Fashion Beyond the Court

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Fashion Beyond the Court

Clothing Society at Large.

The fashions of the court of Versailles are among the best known in Europe during the seventeenth century, in large part because of the wealth of testimony that has been left behind in art and documents of the period. Outside these exalted circles, though, consumption of clothing was considerably less grand, even among those nobles who did not frequent Versailles or who went there only occasionally. Cloth was an expensive commodity, although it was one of the most universally produced items throughout Europe. For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the production of cloth was not mechanized as it was in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, but produced through a series of steps that have been described as a "putting out" system. Historians have described these techniques of production as "proto-Industrialization." In this system cloth merchants known as mercers, rather than entrepreneurs or investors, parceled out various parts of the production process to families. Raw wool was purchased and then given over in succession to carders, spinners, and dyers, who prepared the thread for weaving. Once the cloth had been produced by various categories of weavers, the fabric was again turned over to others who were responsible for finishing it and returning it to the great cloth merchants who sold it. While these techniques provided for certain economies of scale that had been lacking in ancient and medieval methods of production, cloth was still an expensive commodity. Thus one of the most obvious distinctions in the early-modern world between rich and poor was in the amounts of fabric their clothes consumed. Female servants, by and large, did not wear floor-length skirts, but ones that reached only to the mid-calves or ankles. Male shopkeepers and workers did not wear the elegant embroidered justaucorps tailored from silk and other expensive fabrics, but instead wore chemises or shirts, vests, and jackets constructed of far less expensive cloth. Even a comparatively wealthy bourgeois woman did not waste fabric in trains and elaborate skirts that were common among the wealthiest aristocrats.

Household Inventories in Paris.

Another picture of consumption patterns can be gleaned from the inventories compiled of household goods at death. These inventories were undertaken in order to levy inheritance taxes, and so some families may have eluded taxation by giving away part of the deceased's wardrobe before the inspector arrived. Still in a great city like Paris a number of these documents survive and their profusion has allowed historians to gauge consumption patterns in the city around 1700. At this time about three percent of the city's half million people were members of the nobility. Great diversity characterized these aristocrats, and many divided their time between the city, their country estates, and Versailles. Those with modest incomes consumed clothing in ways that were little different from prosperous artisans and merchants. But in wealth and splendor the value of the aristocracy's clothing as a group far outstripped even that of the wealthiest merchants in the capital, although the Parisian nobility, as opposed to those who resided at Versailles on a full-time basis, spent comparatively little of their wealth on clothes and jewels. Studies of the death inventories reveal that the average Parisian noble wardrobe, together with its jewels, was valued at around five to six percent of the family's total wealth. At the same time, the deep social divisions that existed in early-modern society become evident when the values of the wealthiest of the nobility's wardrobes are compared against those of modest workers and shopkeepers. The greatest noble families spent as much as 200-300 times more to clothe and adorn themselves as workers with modest incomes did. Thus sumptuous wealth and extravagant consumption existed side-by-side in Paris with relative economy, even privation. The consumption habits of Parisian aristocrats stand out in even greater relief when it is remembered that studies of death inventories fail to take account of the substantial portion of the population who were vagrants and paupers, and thus were not subjected to inheritance tax. No group in the city was thus able to compete in splendor with the nobility, and although Parisian aristocrats may have been considerably more modest in purchasing clothes than those who surrounded the king on a daily basis, their standard of wealth vastly surpassed any other group in the city.

Clothing of the Urban Working Classes.

The clothing of those who worked for a living in Europe's largest cities—artisans, shopkeepers, and day laborers—still showed great variety, and even the better off and poorer members of the working classes often tried to emulate, albeit on a far more modest scale, the clothes of wealthy aristocrats. Female domestic servants sometimes received the castoff clothing of their mistresses, which served as partial payment for their labor. These women sometimes remade these clothes to suit their own circumstances, reusing the vast quantities of material that had once been consumed in trains and elaborate skirts to fashion new garments. Like those men and women who served as tailors, milliners, and in the other industries related to the aristocratic clothing trade, the servants of the wealthy were often far better dressed than the poor day laborers or those in the humblest trades. Yet even at the bottom of the social spectrum, the poorest of French working women who were known as grisettes displayed a concern about their clothes. The term grisette had its origins in the simple gray woolen cloth out of which these women's dresses were usually cut. In literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries grisettes were frequently charged with having exaggerated romantic sensibilities, for falling prey to unscrupulous men, and for sliding into the world of prostitution that existed just below their class. At the same time grisettes, it was often observed, had a single outfit reserved, much like modern "Sunday best," for special occasions. While these outfits were usually made from materials that were far cheaper than the clothes of upper-class women, they often imitated the kinds of fashions worn in aristocratic circles. Such outfits provided a release from the drab functionality of everyday dress. The grisette's custom of wearing these outfits at public events on holidays and special occasions points to the increasing importance that clothing had in the eighteenth-century world as a marker of social distinction for all urban people. A poor working-class woman, anxious to better her social circumstances, saw clothing as an avenue to advancement, and as she dressed for public events after the working day, she aimed to project an image of higher social standing to attract suitors. At the same time, her efforts marked her, in the minds of those from higher classes, as an upstart, and spawned criticism and ostracism.

The Clothing Industry.

At almost all layers of society, clothing was in constant circulation. Jackets, shirts, and linens were passed on as prized possessions to sons and daughters. Clothes were also used to settle bills with merchants, as part of the annual pay given to servants, or they were frequently sold or exchanged with secondhand dealers once they had outlived their usefulness. Even the wealthiest aristocrats often rented the outfits and jewels they required to attend court functions or to be seen at fashionable weddings and other social events. At Versailles and other royal palaces, the dictates of Louis XIV allowed all Frenchmen free entrance, provided they possessed the required hats and clothes. Such decrees stimulated the growth of rental merchants, who established themselves at the gates of Versailles and other royal palaces to rent the required dress to those who wished to gain entrance. In Paris, by contrast, more than a third of the population may have been employed in all facets of the clothing industry, that is, from the finishing and sale of cloth to the making of fashion accessories like wigs. At the apex of the Parisian clothing industry stood the mercers (purveyors of fabric), drapers, tailors, and wigmakers, many of whom set up shops in the area around the Palais Royal in the center of the city and in other fashionable quarters in town. Tailoring was a profession that required a great deal of training, and consequently tailors commanded large fees for the production of their made-to-order clothing. Beneath the shops of the greatest tailors, milliners, and wigmakers, though, was a diverse network of cheaper clothiers, secondhand dealers, and other producers. Cobblers, fan-makers, glovemakers, milliners, and furriers were just a few of the many professions that made up the clothing industry, although many of the city's population consumed clothes that were bought secondhand, or that were cheaply made at home or by seamstresses, rather than by the artisan tailors who catered to the wealthy.

The Rise of Linen.

One change during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that made a big impact on consumption habits was the increasing use of linen. Linen, a fine cloth made of threads woven from flax, had been in use to dress beds and to produce underwear for the wealthiest Europeans since the Middle Ages. After 1700, however, linen's use grew enormously throughout society, and the linen industry emerged as an important part of the European fashion world. Linen became a sign of social distinction as well as a marker of one's personal standards of cleanliness. If eighteenth-century Europeans still did not change their linen undershirts, chemises, and underwear every day as most modern people do, it was important in urban society to present an image of freshly starched collars, sleeves, and wristbands. Dirty linen became increasingly synonymous with slovenly behavior and sexual disorder. Armies of laundresses were needed to care for the sheets, shirts, napkins, and tablecloths of urban households, and in the countryside, thousands of linen weavers churned out various levels of finery in the cloth. In his Confessions the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) related his misfortune in suffering the theft of his linen shirts one Christmas Eve. While the family was at religious observances, someone stole 42 of the garments from the philosopher's home. By this time in the philosopher's life, he wrote, he had already come to realize the vanity of style, and the theft freed him from his last remaining tie to middle-class respectability. Although Rousseau's comments were, in part, a condemnation of the reigning fashion for linen, many Europeans seem to have shared his youthful consumption habits, and with the spread of industrialized production techniques in the later eighteenth century, the fashion for linen became even more deeply entrenched into European society.


introduction: As he matured, the French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau came to realize the futility of trying to keep up with contemporary styles. He gave up all attempts to emulate the wealthy bourgeoisie and aristocracy, with their frequently changing clothing patterns and instead practiced a relative economy. Of all the elements needed by a gentlemen in the eighteenth century, clean linen was one of the most important, and despite Rousseau's relative economy, he continued to keep a wardrobe that contained 42 linen shirts. One Christmas Eve, though, his collection was stolen, and thus Rousseau was deprived of the last element of a gentleman's wardrobe.

