I’m updating the presentation book I use to show potential clients the kind of work that I do, using visual collage and fabric swatches to illustrate appropriate dress for different work and social situations as my tools. I created the original collage sheets about seven years ago and redoing them now, I see that there have been very few lasting major changes in menswear since then, save for the slimmer suit cuts and the introduction of gingham.
Changes in menswear are historically very slow, sometimes with little changes over very long periods of time, but during rare moments, very swift changes to wardrobe take place, like during the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), a period of intense political and social upheaval, where thousands of aristocrats were guillotined during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.
I watched The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), set during the French Revolution last night and noticed that the period costumes looked suspiciously plain but very “put”, or deliberate, and wondered why. The thing about costume is that the clothing of any period is a reflection of society at that particular time, politically (think trade routes, for example – what dye stuffs and fabrics are available for import at the time), economically (who can afford what), and socially (who affords what sorts them out into classes).
The Revolutionary wardrobe
During the years 1791-92 – years so fateful for the French monarchy – all ornamentation disappeared from clothing, and although earlier fashionable styles continued for a time, even the last relics of former days vanished when the Reign of Terror opened. Rich and poor alike were careful to dress as negligently as possible, for anyone whose outward appearance brought him under suspicion of being an aristocrat went in danger of his life… Ostentation in dress was not in accord with Republican sentiment.
-Carl Köhler, A History of Costume
Nobles who manged to last through the Reign of Terror had to blend in with the common people so as to not be noticed, so fine materials like silk and velvet had to be abandoned – common cotton and wool were the people’s materials and fabrics of the Revolution. Bright colours for the very poor and still-starving people of the Revolution wouldn’t exactly be appropriate, so darker colours prevailed, save for the patriotic blue, white, and red cockades that decorated hats and frock coats.
Köhler suggests that men’s dress coats were first affected by the Revolution and several styles were worn at the same time. Coats had high stiffened collars that stood around the wearer’s neck and sides of his face and the cuffs that went half way up the sleeve forty years before were lost to a more modest half-cuff. Cut-away military officer’s dress coats were seen everywhere and middle class men wore open, double-breasted, square-cut English riding coats with two rows of buttons. Soon, the waist on the riding coat rose up and rounded, and the breast flaps became enormous. Later, the same coat became a single row of buttons, no longer double- breasted but fastened with hooks where the two fronts met.
In 1792, there were no zippers, so tailors used strings and buttons to close clothing. Men wore slim-fitting, high-waisted fall-front breeches (brit-ches) that fastened below the knee and were either laced or stitched up the back. The flap at the front of the breeches unbuttoned and dropped down to reveal a buttoned waist band holding the garment around a man’s waist.
Knee hose were worn over the calf and under high-top boots, ordinarily worn by middle classes with the English dress coat, but adopted by the French Revolution. Hats with high crowns were in fashion, taking over for the showiness of the large wigs that were so popular during the late King Louis XVI’s reign, and the bicorn hat, the two-pointed headpiece made famous by Napoleon, was introduced to French society during this period. Men’s natural hair was arranged in loose short curls at the sides and back of the head and the front curled high, though small wigs with a single row of curl could still be seen.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Under the frock coat was the waistcoat, long and double-breasted with high lapels, pockets, and decorated with two rows of buttons. Under the waistcoat was the shirt, full cut, and made of cotton or linen. Shirts of the period were often ruffled down the front or worn with a jabot, something of a lace bib worn around the neck. A length of silk or heavy cotton muslin made up the cravat (also known as a neckcloth, forerunner of the modern necktie) which was wrapped around the neck two or more times and tied at the throat in a soft bow. The full shirt sleeves gathered into a wristband (cuff) with deep ruffles, often made of lace.
Leslie Howard played Sir Percy Blakeney and the Scarlet Pimpernel in the aforementioned film. Blakeney, an 18th century English noble, leads a double life, appearing as an aristocratic dandy who is secretly part of an underground effort (Band of the Scarlet Pimpernel) to free members of French nobility from the Reign of Terror. Sir Percy constantly arranges his cravat, reminds everyone in court that he is the go-to man for matters of fashion, and voices not-so-glowing comments about other people’s clothing.
Upon inspection of the King of England’s new set of clothing, he says, ”Look at that puny sleeve, a dishrag of lace. It looks like the lining hanging down…. it’s as ugly as a parson’s widow! Open up your sleeve, man, let your ruffles take the air, let them flow and ripple, so that when his Royal Highness takes snuff, it will be a swallow’s flight.”
This kind of foppish attitude sounds an awful lot like Beau Brummel (1778 – 1840), the famous and fashionable English dandy who, among other things, changed menswear forever by bringing long trousers into permanent fashion. Brummel stressed the cut of the garment and the quality of the fabric and discouraged fancy trim and bright colors that were popular in the late 18th century. It is said that Brummel suggested gentleman take on more subtle and subdued colour schemes and leave the colours for the ladies (and this man’s opinion still rings true over 200 years later). I have a feeling that Pimpernel’s writer, Baroness Emmuska Orczy, wrote Brummel into Sir Percy’s character – I can’t imagine who else could make Percy’s sartorial dictatorship so charming.
The people’s movement to banish anything associated with aristocracy had a backlash itself in the form of Les Incroyables, the unbelievables, or the incredibles. This group of young people pushed styles to their extremes and were famous for wearing short waistcoats, tight, high-waisted frock coats with huge breast flaps, and breeches “tight to the point of indecency”, one of my sources says. Their high boots were lined with contrasting fabric that were turned over at the top, and they curled and scented their hair with musk as a revolt against the plain fashion of the Revolution. They came to rise after the fall of Robespierre and were known as the White Terror – angry mobs of dandies, possibly from working class backgrounds who may or may not have supported the Revolution.
Aileen Ribeiro, in Fashion in the French Revolution, says that the political sympathies of Les Incroyables are not clear, leading her to believe that the implications of this dandy movement seems to be that fashion is more important than ideology.
In 1792, the costume reflects the times as usual. Within a ten-year period, the changes in fashion were so erratic, that to me, seem to be a reflection of the confusion of the period. During the Reign of Terror, bourgeois costumes of gorgeous, brightly coloured stuffs, accessorized by pieces made of precious metals and jewels, were replaced with more somber fibers of the earth made into plain garments of the people, sending the message of equality for all.