Fashion During the French Revolution

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Fashion During the French Revolution


The years following the Revolution in France in 1789 brought massive upheaval and changes in French society, which, in turn, produced profound changes in dress and fashion. Clothing had long served in France as one of the most visible markers of social privilege and aristocratic status, so it is hardly surprising, then, that fashion was deeply affected by the course of revolutionary changes. The royal court's dress had long been prescribed by an unbending etiquette that had originally been fashioned by Louis XIV, author of the absolutist system of government that had transformed the country into Europe's greatest seventeenth-century power. During the eighteenth century this system had grown increasingly unwieldy, corrupt, and outmoded, and the privileges of aristocracy and the court seemed in the eyes of many to be an evil that needed to be rooted out if the country was to move forward. In the first years of the Revolution many aristocrats and wealthy French bourgeoisie agreed with this conclusion, and the initial phases of political change in the Revolution were marked by relative unanimity concerning the abolition of ancient noble privileges, clerical status, and distinctions of rank. A swiftly changing political scene, however, marked the clergy, the aristocracy, and those who served them as forces of counter-revolution among those who advocated more radical changes in government and society. During the Reign of Terror that began in 1792, thousands of French nobles, priests, and those who sympathized with them were guillotined. In the midst of these troubles, clothing played an important symbolic function, as men and women relied upon it to express their political convictions; dress became alternately a way to support or to condemn revolutionary change. The aristocratic fashions of the eighteenth century were seen as an evil that needed to be suppressed, and the Revolution moved to condemn those elements of dress that embodied traditional aristocratic society. Expensive silks, taffetas, velvets, and other costly elements of clothing were prohibited as France's new government tried to dictate a new order in which fraternity, rather than privilege, might be realized.

Clothing as Symbols.

From the earliest days of the Revolution elements of dress played a vital role in the political movement's identity. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, the government of the city of Paris decreed that all citizens in the capital must wear a tricolor cockade, a round emblem constructed of ribbons displaying the city's colors of red and blue as well as the monarchy's standard white. Even


introduction: In early-modern Europe clothing played a vital role in identifying the status of particular groups in society. With the coming of the French Revolution the symbolic role of clothing continued, and men and women relied on their outfits to make statements about their support or rejection of the principles of the era. Color became a particularly important vehicle for showing one's political sympathy. In the following excerpt from The Secret Memoirs of Princess Lamballe, the editor, Catherine Hyde, the Marquise de Gouvion Broglie describes problems she had with an outfit she wore to the Opera, as well as the surly attitude of French soldiers when she refused to show she was wearing the revolutionary tricolor—red, white, and blue. The writer was an Englishwoman, married to a French nobleman, and part of the inner circle that surrounded Queen Marie-Antoinette.

The reader will not, I trust, be dissatisfied at reposing for a moment from the sad story of the Princesse de Lamballe to hear some ridiculous circumstances which occurred to me individually; and which, though they form no part of the history, are sufficiently illustrative of the temper of the times.

I had been sent to England to put some letters into the post office for the Prince de Conde, and had just returned. The fashion then in England was a black dress, Spanish hat, and yellow satin lining, with three ostrich feathers forming the Prince of Wales's crest, and bearing his inscription, "Ich dien, I serve." (This crest and motto date as far back, I believe, as the time of Edward, the Black Prince.) I also brought with me a white satin cloak, trimmed with white fur.

In this dress, I went to the French opera. Scarcely was I seated in the box, when I heard shouts of, "En bas les couleurs de d'empereur! En bas!"

I was very busy talking to a person in the box, and, having been accustomed to hear and see partial riots in the pit, I paid no attention; never dreaming that my poor hat and feathers, and cloak, were the cause of the commotion, till an officer in the national guard very politely knocked at the door of the box, and told me I must either take them off or leave the theatre.

There is nothing I more dislike than being thought particular, or disposed to attract attention by dress. The moment, therefore, I found myself thus unintentionally the object of a whole theatre's disturbance, in the first impulse of indignation, I impetuously caught off the cloak and hat, and flung them into the pit, at the very faces of the rioters.

The theatre instantly rang with applause. The obnoxious articles were carefully folded up and taken to the officer of the guard, who, when I left the box, at the end of the opera, brought them to me and offered to assist me in putting them on; but I refused them with true cavalier-like loftiness, and entered my carriage without either hat or cloak.

