During The French Revolution the revolutionaries proclaimed the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It was the dawn of modernity and was violent and radical. The Revolution brought about such dramatic social change that there were no precisely defined social classes. Citizens existed in two main groups- the privileged, who were treated well and exempt from paying taxes, and the non-privileged, who were treated poorly and had to pay taxes. Before the Revolution, France was ruled by absolute monarchy. Absolutism under King Louis XVI made life unequal and unjust for the French peasants, thus sparking the need for a revolution that would bring about much reform in public and private life. Historian Lynn Hunt demonstrates how much elite private life was discouraged during this period, stating that, “privacy was equated with the secrecy that facilitated plotting” (13). The French Revolution transformed many aspects of public and private life in categories such as dress, femininity, and language, in order to promote the revolutionary agenda of equality and diminishing class distinctions. A characteristic desire of the French Revolution was less class distinction. Change was implemented through dress since clothing was such a public indicator of social class. The costume of the Old Regime was greatly made up of silks, velvets, laces, and ribbons. During the Revolution, these were all replaced by darker colors, less embroidery, and less expensive materials, such as cotton. The members of the Society of the Arts insisted that if private character was to be “revolutionized” then dress too had to be “entirely renovated” (Hunt 20). From the opening of the Estates General in 1789, dress was important in political life. The procession of the Third Estate was described by an observer as “’a mass of men, dressed in black…modest clothes’-and ‘the brilliant little band of deputies of the nobility…with their plumed hats, their laces, their gold trim’” (Hunt 16). The Sans-culotte was the most recognizable revolutionary dress worn by men, much more simple than clothing from the Old Regime. Hunt states that, “true republican sentiment could be identified by a man wearing the red cap of liberty, the short jacket (known as the carmagnole), and loose-fitting trousers” (Hunt 18). The uniform of a man “revealed the public meaning of a man’s private character” (Hunt 18). Social equality could not be achieved if social distinctions continued to be expressed through dress. Since women were considered part of the public sphere, their dress was “less important to both artists and legislators” (Hunt 20). In Le Journal de la mode et du gout, the ‘‘grande dame’ of 1790 wore ‘colors striped in the national fashion” and “the patriotic woman wore royal blue, with a hat of black velvet, hatband, and tricolor cockade” (Hunt 18). Although their private work kept them from needing to wear the national uniform of citizens, they still did dress more patriotically than ever before. Women also changed their handkerchief, which was “ridiculously overdone” (Hunt 20). Marie Antoinette was the best example of this lavish dress and view of femininity. She is described as being the “ultimate, vicious expression of what the revolutionaries feared women would become if thy entered the public realm: hideous perversions of female sexuality” (Hunt 22). A characteristic of the Revolution was radicalness, something that she embodied perfectly through dress and attitude. Old, grotesque women wore outfits that were associated with those of the lavish Marie Antoinette. Artists depicted these women in a way that showed the relationship between dress and politics (Landes 120). In this piece, titled Aristocratic Lady Cursing the Revolution, the artist plays with the connection between “political freedom and sexual liberty” by having her “drooping headdress” mimic her sagging breasts. The artist, who is anonymous, also purposely paints her staring into the distance, in a “ferocious state” with one hand on her chest and the other clenched with a dagger. These choices are strategically made by the artist in order to properly show that the aristocracy’s reluctant attitude toward revolutionary change is foolish, and that these women should be seen: as “old hag[s]” with “shapeless breasts” who were too extravagant (Landes 120). These ladies, along with Marie Antoinette, became emblems and representations of the corrupt Old Regime. Not only did she dress in a new fashion, but she was also very public. She was more vocal than her husband, King Louis XVI, especially in court, which proved to be a problem and made the King appear weak. However, her words carried very little weight. She is depicted as naïve, declaring, “let them eat cake” in response to too high bread prices for the poor. This poor representation of women during the Revolution led Marie Antoinette to be seen as the “inversion” of what a post-revolutionary woman should be (Hunt 22). She was also suspected of adultery and accused of being too flashy and almost careless with her appearance. She was even noted to be “the most miserable prostitute in France” (Hunt 22). This led to her unpopularity in society because the way she presented herself to the public was viewed as immodest and gaudy. Overall, she was a “wild animal rather than a civilizing force; a prostitute rather than a wife; a monster giving birth to deformed creatures rather than a mother” (Hunt 22). Marie Antoinette was the example of the old monarchy, the enemy of the revolutionaries, she was not an embodiment of the radicalness of the revolution, but rather the opposite- an example of everything the Revolution was against. Lavish, elaborate clothing of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI.
