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.

It was, however, getting much more difficult to be certain. Few people risked humiliation by dressing down, but the late 18th century was a time of relative economic prosperity. Trade boomed and the buying power of most artisans, shopkeepers and servants increased. In Paris even the lower classes began to buy watches, and the silk stockings and brighter colours that had once been worn only by nobles were now widespread among other social groups. The Englishwoman Mrs Cradock, visiting Paris in 1784, was astonished one Sunday to see her milkman in the crowd, wearing a fashionable suit, an embroidered waistcoat, silk breeches and lace cuffs. Sumptuary laws were still on the books, but by then they were not enforced. The only transgressions that were still punished were male-female cross-dressing and the illicit wearing of swords – but the latter rule existed more to prevent violence than to protect a noble monopoly.

The fashion hierarchy was slowly breaking down. ‘Paris was a city where people judged by appearances,’ Giovanni Casanova wrote, and yet ‘there was no place in the world where it was easier to deceive.’ Writers complained of the ‘confusion of ranks’, and conservatives condemned the decline of civilisation and morality they believed was being brought about. The Enlightenment debate over luxury was inspired partly by the growing difficulty of telling who was who. But a culture of appearances remained. People still expected dress to reflect rank, and they continued to pay close attention to minor details of attire – to the colour, the type of cloth and the cut. And if such things were sometimes deceptive, bearing was much harder to counterfeit. Hence the attention, in the education of the children of wealthy families, to dancing and, for boys, to swordsmanship. Training in bodily control and in the correct use of gesture was indispensable for social acceptance.

Medical and aesthetic theories saw in physiognomy a faithful indication of character. Artists and actors were familiar with the conventions for depicting anger, pleasure and other emotions through facial expression and posture, and theorists imagined an ideal world in which one could tell from someone’s complexion and features whether their personality was choleric or benign. There was a belief in transparency: that what was seen on the outside was a faithful reflection of what lay beneath. And if it were not, then that was evidence of duplicity, of dissembling. Of course, in everyday life people knew that there was no such easy correlation, yet the ideal remained, just as today we imagine politeness as a normal form of behaviour, even though we do not always encounter it.

The French Revolution inherited all these assumptions, but transformed them. Above all, it turned social markers into political ones. That is Richard Wrigley’s contention in his fascinating study of the changing meaning of appearances from 1789 to the Napoleonic period. Right from the start, as the Revolutionaries tried to create an entirely new society, the vestimentary symbols of the Old Regime came under attack. Dress inevitably became an issue at the opening of the Estates General in May 1789, when the clergy arrived in their variously coloured robes, the members of the Third Estate in sober black and the nobles in a kaleidoscope of costumes; an early speech by Mirabeau challenged the pernicious distinctions this created. In August 1790 the National Assembly abolished all decorations based on birth, and in October 1793 religious costumes were similarly banned. On the streets, too, as the Revolution progressed and the early unity was lost, expensive clothes, livery and coats of arms came under attack as aristocratic and unpatriotic. There continued to be a remarkable and acute attention to the detail of appearances and an egalitarian suspicion of ‘distinctions’.

This, however, raised practical considerations. In the new Revolutionary society, where not only Parliamentary representatives but judges, police officers, mayors and other officials were elected, how could people tell who was invested with this authority? The National Guard was quickly given a uniform, though in practice not all of its members possessed one – not all could afford it. Those in official positions wore tricolour sashes or medals: as Wrigley points out, the rapidity with which these could be donned and taken off was consistent with the theory that authority adhered to a position and not to an individual. The respect in which Revolutionary symbols were held is indicated by their use on more than one occasion to control angry crowds .

But appearances were more than a matter of policing. They were a means of marking, symbolically, the shift from the old to the new, but were also assumed to have transformative value. To some extent they still do: a uniform marks someone’s official function (soldier, policeman, doorman), but also encourages the modes of behaviour appropriate to that function. In the same way, wearing the insignia of patriotism, the Revolutionaries believed, would help to make people into good citizens. This was part of the logic that underlay the law of July 1792 making the tricolour cockade compulsory. The cockade was a rosette, normally of cloth and usually three or four inches across, which could be pinned to a coat or a hat. Adopted spontaneously by the people of Paris in mid-July 1789 as a symbol of fidelity to the Revolution and opposition to the Court, it was quickly institutionalised as part of the uniform of the National Guard. Yet, as Wrigley shows, it aroused all kinds of unforeseen conflict.

On one level the cockade made counter-Revolutionaries easier to identify, because the logic of transparency suggested they would feel uncomfortable wearing it. Some clearly did. Others outwardly conformed but inwardly rejected the symbol. While this made them duplicitous, it also made them difficult to identify. The measure thus intensified the Revolutionary obsession with conspiracy, also inherited from the Old Regime but nourished by some spectacular betrayals, not least the attempted escape of the King, who had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution. By the summer of 1792, furthermore, France was at war, and disguising one’s true beliefs or appearance became doubly criminal, intensifying an already fraught atmosphere of suspicion and denunciation. The absence of transparency, of a fit between people’s allegiances and their external presentation, became a political offence.