There were many of the audience collected round the carriage at the time, who, witnessing my rejection of the insulted colours, again loudly cheered me; but insisted on the officer's placing the hat and cloak in the carriage, which drove off amidst the most violent acclamations.

Another day, as I was going to walk in the Tuileries (which I generally did after riding on horseback), the guards crossed their bayonets at the gate and forbade my entering. I asked them why. They told me no one was allowed to walk there without the national ribbon.

Now, I always had one of these national ribbons about me, from the time they were first worn; but I kept it in the inside of my riding-habit; and on that day, in particular, my supply was unusually ample, for I had on a new riding-habit, the petticoat of which was so very long and heavy that I bought a large quantity to tie round my waist, and fasten up the dress, to prevent it from falling about my feet.

However, I was determined to plague the guards for their impudence. My English beau, who was as pale as death, and knew I had the ribbon, kept pinching my arm, and whispering, "Show it, show it; zounds, madame, show it! We shall be sent to prison! show it! show it!" But I took care to keep my interrupters in parley till a sufficient mob was collected, and then I produced my colours.

The soldiers were consequently most gloriously hissed, and would have been maltreated by the mob, and sent to the guard-house by their officer, but for my intercession; on which I was again applauded all through the gardens as La Brave Anglaise. But my, beau declared he would never go out with me again: unless I wore the ribbon on the outside of my hat, which I never did and never would do.

source: Catherine Hyde, Marquise de Gouvion Broglie in The Secret Memoirs of Princess Lamballe by Marie Thérèse Louise de Savoie Carignan, Princesse de Lamballe. (Washington, D.C.: M. Walter Dunne, 1901): 219–221.

Louis XVI bowed to this pressure, and when he was reconciled to the city of Paris following the famous attack on the royal prison of the Bastille, he and his family donned the revolutionary cockade to demonstrate their support for political change. The demand that Parisians wear the cockade of red, white, and blue became an immediately popular symbol of support for the Revolution, and spawned new fashions for clothing in the tricolor. Women wore skirts made from tri-colored fabrics or shoes with buckles of revolutionary cockades; men wore red coats, white stockings, and blue britches to express their support for political change. Yet not all Parisians bowed to such fashions, and those who supported the upholding of tradition, aristocratic privilege, and monarchical power sometimes wore pure white, the color of the Bourbon monarchy. In the highly charged political atmosphere of the early 1790s, however, such acts of defiance could result in arrest and persecution, so most Parisians accommodated themselves to the new requirements. The sudden changes in fashion also deeply affected the clothing industry in Paris. Many of those who had served aristocratic society in previous decades now found themselves without customers, as nobles and wealthy Parisians fled the city. Rose Bertin, once a prominent milliner and a designer of the queen's dresses, even supported herself by selling cockades and other concoctions sporting the revolutionary colors. Bertin and other members of the town's clothing trade now indulged revolutionary tastes to make ends meet.

In Search of a New Style.

