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Fashion During the French Revolution (Politics and Clothing)

Fashion During the French Revolution (Politics and Clothing)

The time of elections was not the only occasion when people chose to adorn themselves with revolutionary items of clothing to show off their allegiance. Many years before the start of the French Revolution, people were used to wearing colors or dresses to display loyalty toward a ruler. 

Since monarchy did not allow for people’s freedom of speech, they were used to making statements through their fashion. Many museums today display a variety of clothing choices that men made to vocalize their views and express their allegiance to the side they favored. 

French fashion was not just a wardrobe choice. It was a statement that spoke volumes about one’s political sentiments. The French Revolution came with a lot of unrest as the political system was uprooted. 

The working class took to the streets and wore the famous cockades (striped ribbons in blue, red, and white colors). These colors represented the renowned cry for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” It reflected people’s demand for democracy and a mistrust of the monarchy. 

Here’s how the French Revolution impacted clothing in France.

A Rejection of Nobility

Artwork depiction of women in Paris, Sept. 1789.
Figure 1
Image courtesy:
Artwork depiction of women in Paris, Sept. 1774.
Figure 2
Image courtesy:

Take a look at the two pictures above. In the image Figure 2, we see women who have embraced the revolutionary colors and simplistic dressing style, while those with more aristocratic dressing are depicted in the image Figure 1. 

The Revolution marked the rejection of extravagant French fashion. The war was not just against the elite but their ideologies that had suppressed the working class for decades. Thus, anyone seen resembling the extravagant colors or styles of the aristocracy was sent to the guillotine. 

People started transitioning from the two-cornered hats and silk suits to plainer dresses that didn’t look as expensive. The French Revolution influenced how people dressed, as wearing an outfit could lead to dire consequences. 

Popular Styles During the French Revolution

Outfits worn by the revolutionaries influenced French revolution fashion. Leaders like Maximilien Robespierre were known for their unique styles, and the double-breasted tail coats soon became popular. 

These were made of cotton, a much more affordable and straightforward option than silk. Silk was also shunned as it reminded the revolutionaries of the wealthy class. Their suits had large collars, high waits, and longer tails. They were a world apart from the dressing of the monarchy. 

These suits were often marked with differently styled motifs and slogans that reflected the ideologies of the owner. Many elites had chosen to convert to revolutionary ideologies, and as they were used to making bold statements, they liked putting their unique spin on their clothes. 

The Sans-Culottes and Their Style

The Sans-Culottes were revolutionaries that incorporated much more aggressive tactics than other fighters. They were known for their loose cotton trousers (they took pride in labor class clothing), which was a statement against the dress of the aristocracy. 

These trousers were also tricolored and paired with woolder jackets (Carmagnoles), also popularly known by the peasantry. This practical clothing influenced menswear in the following decades. 

The French Revolution encouraged a revolution in French fashion and attitudes to clothing by rejecting the silks and bold colors for their impracticality. These were replaced by wool and cotton, which were much more affordable for the working class. 

Why Did the French Revolution Impact Clothing?

18th Century french Fashion.
18th Century french Fashion
Joeman Empire, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What was the importance of the French Revolution, and why did it lead to such a widespread change in attitudes? In fact, women’s clothing did not benefit much from the French Revolution. The way women were confined to fit an acceptable form never changed. 

During the French Revolution, female clothing did progress to comfortably fit the female form; however, that was reversed as the Revolution ended. Women were brought back to the frills, laces, and gowns they had been confined to for centuries. 

Not surprisingly, the Revolution had a significant impact on how men dressed. No man wanted to appear elite, and no matter how rich they were, they started to adopt fashion akin to the Culottes style. 

Did French Revolution Fashion Last? 

Although French fashion was impacted mainly by the Revolution, the style did not last. We remember the Revolution, but not the events that followed. The aftermath of the Revolution involved almost offensive sub-cultures which resembled the “punk” movement. 

The elite who had witnessed the horrors of the French Revolution would mimic the critical events through their fashion trends involving red chokers designed to mimic the color of blood, corsets ripped in place, and unkempt wigs. This was an attempt to mock everything that the Revolution stood for. 

The Incroyables and the Merveilleuses led the fashion movement. They were responsible for heading an entirely different kind of Revolution. This was an outcry against the reactionaries who had tortured the aristocrats under the Reign of Terror. Yet again, sentiments were expressed through fashion. 

As Robespierre was sent to the guillotine by the same masses he had supported, the Revolution made a mockery of itself and gave way to other movements. 

The Style of the Incroyables

The elite that had felt threatened finally found a safer atmosphere. They could breathe under a regime that more or less supported their extravagant lifestyles. The leaders of this new movement were known to mock the Revolution, inventing humor that was based on the guillotine and the terror. 

Their trauma was channeled into the way they conducted themselves in society. They dropped the letter R; the act symbolized the Revolution they couldn’t speak of. They were known to don extravagant hats, accessories, bold colors, and a ridiculous style that consisted of sheer material. 

These revolutionaries stole the idea of freedom of speech and clothing from the past Revolution. Ironically, they wore clothing that mimicked the dressing style of the peasantry while tweaking it to suit their extravagance. 

The women were vocal about their oppression as they wore torn and tight sheer gowns which revealed their undergarments. It was a commentary on the suppression of their fashion styles during the Revolution. The Reign of Terror was opposed with vulgarity and extravagance. The French elite stuffed themselves with the privilege they were deprived of during the Revolution. 

The colors also symbolized everything they thought of the Revolution. Gowns showed off blood-red trimmings, and chokers also gleamed the same color. They cut their hair short in protest and reveled in the vulgar display of what they had been forced to abandon. 

As Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he rejected the clothing styles of these groups and forced society to come back to what it had lost. The textile industry production was declining at an alarming rate, and demand for silk was negligible. 

Napoleon dreamed of French textile regaining the appeal it had lost along the way. Silk was brought back into society, and intricate laces were added to appeal to the masses. People were led back to acceptable forms of extravagant dressing. 

As the political atmosphere changed, so did dressing styles. Middle Eastern turbans and Indian shawls started to flood the market. The French Revolution fashion slipped away into the past. 

Viva La Fashion Revolución!

Woman in a yellow coat.
Freedom of Opinion in the French Revolution
Image by Daniel Adesina from Pexels

Revolution is a necessary part of growth. Without growth, society will ultimately fail to function. This is because change teaches us to abandon the older, more flawed ideas for refreshing perspectives that allow society to exist in harmony

Pushing down the needs of one class for the betterment of another is never a good idea, and the French Revolution taught us that lesson well. Sooner or later, the oppressed class is bound to realize their oppression and strike back destructively. 

Revolutions do not just happen in groups. They can happen within our hearts. You can lead an entire army of revolt within your bedroom. Think of the last time your parents told you to wear a dress that didn’t quite fit your style. 

Fashion is a personal choice. This is because what you choose to wear can reveal your personality and the ideologies that have your support. Some people dress in darker outfits to express the turmoil within, while others prefer lighter forms of clothing because they are trying to hide the same. 

We are all human, which can only translate to our unique ideologies. Staying true to your personality and beliefs is what makes you human. Revolt with your fashion choices and wear what you love. Your fashion revolution starts with you!

Header image courtesy: Joeman Empire, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons