What to Wear to a Revolution


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In early November 1793, amidst the most violent period of the French Revolution, the National Convention issued this decree declaring that the citizens of France were “free to wear such garments appropriate to their sex in the manner they see fit,” adding that individuals attempting to force another to dress in a specific manner would be subject to the penalty of law.  The existence of this document—which we recently brought into the collection— begs the question: ‘how had the subject of clothing become such a divisive topic that legal remedy was deemed necessary in order to maintain public accord?’

Following the downfall of the monarchy, political factions gyrated and machinized at dizzying speeds, vying for power over a nation in chaos. In this highly charged atmosphere, political affiliations or sympathies were frequently conveyed sartorially.  Even the verbiage used to describe certain coteries was based on clothing terminology; the segment of male commoners largely responsible for the storming of the Bastille was known as the sans-culottes, translating essentially to ‘without breeches,’ due to the fact they wore long, loose trousers rather than the skin-tight knee breeches associated with the aristocracy.  By the Reign of Terror, a period in which more than 15,000 people met with the guillotine’s deadly kiss, fine garments traditionally associated with the elite, such as the elaborate robe á française or heavily embroidered and embellished habit á la française, were downright dangerous to wear, and many anecdotes of aristocrats borrowing clothing from their servants in order to obscure their identity are found in journals and memoirs of the era.

Color was highly symbolic during this period.  At the start of the Revolution, France’s traditional colors of red and blue were combined with the Bourbon monarchy’s white to symbolize the union of ruler and ruled.  This trifecta of colors was worn as a badge of revolutionary patriotism, most commonly in the form of red, white and blue ribbon cockades, the wearing of which, by 1793, had become an obligation for both men and women and even foreign visitors. The wearing of the cockade was such an incendiary topic that many incidents of violence were recorded pertaining to this newly-minted symbol of French liberty.  Some men felt that women should not be allowed to wear the cockade, that its display insinuated equal political rights, while some women refused to wear the cockade until legislation granted them political agency.

Early in the Revolution, those with Royalist sympathies sometimes expressed their allegiance by wearing purple, black and white or by incorporating the fleur-de-lys motif—another emblem of the Bourbon monarchy—into their garb.  However, by the time the decree at hand was issued, a gesture that brazen would have almost certainly cost one their head; the ruling Jacobin party, led by Robespierre, was on a vicious mission to rid the country of their political enemies.

Meanwhile, many felt that these quibbles and quarrels over dress would best be solved by the introduction of a ‘national costume’ and various interested parties, including the artist Jacques-Louis David and an organization called the People’s Republication Society of the Arts, made attempts to introduce their visions for a united, harmonious way to habillé.  None of these were successful as a lasting, meaningful practice, and so the problem of what to wear to the Revolution remained a significant thorn in the sides governmental officials until the they attempted to render the matter legally mute with  the issuance of Décret No. 1795.

The subject of dress and fashion during the Revolution is incredibly fascinating and complex, certainly not one that we could do remotely do justice to on Material Mode.  If you would like to learn more we recommend you to the following books: Fashion in the French Revolution by Aileen Ribeiro, Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber and the recently-published Fashion Victims by Kimberly Crisman-Campbell.  All are truly superb.

Happy Bastille Day from Material Mode!

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The Myth of Poiret as Debunked by 1906

US.NNFIT.SC.TT505.P6.P639.1906.1As a fashion historian, working in a Special Collections unit which focuses almost entirely on the history of design, is both a fantastic job and a wonderful education in its own right.  The objects which encompass my day-to-day routine continually reveal the inconsistencies, holes or misinformation that has been canonized into established design histories.  I often caution my students against making sweeping generalizations that any one designer was the “first” to do anything—and even further—I advise them to let go of that line of inquiry entirely.  To paraphrase the material culture theorist Jules David Prown, ‘once a group of objects produced in the same place at the same time begin to exhibit similar motifs or properties, then one can claim a style has been established;’ Prown’s point being that new directions in fashion, art or design are rarely, if ever, the result of singular genius toiling lonesome, but rather the creative output of like minds responding to shared stimuli.

Often cited as being the “first” to abolish the corset and re-introduce the columnar, high-waisted Empire silhouette around 1908, the work of couturier Paul Poiret was without doubt instrumental in ushering in the sweeping changes that occurred in fashion in the Teens and Twenties.  He was not alone, however. Images of Paquin garments published in Les Modes in 1906 use the term “Empire” in the verbal descriptions of a ball gown and an afternoon dress, which flow so loosely around feminine curves that a corset almost seems an election, rather than an imperative.

US.NNFIT.SC.TT500.M58.190601.12   US.NNFIT.SC.TT500.M58.190601.11    US.NNFIT.SC.TT500.M58.190604

Left and Center: “Robe de Bal Empire” and “Robe de Visite Empire” by Paquin as seen in the January 1906 issue of Les Modes. Right: “Robe d’Après-midi, par Panem” as seen on the cover of the April 1906 issue of Les Modes.

Other now-obscure couture houses, such as Panem, were also flirting with the Directoire style in 1906, when Poiret was still very much tethered to mainstream silhouettes maintained by tailoring and rigid corsetry as evidenced by a brand new accession: a promotional piece for Poiret’s 1906 summer collection.

At least one of the ensembles featured in this promotional piece—which was produced in the early years of his couture house, before the move to his illustrious hôtel on the Rue Auber—finds corresponding documentation in the pages of fashion magazines.  The tailor-made seen on the left below bears a striking resemblance to the ensemble on the right in the illustration which features two figures seen above.  The line drawing shows a light-colored jacket, rather than a dark one, but this may have been for the purposes of composition and as an allowance for the inclusion of the piping details seen at the shoulder, waist and cuffs of both jackets.  Poiret’s women of 1906 are all compressed into the popular S-bend corset, or the Gache-Sarraute, which forced a woman’s torso forward and hips back, a look he would later claim to abhor.

The Poiret designs of 1906 as featured in March and April issues of Femina were both heavily dependent on the corset for the desired effect.

The primary sources of 1906 seem to refute Poiret’s reputation as the ring leader of the sartorial avant-garde and evidence, instead, an early period of his career when his bravado and eclecticisms were still in a nascent phase, and other designers such as Paquin (who deserves a thorough scholarly examination in the form of a major publication or exhibition!) were the ones walking the knife’s cutting edge.

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