French Revolution,  Paris,  Snapshot

Snapshot: Fashion & Revolution

Clothes maketh the man. And maketh a revolution.

1793 vs 1778 fashion freakout

Well, it didn’t start out as an intentional theme. But since we’re three posts in already, I’m running with July being the Month of the Revolution. Which makes sense for both the Americans and the French. 😀

Clothing played an important role in the French Revolution. 18th-century fashion made it especially easy to tell the aristos from everyone else. The average Jean or Jeanne could not afford embroidered silks, expensive lace, and outrageous wigs. They were wearing wool and the newly affordable cotton. They maybe had small embellishments such a little lace on the edge of their cuffs or paste jewels. The poorest of the poor made do as they could with low-quality cloth and patched cast-offs.

Let’s take a look at how things changed in the blink of an eye. Or the swoosh of the guillotine, if you will.

Royalty & Aristocrats

Marie Antoinette, controversial queen extraordinaire, was known as a fashion icon. But in 1783, a portrait in the new “robe de gaulle” style caused an outrage. First, she is wearing yards of cotton muslin imported from England (France’s perpetual enemy) and not of good French silk. Second, the fabric at the time was usually associated with undergarments, not outerwear. It was quickly dubbed the “Chemise a la Reine,” after the related shift-like underwear. Her perceived lack of patriotism and “scandalous” immodesty sparked a backlash when it debuted. So much so in fact a second version was painted with more traditional garments!

This didn’t slow down the growing popularity of white muslin gowns or cotton clothes in general. Going forward, the fashion industry would turn toward cotton and away from silk. The unintended result was a slow decline of the French silk industry. More devastatingly, it also caused a boom in the cotton industry in the United States (after the invention of the cotton gin) that was built on the backs of slaves.*

Outside of the monarchy, the aristocrats and their sartorial excess did not endear them to the general public. Here are a few examples of the clothing the rest of us could never afford. Consider that each outfit is hand woven, hand constructed, and hand decorated. C’est trĂšs cher!


Once the revolution started, fashion continued apace. As the wealthy were executed, some revolutionaries adopted a new uniform based on working class clothes. The sans coulottes began wearing long trousers instead of knee-breeches. This visually signified a break with the ruling class in their silk breeches and hose.

Comfort makes revolutions easier

For those who could not afford a new wardrobe, you could always wear some form of a “tricolore” (blue, white, and red) marker, frequently worn as a cockade on hats or jackets.

For the frugal revolutionary

It became increasingly imperative to mark your allegiance to the Revolution as dissenters were being arrested at an alarming rate. One gentleman, probably a converted aristo, had this spectacular vest made:

Safety First

Women were not left out of Revolutionary fashion. Check out that tricolore commitment!

Not all men were going full-on casual. The dandy-ish Ropespierre instead cut a striking look with his striped coats and waist coats. Even now, when the Revolution is portrayed in fiction and art, you can quickly find Robespierre thanks to his stripes!

Making stripes cool since 1789


At the end, we return to the beginning. Marie Antoinette of course did not survive the Revolution. Incredibly, the actual chemise (her undergarment, not the dress) she wore during her pre-execution detention is on display at the Conciergerie. It is considerably more simple and unadorned than any she probably wore as queen.

For The Tourist

As mentioned earlier, the Revolution can, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, be elusive in Paris. It is everywhere in spirit but not always visible.

In addition to the displays at the Conciergerie, the still closed but in theory opening this year MusĂ©e Carnavalet has a number of artifacts dedicated to the Revolution. They have selected a few pieces in an online collection for while we wait (in French).

The location of Marie Antoinette’s execution is now the place de la Concorde, where the Tuileries end and Champs-ÉlysĂ©es begins.

For plenty of Marie Antoinette connections, travel to the Chateau de Versailles. Be sure to check out her retreats in the gardens: the gorgeous Petit Trianon and the Hameau (hamlet), her “rustic” retreat.

For the Fashion Enthusiast, see the credits below for some sources. For the legendary Kyoto Costume Institute (who has more strict copyright restrictions), bask in the glory here.

Thank you for humoring my love of historic costume with this quick look at Revolutionary fashion. Does fashion make a revolution? How do we dress today to state our beliefs and place in society? Let me know your thoughts below! Merci! 🙂

*Please do not interpret this as “Marie Antoinette created the slave trade” or any other extreme position that you sometimes see. Without the cotton gin or a similar invention, the industry may well have not been as lucrative and cotton not as affordable to the masses. Or India would have remained the largest cotton producer, with its own myriad human rights issues. Is the Chemise a la Reine part of the story of the rise of cotton clothing? Yes. Does its popularity directly translate into the 19th-century boom of slavery in the American South? No.

Image Credits
1778 vs 1793: OH! QUELLE FOLLIE QUE LA NOUVEAUTÉ by Carle Vernet, 1793. From Wikimedia Commons, posted by Churchh. Public Domain.
Marie Antoinette in Chemise de la Reine:Marie Antoinette” by Élisabeth Louise VigĂ©e Le Brun, 1783. From Wikimedia Commons, posted by Kaho Mitsuki. Original held in the collection of the prince Ludwig von Hessen und bei Rhein, Wolfsgarten Castle, Germany. Public Domain, PD-US-expired
Marie Antoinette in Silk: Marie Antoinette” by Élisabeth Louise VigĂ©e Le Brun, 1783. From Wikimedia Commons, posted by Cybershot800i. Held in collection of the Chateau de Versailles. Public Domain, PD-US-expired.
Gold Brocade Dress: Woman’s Dress (Robe Ă  la française and Petticoat). LACMA. Public domain per Terms of Use.
Aristocratic Man’s Suit: Court Suit, French, 1774-1793. Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Online Collection. Public Domain per Terms of Use.

Fashion Plate: Lady in a court dress by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, 1788. Musée des Arts Décoratifs online collection via Google Arts & Culture. Public Domain, PD-US-expired.
Sans Cullotes:
Cockaded Hat: Hat (Bicorne), France circa 1790. LACMA. Public domain per Terms of Use.
Revolutionary Vest:Vest, France, 1789-1794“. LACMA. Public domain per Terms of Use.
Women of the Revolution Fashion Plate: Modes revolutionnaires Paris, Sept. 1789, Mars, Avril, et Aout 1790. Artist Jacquemin, Raphaël. New York Public Library Digital Collection. Public Domain.
Robespierre: Portrait of Maximilien de Robespierre“, unknown artist. From Wikimedia Commons, posted by DIREKTOR. In the collection of the MusĂ©e Carnavalet. Public Domain, PD-US-expired.
Marie Antoinette’s Chemise: by author, Michelle Keel. October 2018.

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