French Revolutionary Fashion: Accessories of War – Part 1

Costume History, Fashion History

Happy Bastille Day, one and all! On this day in 1789, a group of Parisians stormed the Bastille – a prison that symbolizing the arbitrary, but absolute, power of Louis XVI – and started a revolution in which fashion played a major role. Due to its inextricable link with political ardor, dress became a significant factor in the provoking and propagating the cycles of Revolutionary and counter-Revolutionary violence. Sans-culottes
Sans-CulottesIt began with a garment that is, these days, fairly devoid of political significance: trousers. Prevalent in working class dress, Revolutionaries took to wearing long trousers, “le pantalon,” as opposed to knee breeches, or “les culottes.” Revolutionary participants came to be known as “sans-culottes,” or without breeches, a term originally used by the aristocrats to express disdain, implying that they were “too beggarly to afford themselves knee breeches.”[i] Revolutionaries, however, proudly appropriated the term “sans-culottes” into a battle cry. During the Revolution, any elegance in dress was regarded with suspicion due to its attachment to the aristocracy and, by association, counter-revolutionary sentiment. The choice of the Revolutionary partisans to identify themselves, through dress, with the working class of the Third Estate signified both their egalitarian ideals and their refusal to continue subscribing to the old order.

Quite the opposite of elegance, long trousers exemplified the “allowed sloppiness of liberty.” [ii] Ironically, while trousers became encorporated into general use following Napoleon’s decision to dress his troops in them, knee breeches were kept only for appearances at court and “tended inevitably to become a livery for either the lackey in domestic service or for the courtier and the diplomat in service to the State.” [iii] Here, then, is a hierarchical reversal in the status attached to knee breeches. A garment that once indicated aristocratic wealth and titles became, post-Revolution, relegated to those employed in subservient stations. Funny that, isn’t it?

Bonnet rouge
Phyrgian bonnetThe bonnet rouge, or red cap of liberty, was another significant accessory taken up by the Revolutionary cause due to its associations with both antiquity and contemporary working class dress. The bonnet rouge derives from the distinctively curved shape of Phyrgian caps worn by Eastern slaves of Greeks and Romans during the Hellenistic period (see right). Freed slaves in Rome wore a similar cap to indicate their new liberty, which was placed on their heads as part of an emancipation ceremony.

Bonnet rougeIn antiquity the bonnet was also used during Saturnalia, a type of bacchanal in which masters and slaves both wore the same cap while participating in a temporary reversal of roles: the masters waited on their slaves for the duration of the sanctioned, temporary event. Again this reference presents a parallel between the bonnet’s associations with role reversal in antiquity and what it represented during the French Revolution, when the working class usurped the power of the monarchy and the aristocracy. Louis himself was forced to wear the bonnet rouge in July 1792 in order to appease a riotous crowd before the Tuileries.

In contemporary French life, the bonnet rouge was recognizable by all as the “adaptation of the traditional cap of the working man. A floppy, tubular cap, often with a tassel at the end, was the everyday headcovering of many workmen.” [iv] Furthermore, the bonnet rouge made a particularly poignant statement when thought of in terms of “hat honor,” or the “the obligation of those supposedly inferior in social status to remove their hats in the presence of their social superiors.” [v] In this context, the very act of wearing a hat becomes a form of resistance. Hats, due to their closeness to the head and thus to “the seat of wisdom and folly,” had always served as symbols of authority and power and as markers of status, or lack thereof. [vi] The bonnet rouge conflated the inherently powerful symbol of headwear with a variety of connotations that, when appropriated for use in the Revolutionary context, became an intensely compelling symbol. Indeed, it was the bonnet rouge more than any other garment that made the sans-culottes instantly recognizable.

But the story of French Revolutionary fashion doesn’t end there – these sartorial symbols of revolution and egalitarian ideals were soon flipped on their heads. Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we’ll examine not only how the tricolour cockade incited violence, but also how sans-culottes who donned the bonnet rouge became the very thing they had revolted against: the oppressors at the top of a stratified social order.

Family of sans-culottes



[i] Mayor, A. Hyatt. “French Fashions.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 36.2 (1941): 40-48. JSTOR. 27 Jan. 2010.

[ii] Mayor 40

[iii] Mayor 40

[iv] Shilliam, Nicola J. “Cocardes Nationales and Bonnets Rouges: Symbolic Headdresses of the French Revolution.” Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts 5 (1993): 104-131. 31 Jan. 2010.

[v] Shilliam 106

[vi] Shilliam 106

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