While the color of clothing and of accessories like the cockade played an important symbolic role in the early years of the Revolution, no immediate change in the style or cut of clothes occurred at this time. Instead most members of the bourgeoisie (the French middle and upper-middle classes) as well as many aristocrats that initially supported the Revolution instead wore the English informal fashions that had begun to gain popularity in France during the 1770s and 1780s. In place of the taffetas, velvets, and silks that were now prohibited as symbols of the old order and of aristocratic privilege, women's dresses were made of cotton and linen, usually all of a single color, and men's frock coats and britches were constructed of wool, and their shirts of linen and cotton. The triumph of the new style can be vividly seen in many of the portraits that Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), France's great Neoclassical painter, and other revolutionary-era artists completed during the early years of the new order. In his 1795 portrait of his brother-in-law, Pierre Sériziat, David painted the sitter as if he was an English country gentleman, complete with tan britches, a dark outer coat, and a vest and shirt of white. To complete the allusion to the "English style," the artist showed his brother-in-law sporting a top hat and riding crop. A similar affection for the standards of English informality can be seen in the painting that David completed of his sister, Madame Sériziat, in the same year. The artist showed the subject clad in the chemise, the simple tube-like dress gathered at the neck with a drawstring and here tied with a green sash at the waist. Instead of the elaborate coiffures typical of the world of the pre-revolutionary Old Regime, Madame Sériziat is shown with natural hair placed under a lace cap and a simple, yet elegant straw hat decorated again with green ribbon and bows. The child at her side wears much the same outfit. It was such dress that came to be increasingly the norm among those members of the bourgeoisie who supported the Revolution's changes, as the course of fashion came even to be debated in the new national academies and societies of the time. During 1793 and 1794, the Société Popular et Républicane des Arts, the institution that replaced France's Royal Academy of Arts, debated the question of clothing in a revolutionary age. David, one of its most prominent members, took part in these discussions, which lasted over four months, and his portraits of his sister and brother-in-law were presented at the institution's salon in 1795, in part to demonstrate the society's prescriptions for the reform of fashion. In its deliberations the Société concluded that clothing should be hygienic, should not advertise its wearer's rank or status, and should allow for free movement of the body. In particular, the institution enjoined women not to contort their bodies into shapes through the wearing of corsets, paniers, or other devices, since these were styles that flourished under political despotism and which had largely restricted women's freedom to move. The body should not be concealed or contorted by clothes, but rather enhanced by it. Thus in searching for ways to realize these dictates, French fashion adopted the English style, a form of dress that ironically had been embraced in the 1770s and 1780s by the French aristocracy. These fashions now expressed the Revolution's longing for freedom.

Other Voices.

As the reigning artist of his day, Jacques-Louis David tried to steer a path of moderation through the increasingly turbulent political world of Revolutionary fashion. Appointed minister of arts by the government in 1794, David received a commission to design the uniforms to be worn by France's judges, municipal officials, and civil servants, a controversial duty at a time when radicals within the Revolution were advocating for the abolition of any distinction of rank or privilege. The uniforms that David designed for the new order thus tried to take account of the need for the French state's civil servants to be distinguished from one another, while at the same time stressing their equality before the law. Despite his best efforts, David's decisions were controversial, and by the mid-1790s, dress and fashion had emerged as important ways for French men and women to express their political viewpoints. During the height of the Reign of Terror—that is during the dismal years between 1792 and 1794 when many thousands were put to death for "counter-revolutionary" sentiments—groups like the Sans Culottes advocated for a more complete reform of French government and society. The Sans Culottes (meaning "without britches") were drawn largely from the ranks of Parisian shopkeepers, artisans, and poor workers in the city, groups that had long worn trousers rather than the stylish knee britches of aristocratic and bourgeois society. The group's uniform consisted of long trousers, a short-skirted coat known as the carmagnole, a tri-colored vest, and a bonnet rouge (or "red cap"), and their clothing became synonymous with their agitation for radical democratic reforms. This trend towards the politicization of clothing met a counter-trend in the mid-1790s, however, as greater peace and stability returned to France under the government of the Directory; groups of male incroyables (literally "unbelievables") and female merveilleuses ("the marvels") appeared on the Parisian scene whose clothing mocked the trends of the previous years. The female merveilleuses displayed daring amounts of cleavage or wore sheer dresses that exposed large portions of their legs underneath the sheerest of fabrics. Their dress thus mocked the Revolution's dictates that women's clothes should provide for greater freedom of movement by carrying them to a logical conclusion. The incroyables, by contrast, were dandies that distorted the new fashions the Revolution had helped sponsor, poking fun at the taste for English informality by sporting elaborately grand lapels, striped trousers, and bizarre "dog-eared" hairstyles. While the Revolution had hoped to found a new society in which all social distinctions of dress were outlawed, the incroyables and merveilleuses hoped for a time in which men and women might distinguish themselves purely for the imaginativeness of their clothing. Although their presence on the Parisian scene was relatively brief, both groups pointed to the emergence of a new consumer culture of fashion, one that now stretched far beyond the confines of aristocratic society, and which would in the following generations encompass an ever-larger portion of the European world. In the daring innovations of incroyables and merveilleuses we can see the genesis of the infinitely changeable and swiftly altering modern world of fashion. Since that time cosmopolitan Europeans have struggled to keep up with that world's seasonal dictates.


Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion in the French Revolution (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1988).

—, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France, 1750–1820 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995).

Jean Starobinski, Revolution in Fashion: European Clothing, 1715-1815 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989).

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Fashion During the French Revolution

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Fashion During the French Revolution