We’ve talked before about how fashion and politics often walk hand-in-hand. From the headdresses of the Tudor court to the zoot suit, a person’s clothing can say a lot about their ideas and affiliations. This was particularly true in Revolutionary-Era France.
Before the revolution, all fashion cues were taken from the court at Versailles. The style of the time was called “Rococo”, and was heavily influenced by mistress of King Louis XV, Madame du Pompadour. Pastels, stripes, and floral patterns were popular, and lavish decoration became the byword for both men and women.
Men’s suits of the time generally consisted of a loose shirt with frilled sleeves, paired with a waistcoat, coat, and knee-length breeches. The suits were finished with white stockings, a frilly lace jabot (a tie rather like the Victorian “cravat”), and heeled shoes. At this time, both men and women wore white, powdered wigs.
This was a time of conspicuous consumption, where most of the upper-class wore their wealth upon their backs. At a time when the poorer citizens of Paris could barely afford to feed themselves, seeing the nobility prance around in silver-buckled shoes and skirts so wide the wearer had to turn sideways to walk through a door, it was understandable how this could cause a great deal of resentment.
One particularly vocal group referred to themselves as the Sans-Culottes — literally, “without breeches” — in reference to their clothing. Culottes were silk knee-breeches worn by the French nobility and bourgeoisie, something that the average laborer could never afford. The working-class sans-culottes wore full length pants, or pantalons, instead. These lower-class citizens made up the driving force behind the revolution in 1789. They wanted to abolish the power of the monarchy and the Roman Catholic clergy and institute fixed wages and the introduction of price controls to ensure that day-to-day necessities would be affordable to all classes.
Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France at the time, became the symbol of all that the revolutionaries despised about the monarch. She was bold, extravagant, and vocal in court — more so than even her husband, Louis XVI, had been. The suggestion to “let them eat cake” in response to peasants’ inability to buy bread that has for so many years been attributed to the French queen was a device planned by a group of revolutionary supporters designed to discredit her, and make her appear flippant and vapid.
Supporters of the revolution identified themselves by working the tricolor — red, white, and blue — into their clothing wherever they could, either as a combination of their shirts, breeches and waistcoats, or as a rosette pinned to their coats. As the revolution picked up steam, wearing knee-breeches or extravagant gowns identified someone as a supporter of the monarchy, which was a very dangerous thing.
Clothing became a matter of survival. Something as small as not wearing a tricolor rosette could escalate into public riots and murder.
You can see the shift in social values illustrated in the artwork of the 1780’s and -90’s. Pre-revolutionary art was very light and airy and ‘feminine’, romantic and idealistic. After the revolution, artists were encouraged to portray much more sober, ‘masculine’ subjects that reflected the values of the Revolution : Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood.
Dark, sober colors replaced the pastels and embroidery of the previous decades, the silks and velvets banished in favor of cotton and wool. Dress silhouettes were trimmed down and simplified. The elongated bodices favored during the Rococo period were shortened to the natural waist, rising higher and higher towards the 1790’s until they evolved into the ‘empire” style of the Regency period.
Despite insistence upon sobriety of dress insisted upon in the early years of the revolution, large hats inspired by the Bastille itself became popular, topping voluminous hairstyles and bedecked with flowers.
One particularly grim style trend that emerged was cutting one’s hair a la victime. Both men and women would cut their hair short, to just above the nape of the neck, to imitate the way that prisoners’ hair was shorn before they were led to the guillotine. And the macabre styles did not end there. It became fashionable for women to wear red ribbons as chokers reminiscent of the line where the head was cut.