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Is everyone up for a little fashion history today? A few readers wrote last week, inquiring after my mention of the raglan sleeve and the story behind its invention.

I came across that tidbit years ago, when reading one of the tame Regency romance novels I unashamedly love so.

Modern fashion was born in that period of history (1780-1830) through the dawn of the 20th century, when wars raged on European soil but left Great Britain relatively serene.

This period of domestic peace and the ensuing Industrial Revolution enabled the island nation to embrace its own innovations both mechanical and stylistically, without too much belittling from the French fashion police.

The French certainly got back in the fashion game, as we well know, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Just as a snapshot in US Weekly today can compel thousands of women to seek out the same jeans as Jennifer Aniston or the same dress as Beyonce, 18th-century aristocrats had the same power. For most of European history, actresses and actors were morally suspect, so the men and women of nobility were the celebrities of the day. (This is not to say they weren't morally suspect as well, but they did have the unimpeachable advantages of wealth, property and consistent access to soap and hot water.)

The easy-fitting raglan sleeve was the invention of the tailor who created garments for a Lord Raglan. To make dressing easier for this hard-charging nobleman who had lost an arm in the Crimean War, the tailor came up with a coat that had a simple diagonal sleeve seam setting. The seam, which ran from the neck of the garment to a loose underarm, allowed for much more mobility than the tight-fitting coats of the day.

Because it was so easy to shrug on, it soon became a favorite style for baby clothes -- a much easier dressing proposition than coaxing baby limbs into garments with the stiffer armholes in the existing style of the day.

The modern spencer coat is named for Earl Spencer, who singlehandedly did away with his era's allegiance to long tails on coats by standing too close to a fire. Legend has it that after his tails were singed, he simply trimmed them off and went about his day. Months later, tails were out, the short spencer was in, and women soon adapted the look into the lightweight, cropped shrugs familiar to us from Jane Austen movies.

The spencer is not unlike a cardigan, which was named for, yes, another nobleman. The style-conscious 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the famous Light Brigade into battle during the Crimean War. His officers were known for their distinctive jackets, which were made of knitted wool and trimmed with braid or fur. While the earl enjoyed a great deal of notoriety and public renown throughout his life, the cardigan would eventually trump Cardigan in popularity after allegations of his cowardice in battle began to circulate.

If dubiously dashing military officers could start trends, so too could their would-be conqueror.

After he named himself emperor of all he surveyed, Napoleon Bonaparte brought his trademark evangelical zeal to making France the world leader in design and craft skills. During the Revolution and its bloody aftermath, the country lost a lot of ground to England in terms of manufacturing advancements, especially in the textile industry.

Using his power, Napoleon propped up French fashion by outlawing the import of English textiles. He then set his sights on reviving France's renowned Valenciennes lace industry, which soon bore fruit in luxurious fabric innovations such as tulle and batiste.

He compelled his nobles to shop more often by forbidding them from wearing the same dress more than once to court. This led to advances in design and construction so that with a few twists of fabric or a quick change in trimmings, a dress or jacket could look new again.

He didn't stop there. He had the fireplaces at Tuileries Palace blocked off, to create a chilly atmosphere that forced the ladies to wear more clothing. His wife, the Empress Josephine, was renowned throughout the world for her fashion sense. What Josephine wore, scores of women coveted, sparking the endless trips to their dressmakers.

In fact, we have Josephine to thank for the figure-forgiving empire waistline, the horizontal seam just under the bustline, which has disguised tummy issues for more than two centuries now.

The famous love story of Napoleon and his Josephine unfortunately ended in divorce, because she was unable to give the little emperor a male heir. The two remained on good terms throughout their lives, however, and Napoleon was known for joking that "the only thing that came between us was her debts."

Yet another legacy the modern fashionista can relate to.

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