After the Reign of Terror people could not continue to dress in the court attire of Versailles. Thus, Napoleon first wife, Josephine’s appearance was very different from Marie Antoinette’s, and therefore more accepted. Joan Landes states that Josephine’s time “had the added advantage of transmogrifying the despised women of Old Regime Society” (Landes 110). This advantage was dressing and acting differently than Marie-Antoinette to be more elegant and accepted, as to not be “despised.” Josephine’s attire was different from that of Marie Antoinette’s in that it was more antique. Womens attire in the early phase of the French Revolution was marked by patriotic dress. Josephine’s attire was reminiscent of the togas of Rome and Greece, attempting to tap into democracy of the Late Antiquity. Overall, “the revolution led to a loosening and lightening of dress” (Hunt 21). Arguably the most drastic change was that women were allowed to show more skin. This new, more risky dress that had never been seen before did not come without critique from society. One journalist noted that such transparent dress “denied desire the sole pleasure on which it thrives: the pleasure of guessing” (Hunt 21). Much less lavish than Marie Antoinette. Josephine’s clothing was also an important vocalization of what was happening during the reign of Napoleon. It was a visual representation of the transformation from an absolute monarchy to a less chaotic republic, as her dress was simpler, or less chaotic, from that of the Old Regime. In addition to clothing, the Revolution brought about a transformation of language. As dress became less lavish and more representative of the whole population, making language more uniform was equally another way to implement equality. The first step was that the familiar “tu” began to be used in public discussion, with people who were not familiar (Hunt 21). This showed how much the formality of the courts was diminished. It was thought that this practice would lead to “less arrogance, less distinction, less enmity, more obvious familiarity, more of a leaning toward fraternity, and consequently more equality” (Hunt 21). These were all ideas characteristic of the Revolution. Furthermore embracing the idea of familiarity and fraternity amongst citizens, cursing became present in publications such as newspapers and magazines. Words such as “buggers,” “ass-wipes,” “f**k” appeared in “the public realm to destroy the aura of queenship, of nobility, of deference” (Hunt 22). To further advance uniformity in language, the government attempted to standardize French to be the primary language as opposed to other jargon and lingo that would often be used in private. All documents published by the Government and the language in new schools had to be French. The idea behind this, stated by Barére, was that “the language of a free people must be one and the same for everyone” (Hunt 22). With the new style of fashion that arose during the Revolution, one that could be more characteristic of the all society, language also had to reflect this change. Before this change, people of different social classes, who wore distinctive clothing, spoke different dialects. However, with a more uniform dress, language also became more uniform, meaning that people of all social classes had to speak in the same dialect, further emphasizing the idea of equality and need for change that the French Revolution was built upon. However, most people did not readily accept this new language tradition, as they felt that their private life was being too quickly diminished. The creation of a secret dialect to be used in private was formed by veterans. Their slang was called Parler des Grognards to differentiate themselves from civilians using French. Their language was so established that they had their own words for tools, clothing, different groups within the army, and accidents on the battlefield, and of course, names for the enemies. The French Revolution transformed the political and social structure of the Old Regime for the better. With the help of Napoleon, France moved from an unstable, chaotic, absolute monarchy under King Louis to a more functional government. Changing the government meant changing most aspects of life. The different transitional points that took place in the realm of dress, femininity, and language were symbolic of the changing notions of public and private life toward uniformity during this revolutionary period. These changes, although hated by some, were implemented with the goal of liberty, equality, and fraternity for the civilians.