The cockade was only one example of Revolutionary insignia. Perhaps better known are the liberty cap and the outfit of the sansculotte – the bonnet rouge (a woollen cap), the pantalon (loose trousers), the carmagnole (a short jacket) and the pike. In the account he gives of the appearance of these symbols, Wrigley provides a wonderful demonstration both of the power of vestimentary symbols during the Revolution and of the way historical mythologies are shaped. By the mid 19th century, the bonnet rouge, the liberty cap and the Phrygian bonnet had been conflated into a symbol of the sansculotte, a myth which has been repeated in any number of subsequent historical works. Yet the Phrygian cap, though common in pre-Revolutionary painting, having been worn by the Trojans, was not associated with liberty, and was not red. Phrygian caps were rarely mentioned during the Revolution, or depicted before 1794, and seem to have been a product of the Thermidorian period. They were probably popular with the Directory after 1795, Wrigley suggests, precisely because they were not the same as the bonnet rouge and did not have the same radical associations.

Red woollen caps, on the other hand, did come to be linked with liberty by early 1792, though exactly why is unclear. Wrigley firmly rejects the often repeated idea that they were inspired by the costume of galley slaves. Woollen bonnets were part of the winter dress of working men and this is more likely to have been the reason some of the radical popular clubs adopted them to represent a rejection of elitist symbolism (though in reality even working men regularly wore hats). But red was, as late as 1791, associated with martial law and was extremely unpopular as a symbol. Only with the invasion of the Tuileries on 20 June 1792 did the bonnet rouge become a semi-official Revolutionary symbol.

The case of the sansculotte is very similar. Only after February 1792 did the term begin to develop positive connotations, and not until 10 August 1792 was it associated with the radical politics of the Paris sections. Even then, the dress of working men was often romanticised in images that linked honest labour with Revolutionary politics. Sansculotte insignia briefly became an unofficial political costume in some of the clubs, but already by early 1794 it was under serious challenge. Items of dress were useful as official symbols only so long as they served to unite patriotically-minded citizens.

One of the strong points of Wrigley’s study is the skill with which he demonstrates just how ambiguous and contested these symbols were. The sansculotte insignia, even the bonnet rouge, were never as rapidly, enthusiastically or widely adopted as 19th-century historiography suggested. Nor did they always have the clear connotations that later writers attributed to them. Furthermore, their form was often imprecise and easily subverted. When the women of the Société des Femmes révolutionnaires adopted red bonnets and pikes, they were accused of counter-Revolutionary behaviour, because – it was claimed – women should not be involved in politics or have anything to do with military paraphernalia. Their use of these symbols was condemned as a form of cross-dressing that threatened the gender order and hence – to male Revolutionaries – one of the basic principles of the Revolution.

But the best example of such ambiguities was the cockade. The red and blue of tricolour cockades soon faded, and became hard to distinguish from the white cockades adopted by Royalists; some unfortunate individuals were arrested for wearing these ambiguous symbols. Others became suspect because their cockades were too small, which suggested a lack of enthusiasm, or because they were half hidden behind a wide collar. Women who wore them on the breast or on an elaborate hat were on occasion accused of making them objects of coquetry and thus demeaning a patriotic symbol. In theory, a cockade could be made of any material: not so in practice. At the height of the radical movement, a silk cockade, perhaps manufactured by a fashionable dressmaker, became a sign of aristocratic and hence anti-Revolutionary sentiment. It was safer to wear a woollen one. So even an object as simple as a cockade was hard to define, and much of its meaning depended on who was wearing it and how and where it was displayed. What was acceptable at one moment might soon afterwards become unacceptable. The apparently simple language of Revolutionary dress was a complex and evolving phenomenon.

Even after the event, historical representations of the Revolution continued to change the meanings of its symbols. The tricolour became a rallying point for Irish rebels in 1798 and for nationalists in Vienna and Rome in 1848. By the end of the 19th century it had been adopted by a conservative French republic. With each new use its original meaning became harder to recapture. Histories of the Revolution have turned the sansculottes into mythical figures, sometimes violent and sometimes heroic, but often bearing little resemblance to the flesh-and-blood Revolutionaries who peopled the radical clubs of Paris.

The Politics of Appearance brings the skills of an art historian and a historian of material culture to bear on the neglected topic of Revolutionary dress. Yet much remains to be done, particularly on the material culture of the Revolution. Few examples of this culture, even of the cockades that were produced in their hundreds of thousands, survive. We still know very little about who wore Revolutionary insignia or who bought the huge numbers of plates, inkwells, tobacco boxes and other items bearing Revolutionary slogans or depicting Rousseau or the Jacobin Mountain. There was also a significant counter-Revolutionary production line. Unknown numbers of engravings, both for and against the Revolution, were produced during the few years of the 1790s, but we know little about who purchased them or what they did with them. We know even less about what they meant to their owners. Such products represented big business. In 1792, Condorcet expressed concern that unauthorised merchants were stocking thousands of red caps. They also had to be made: cockades and caps were a means of subsistence for workers driven into unemployment by the emigration of large numbers of nobles and priests, but we do not know how or by whom this trade was organised. We do know that the provision of military uniforms and supplies made some individuals into millionaires, and also that levels of fraud were high. Goods commissioned for the military often found their way into civilian use; hence the suggestion that all shoes made for the Army should have distinctive square toes.

Larger questions arise, to do with the impact of the Revolution, not only on the politics but also on the culture of France. Generations of historians adopted the Revolutionaries’ own view of their actions and portrayed the Revolution as a sharp break with the past. Much recent writing, on the other hand, has been concerned to stress continuity. The truth lies somewhere in between. The Revolution destroyed the hierarchy of appearances that was already being undermined, at least in the cities, by population growth and consumerism. In this respect, as in others, it accelerated existing trends. At the same time it brought into being a new set of symbols, ideas and cultural understandings that precluded any return to the Old Regime and was to have a dramatic effect on the turbulent history of the 19th century.