (especially those of the second half of the decade) and the constricting and voluminous styles of the 1770s (with a rigid cylindrical torso above panniers) is probably partially due to the French political upheavals after 1789 (though there is not usually any very simple or direct correlation between political events and fashion changes). English women's styles (often referred to as "regency") followed along the same general trend of raised waistlines as French styles, even when the countries were at war.
The 1960s saw a revival of the style, possibly reflecting the less strict social mores of the era (similar to when the unconstricting 1920s "flapper" styles replaced the heavy corsetry of the early 1900s).
The term "Empire silhouette" emerged in early 20th century Britain; the word "empire" here is now pronounced with a special quasi-French pronunciation (om-peer) by many in the fashion world.