Fashionable English and French Dress, 1795-1796

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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The cataclysm that engulfed France in 1792 brought about a more complete and sudden change in the shape of clothes than at any previous period in history. Styles had taken longer to evolve and at no time had there been such a covering-up one year and such uncovering the next. It is true that during the early Revolutionary period nothing very much came out of France, but by 1794, when artists were busy again and communications re-established, it was possible to see how the doctrine of liberty had affected the appearance of the people. Gone were the courtly trappings of the old regime, and the costume that had evolved could have been worn by any member of the community, without distinction of class or profession. It is also true that the new idea was not something thought up to suit the occasion. It just happened that the trend that had been simmering for some time fitted in with the current impulse to dispose of all the old conventions and start again from the beginning. The beginning, to that generation, meant classical Greece whose democratic institutions had been the renewed interest and study of scholars for some years, and as outward appearance is the most obvious way of expressing personal ideals the people of the new regime did their best to copy the costume of the rational and liberty-loving citizens of the City States. Classical culture had been spurred by the uncovering of the ruins of Pompeii in 1750 and the travels of antiquarian scholars to Athens a little later. Its severe architecture had influenced building and furniture for many years but it was only something as world-shaking as the French Revolution that could give the excuse to throw overboard all previously accepted conventions of dress. The worthy object of the Revolution was to give every man the right to liberty, fraternity and equality, but as the leaders of the movement were still the intelligentsia and cultured rebels (unlike the sober working man of our more peaceful social revolutions) it is natural that the manifestations of the theory should have been, in every way, extreme. The shape of clothes altered very little during the first years of the Terror and Convention but all extravagances were put aside through fear of the accusation of being a member of the hated old ruling class. By the time the new policy had been formulated the people were quite ready to put theory into practice and show the world what the citizens of a brave new democracy should look like. The same source that had fed the ideas of liberty to the French philosophers was again tapped for inspiration in dressing the effects of those theories. Classicism and the craze for the antique had been even more popular in England than in France and had already done much to simplify architecture and costume. There was also a romantic under­ current that had shown itself in a certain amount of carelessness in men’s dress and behaviour. The romantic impulse in England arose from a yearning for excitement and adventure in the intellectual youth of a too comfortable and civilized people. With no cause to champion, it found a vicarious outlet in tales of horror and romantic adventure and in a rebellion against accepted traditions. Following an all too familiar pattern, from which we still periodically suffer, formal dress as the hallmark of conformity was an early object of protest, especially regarding hair. By returning to uncombed roughness the rebel young men thought to demonstrate their freedom of the head and ideas. The French had, therefore, a sympathetic and inspiring reference to draw upon, although it would probably never have been admitted that their designs were a trifle second-hand. With the Ancient Greek in mind their efforts on the part of men’s clothes were a dismal failure. Having become used to an urban life it was difficult for man to return to the underclad or swathed simplicity of antiquity which made him feel a fool and was most unsuitable to the climate. After a few abortive attempts with tunics and cloaks a safe compromise was reached in the sober and practical costume of the Englishman, the idea of which had been popular before the Revolution but was now adopted in the plain materials of its origin, so suitable to a classless society. The coat, after all, lent itself to a tunic effect when closely buttoned, and the tight breeches, made of stocking material, were the nearest thing to uncovered legs. But once across the Channel the English coat began to behave like so many visitors from this country. It took on a festive air, became aggressive and loud with dramatized wide lapels and higher collars and would have been disowned by its compatriots. The fiat-fronted bicorne decorated with the tricolour cockade, so typical of the Revolution, was an exaggeration of military headgear, but as the fancy-dress element subsided the English top hat began to be worn, albeit with an extra curve and tilt to the brim. One detail that remained from former fashions was the stripe pattern that the French used for fancy lapels and even stockings but which the Englishman only countenanced for his waistcoats. There was no difficulty at all in fitting woman in to the picture. She has rarely needed much persuasion to leave off her corset and show her limbs. The actual transition, for her, was much easier than for men as her clothes were already lighter, softer and more revealing. The English dress lent itself to further simplification into the garb of the neo-nymph as it had been more clinging and trailing since 1790, with a gradually rising waist; the most dramatic change came when this suddenly leapt up, high under the bosom, a fashion that had not been seen for centuries. This feminine revolution was undoubtedly the outcome of a strong determination on the part of the new leaders of fashion in Paris to present a completely fresh image of woman in her new emancipation. It took a few years more for the figure to match up to those of the caryatides on the Acropolis, as the stance was not upright but forward swaying, with lifted fullness in the skirt falling into a train behind. There was still something sedate about the English models, where the change had been more gradual. The Englishwoman, with no new ideals to personify, clung to her tight waist even though it now pressed uncomfortably on her ribs, and it was some time before she shed her pouched kerchief and long tight sleeves. The girl friends of the Directorate, on the other hand, made a clean sweep of all the old conventions. Taking the simple English chemise dress as a basis they made it much more provocative, with fewer petticoats (or none), cross bands emphasizing the bosom, and pulling the skirt close to the figure with the fullness swung over one arm. The neckline widened and the shortened sleeves puffed slightly on the shoulders, foreshadowing the horizontal line of the bodice that developed at the end of the century. Ornament was now used as borders, faithfully copying Greek and Etruscan patterns, and the gauzy scarves that had swathed Gainsborough beauties turned into long stoles which, drawn tightly round the shoulders, were yet another invocation of the antique. The leaders of fashion in the new society of Paris were no less rebel than the men and signified their protest restraint in the same way. Hair that had been carefully dressed and powdered so short a time before now hung in unruly curls, or locks, over the forehead and neck, and the headgear that replaced the glorious large hats was shallow and bent over the head with the widened front brim shooting u1 into a large scoop. In England, where the classic trend veered rather towards Rome, hairdressing was more complicated and hats, bent into bonnet shapes, more heavily trimmed. There was a great deal of swathing, and the truly imperial finish of tall, uncurled ostrich feathers made its appearance. Where the fashions were most faithful to the classic originals was in the adoption of flat sandals, often mere soles, tied criss-cross high up the leg. The outcome of the Revolution was not only in the emancipation of women (which, alas, faded as ideals changed in the 19th century) but in something much more lasting, in that clothes were no longer status symbols but could be worn by all classes without distinction of rank.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm