How to Dress
How to Dress for the French Revolution
By H. Kristina Haugland
Costume & Textiles
Philadelphia Museum of Art
First, pick your side - will you be a revolting peasant or exquisite aristocrat?
Choose the role of a revolutionary if you want to side with the crowd and storm the Bastille (and not be in danger of losing your head). While some early revolutionaries were middle class or bourgeoisie, those who formed the riotous mob were downtrodden and even starving peasants, so the first step to dressing properly is to forget about finery. Fabrics available to the lowly were wool and linen (cotton, while expensive at the time, can also be substituted and makes very acceptable rags). Remember you are more interested in bread and freedom than fashion; you probably owned only these clothes and even they were most likely hand-me-downs, so everything about your appearance should be coarse, worn, and preferably dirty.
A few symbols will make your revolutionary fervor instantly apparent. True citoyens, both male and female, sported rebel colors (soon-to-be the French tricolor) of rouge, blanc, et bleu (red, white, and blue). These colors can be worn in the form of cockades (ribbon rosettes) decorating the hat or chest or in sashes across the chest, although a rabid revolutionary might find the money for striped red and white fabric for trousers or a skirt.
Another potent symbol of the revolution worn by republican males was the bonnet rouge, or red cap. Originally worn by freed Roman slaves, and also called a 'Phrygian bonnet,' this cap had also been a symbol of liberty in the American Revolution. Favored by men, the bonnet rouge can be a knit stocking cap or fashioned from cloth, but its distinctive feature is a short blunt end that forms a funny-looking bump on the top or side.
Pants, Skirts, and Underwear of the Radicals
The most important thing to remember about male revolutionaries is that they were also called sans culottes, which translates as "without breeches." This doesn't mean they wore no trousers, but that they dressed in unfashionable long trousers rather than the knee-length breeches of the upper class. With your baggy trousers, wear a loose shirt (rolled up sleeves can show your working class status) and possibly add a short jacket or vest.
Female radicals should dress in long skirts with a short jacket or bodice. Under these, wear a chemise (underblouse); to be accurate, it should come to about the knee and serve as your basic undergarment. Women of the time might also be called "sans culottes," since they did not wear any type of bifurcated garment (i.e. underpants). (The chemise certainly covered more than any modern thong, but it's your choice just how true to the period you are.) Aprons are appropriate for working women, and large triangular neckerchiefs were very popular; fold a square with the pointed ends in back, and either tie it in front or cross it in front and tie in back. On your head wear a mob cap (which looks like a shower cap with a ruffled edge) or possibly a kerchief; a tricolor cockade should be prominently pinned to your chosen headgear.
Don't Forget Your Shoes and Knitting
Another hallmark of peasants were wooden shoes or sabots, worn by both sexes, these were perfect for common tasks like mucking out the pigsty. More radical accessories you may wish to consider carrying include a pike (with or without the guillotined head of a hated "aristo" on top) or a banner demanding such things as "Liberté, Egalité, Fraterité." Zealous females may want to bring their knitting to make time pass between beheadings. A revolutionary's manner should be rude and obstreperous - demand your rights from those noble leeches! Down with the Bastille! Death to the Queen!
If you feel like dressing in sumptuous clothes while showing contempt for the inferior rabble, then become a temporary aristocrat (and at this time life did indeed become very temporary for the elite). French fashion in the eighteenth century emphasized just how different members of the court were from the lowly, and high ranking ladies and gentlemen had the time and money to devote to their appearance. Thus, all fabrics, from starched white linen shirts to silk suits and gowns, must look expensive and, since your clothes would have been made especially for you, everything should fit. No one said it was easy or cheap to be noble!
It's All About the Hair
It was the mode for both sexes to powder their hair and arrange it in elaborate styles. Men wore side curls and a queue or ponytail tied with a large black bow. Fashionable ladies piled, frizzed, and curled their hair into fantastical coiffures, and also stuck numerous long plumes into their hair, loose turbans, or wide-brimmed hats.
A well-born man's suit included a tailcoat, vest, and breeches, made of fine and usually colorful fabric often in patterns or stripes or decorated with embroidery. The entire outfit showed wealth and breeding, from expensive lace at the neck and wrists, the silver buckles at the knee of the breeches, white silk stockings to show off a well-turned leg, and fine leather shoes with heels and glittering buckles. Three-cornered hats, kid gloves, long canes, and handkerchiefs were all part of fashionable masculine dress, and patricians might carry an elegant snuff bottle so as to ward off the stink of the riff-raff. A sword, which hung from his left side, was the mark of a true gentleman, who had to know how to manage all these accoutrements while performing a graceful bow.
At the time of the Revolution, the stylish feminine silhouette consisted of a conical torso, shaped by stiff corsets, and very full skirts, which were supported by numerous petticoats and, for formal wear, panniers of cane or metal that created immense side fullness. Over these underpinnings, lightweight silk gowns were decorated with all manner of puffs and ruffles in self-fabric, lace, and metallic or silk trim. Heeled slippers or mules, made of delicate silk, peeked from beneath skirts, and ladies knew how to make good use of exquisite fans not only to circulate air but to show off their elegant movements and flirt coquettishly at grand balls or in sumptuous boudoirs.
In short, while it was a fad at the French court to play at the pastoral (Marie Antoinette loved to pretend she was a shepherdess), these fantasies were far removed from the realities of rustic life. So wear an aristocratic sneer reflecting your out-of-touch and disdainful attitude. The poor have no bread? Let them eat cake!
To find out more about correct historic fashions, consult Fashion in the French Revolution by Aileen Ribeiro (published in 1988 by B.T. Batsford of London) and The Age of Napoleon: From Revolution to Empire. 1789-1815 edited by Katell le Bourhis (published in 1989 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams). Whichever side you're on, you will certainly enjoy the revolution more if you dress the part.