When to Wear a Red Bonnett

David Garrioch

  • The Politics of Appearance: Representation of Dress in Revolutionary France by Richard Wrigley
    Berg, 256 pp, £15.99, October 2002, ISBN 1 85973 504 5

On a wintry Paris day a decade before the French Revolution, the young Manon Phlipon did something daring. Left alone at home one day, she took it into her head to dress up in clothes belonging to the family servant: a ragged blue ankle-length dress with a long, faded red apron, and a rough cotton shawl and hood over the top. Thus attired, she went out into the street and headed off, ‘running like a real peasant girl, pushing everyone who got in my way, getting pushed by people who would have stepped aside for me if they had seen me in my fine clothes’. For Manon, a middle-class girl who a few years later would become known as Madame Roland, the politically active wife of a minister in the French Revolutionary Government, dressing down was a small but liberating gesture of rebellion. It freed her from both the obligations and the privileges of her class.

The 18th century was a deferential age, when those of lower rank were expected to step aside for, and doff their hats in the presence of, their social superiors. The etiquette books of the period advise that, when visiting, a person of lower rank should sit close to the door and not wait to be dismissed before politely taking his leave. When walking in public gardens, at the end of the promenade one should always turn towards the person of higher rank, never away from her. In religious and civil ceremonies, the seating arrangements and the order of processions reflected fine gradations of rank, of which participants and observers alike were acutely conscious: hence the innumerable disputes over precedence that kept the courts in business for years.

Dress was crucial to what the French historian Daniel Roche, in his remarkable study The Culture of Clothing, has termed ‘the hierarchy of appearances’. In 18th-century France, a plain black coat, waistcoat and breeches, with white silk stockings, was the distinctive dress of the middle-class male professional – middle-class women were more colourful. Noblemen had the privilege of wearing a sword, and could dress their servants richly in livery embroidered with their coat of arms. The nobility, both men and women, dressed more brightly than anyone else: the vegetable dyes of the period faded quickly, so that colour was a mark of status. Purple was the royal colour, forbidden to others, but reds and greens were popular. The richer the person, too, the better the quality of the cloth (wool, linen, silk), the more elaborate the lace of collars and cuffs, the more fashionable the cut.

Working people wore coarser cloth, and on working days both women and men generally wore an apron. Yet among workers, too, dress reflected occupation and place in the social hierarchy. The very poor had only dirty rags, the cast-offs of others. The respectable poor might also wear cast-offs, but carefully patched – most colours faded to a drab greenish-brown, so the patches broadly matched the rest. Particular occupations – butchers, for example, or printing workers or locksmiths, were readily distinguishable from the stains on their aprons and clothes, and since both wigs and hair were worn plentifully powdered, hairdressers were perpetually enveloped in a cloud of white dust. The market porters wore wide-rimmed hats, and soldiers and clergy stood out immediately. Servant girls, shop assistants and many other occupational groups were harder to distinguish, but no one could confuse them with their employers, who wore clothes of better cut and quality. Buttons, ribbons, trimming and embroidery, in a world of tailored and homemade clothing, were signs of rank or of social pretension.

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