A Time Traveler’s Guide to Dressing like a French Revolutionary

Okay, so in the event that time travel becomes a real technology (she says optimistically), probably not many people will want to visit revolutionary France. On one hand, I’d be tempted – I’d possibly get to meet some of the historical figures featured in The Wardrobe Mistress, and wear some of the fashions I pored over paintings and descriptions of, at least until the longing for modern yoga pants inevitably returned. But on the other…the guillotine. It’s a risky time period, that’s for sure, and that’s without even considering the advances in hygiene and medicine we have today.

Fine, maybe this is really more of “A Nerdy Costume Party Attendee’s Guide to Dressing like a French Revolutionary.” Whichever it is, I’ve got you covered. Here are my superfluous top tips for dressing like you belong in 1790s Paris.

Wear a hat

You’ve probably heard of the revolutionary bonnet rouge. King Louis XVI was forced to wear one when an angry mob of revolutionaries stormed through the Tuileries, but he submitted to the unwanted hat-wearing happily enough when he saw that it calmed their wrath. And he looked great in it:

Louis XVI, King of the French, 1792. The 1775 engraving was reworked in 1792 to record the king’s donning of the bonnet rouge during the invasion of the Tuilleries Palace

It wasn’t the first hat incident Louis had, though. In 1789, when the Estates General was opened for the first time since 1614, the representatives of the Third Estate (which made up the bulk of the population, excluding only royalty and clergy) put their hats back on at the end of Louis’ speech, even though custom dictated that only the king and his entourage could do so at this point in the ceremony. Commoners were supposed to stay kneeling, clutching their hats to their chests in awe at the blue blood before them or something. It was quite shocking when the representatives shattered this custom, but Louis, in a moment of uncharacteristic quick-thinking, removed his own hat once again, prompting everyone to follow suit.

For women, plain white bonnets are a safe bet. Conservative enough not to draw attention and easily decorated with a tricolor rosette if needed. Straw hats could also be worn, but not everyone liked them because Marie Antoinette favoured them.

You know, I think part two of this hat advice is to study a treatise on hat etiquette, as well.

 

 

Wear a tricolor rosette

Show your rebelliousness, or protect yourself from sharp-eyed and judging revolutionaries, by challenging the monarchy with colours. Rosettes can be easily pinned to hats or coats, and just as easily removed when you have dinner with that older family friend who drinks too much wine and then lectures about the divine right of kings. Most rosettes or cockades are tricolor – red, white, and blue – but not always. Red and blue is an acceptable combination. Red and white with no other colours is not, since it reminds people of the uniforms for the queen’s staff at Trianon.

Green rosettes are absolutely out of the question. Green is the livery color for the Comte d’Artois, the king’s younger brother, and no one likes him. He even fled France after the storming of the Bastille, fearing for his life. 

Don’t wear white rosettes. That will just remind people of the Bourbon fleur-de-lys, and what have the Bourbons ever done? Just wasted a bunch of tax money building Versailles and not helping with the bread crisis, that’s what. White is acceptable in some forms, such as bonnets, fichus (shawls), shirts, or dresses, as long as the whole ensemble isn’t pure white as the expensive snow that the Bourbons probably shipped in to keep their wine cold.

Black isn’t a great colour either. You get a slight pass if you’re in mourning, but it better be for a close family member and not a national personage like Marie Antoinette’s son who died in 1789. Sure, it’s sad that a poor little boy died, but his mother was a witch who hates the French so you can’t display any sympathy. Plus, black reminds people of the Hapsburgs, and no one likes them either. Especially Marie Antoinette. The other Habsburg colour is yellow, so avoid that too. Bees are also out, probably.

Oh, and forget about the fact that tricolor had also been the colour of the French king’s livery, historically. It’s infused with new political meaning now (waves to American revolutionaries) and no one talks about its dark past. 

Red is a good colour to wear, especially the very popular shade called sang de Foulon, or Foulon’s blood. Monsieur Foulon was a minister in Louis XIV’s cabinet and was murdered by Parisian revolutionaries, so clearly you’ve got your priorities straight if you add a ribbon in Foulon’s blood to your white bonnet. Just don’t forget that touch of blue somewhere!

 

Dress to celebrate the fall of the Bastille

Now that all seven prisoners have been freed from the prison, the building is torn down and its stones are up for grabs as souvenirs. The possibilities are endless. You could line a walkway or build a low stone fence or maybe even design some jewelry with the smaller rocks. Necklace made of demolished walls? Sure.

If you’re rich enough, ironically add some diamonds to spell out the word Liberté and you’re set.

You can even make a replica of the Bastille for your hair, using white satin “towers” and black lace to represent the balustrade. Just watch your head going through doorways.

(As with most good things in life, you can’t make them up. These are both recorded revolutionary fashion items).

That great inspiration of jewelry, the Bastille

 

Dress like Marie Antoinette

Yes, I know everyone hates her as a symbol of ostentation and everything wrong with society, but there’s no denying the appeal of her Petit Trianon casual wear.  Her white muslin gowns might be decried as looking like nightgowns – called chemise á la reine, but they’re certainly more comfortable than heavy velvets over panniers to keep the skirts wide. Plus, wearing a dress like this is proof that you’re unfussy, virtuous, and believe in equality. After all, anyone can afford these. That’s partly why the other nobles hated Marie Antoinette’s muslin gowns at first. Just make sure to add a patriotic tricolour cockade, of course. You don’t want to risk looking like a wanna-be milkmaid like Marie Antoinette. Even better, women can wear a jaunty red and blue muslin scarf to kick this simple outfit to revolutionary heights. If it’s cold, try a blue redingote with a white scarf and a red cap. If anyone mentions that Marie Antoinette also made the somewhat masculine fashion of wearing riding attire popular years before, just gaze at them blankly and mutter “vive la revolution.”

This is Princes Louise Auguste of Denmark, in the chemise a la reine style of gown

If all else fails, bring your son (or your friend’s son) with you and dress him in the uniform of the National Guard (white pants, navy coat, red-trim). It worked well for Marie Antoinette when she brought the dauphin to the fête de la fédération to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Bastille

There – now you know what clothes to pack before you time-travel to revolutionary Paris to hang out around Café du Foy talking philosophy with Robespierre. Alternatively, you know what to wear to a Halloween party before you get drunk enough that you can’t be bothered to explain your costume anymore.

 



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