However austere my sumptuary reform might be, I did not at first extend it to my linen, which was fine and in great quantity, the remainder of my stock when at Venice, and to which I was particularly attached. I had made it so much an object of cleanliness, that it became one of luxury, which was rather expensive. Some person, however, did me the favor to deliver me from this servitude. On Christmas Eve, whilst the women-folk were at vespers, and I was at the spiritual concert, the door of a garret, in which all our linen was hung up after being washed, was broken open. Everything was stolen; and amongst other things, forty-two of my shirts, of very fine linen, and which were the principal part of my stock. By the manner in which the neighbors described a man whom they had seen come out of the hotel with several parcels whilst we were all absent, Thérèsa and myself suspected her brother, whom we knew to be a worthless man. The mother strongly endeavored to remove this suspicion, but so many circumstances concurred to prove it to be well founded, that, notwithstanding all she could say, our opinions remained still the same: I dared not make a strict search for fear of finding more than I wished to do. The brother never returned to the place where I lived, and, at length, was no more heard of by any of us. I was much grieved Thérèsa and myself should be connected with such a family, and I exhorted her more than ever to shake off so dangerous a yoke. This adventure cured me of my inclination for fine linen, and since that time all I have had has been very common, and more suitable to the rest of my dress.

source: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Trans. William Conyngham Mallory (New York: Tudor Publishing, 1928): 561–562.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau's experience with his linen demonstrates another trend that was common to the age: theft of clothing. Since clothing was a necessary, yet expensive commodity it was subject to frequent theft. In fact, one recurring literary motif of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature portrayed the sellers of used clothing—a key industry in all European cities—as dealers of stolen goods. In reality, the evidence suggests that these poor shopkeepers and peddlers were generally honest business people whose activities were well supervised by the police. In Paris, most used-clothing sellers were women, and, in fact, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they seemed to have played a key role in identifying to the police groups of criminals who were stealing clothes and trading in them on a black market. In Paris, the trial records from the eighteenth century reveal a steadily increasing number of complaints of clothing thievery. This type of theft seems to have been practiced mostly in Paris' poorer quarters, as the poor robbed the poor. Yet in the later decades of the century, the victims of many of these thefts came from the wealthy aristocracy and bourgeoisie of the city; evidently thieves were becoming more brazen and selective in the choice of items that they stole. This evidence thus points to the importance that new standards of consumerism were producing in a country like France, as even the poor desired to possess and trade in the items prized by upper-class society.

Dress Beyond the City.

Although the clothing styles worn in the continent's cities are better documented than those of the surrounding countryside, the vast majority of Europeans in the eighteenth century were peasants who were relatively unaffected by the fashions generated in urban society. In some regions the percentage of people that lived on the land was more than eighty or ninety percent of the total population. While in some areas close to large cities country men and women emulated some dimensions of the urban world, much of Europe still lived in relative isolation from those styles. It is consequently inappropriate to use the words "fashion" or "style" to describe the clothing worn by the large and diverse class of Europe's peasants. The wealthiest members of this class certainly possessed resources comparable to artisans and tradespeople in the cities. Yet almost everywhere, most peasants were relatively unconcerned with emulating the styles they saw when they brought their wares to urban markets. The clothes these men and women wore were most influenced by necessity, and their patterns of dressing changed only very slowly over time. The fabric used for peasant clothes were homespun or cheaply purchased woolens, linens, and sometimes even cloth woven from hemp, the raw material for rope. Although there was considerable regional variation in the clothes that peasant men and women wore, common items of dress were nevertheless shared across much of the European peasantry. Costly dyes used in urban clothes were not common in the fabrics used in peasants' outfits. Instead, men's clothing were most often brown, grey, and black, while women's outfits expanded on these basics with occasional flares of blue, yellow, and red. The shoe, an invention of the late fifteenth century, was common in the countryside, although in many parts of Europe peasants continued to wear wooden clogs or wooden soled leather footwear known in French as sabots. Peasant women did not wear corsets or paniers, the elaborate hoop contraptions used to extend the line of a woman's hips. Instead, an almost universal outfit consisted of a calf-or shin-length skirt gathered at the waist. Over the top of this garment, women wore an apron that sometimes included a bib that covered their fitted undershirts and bodices. Lace caps were a common form of headgear, while scarves were often worn around the shoulders, the ends of which were sometimes tucked into the bodice. Almost everywhere, men wore a form of britches and a vestcoat over-top a linen, wool, or cotton shirt. Generally, decoration and embellishment were spare on peasants' clothes, a sign of these garments' function as a creation of necessity, rather than of style.


Madeleine Delpierre, Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997).

Alan Hunt, Governance of the Consuming Passions. A History of Sumptuary Law (London: Macmillan, 1996).

Daniel Roche, The Culture of Clothing (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

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Fashion Beyond the Court

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Fashion Beyond the Court