The Age of the Baroque and Enlightenment 1600-1800: Fashion

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Regulation of Consumption

The Long Tradition

In both medieval and early-modern Europe a web of laws tightly controlled clothing and the consumption of luxury goods. As a body, these sumptuary regulations—laws intended to control dress and extravagant feasting and celebrations—were one of the largest and most universal sets of regulations in European states, although the specifics of restrictions differed greatly from place to place and over time. Generally, though, sumptuary law fell into two broad categories. First, city and state officials tried to limit the amounts their subjects spent on clothing by stipulating that certain garments might not contain more than a certain amount of fabric, lace, or trim, or by limiting the total sum that might be spent on any one garment. These types of regulations were often very specific, and as such, they were consequently subject to many attempts to circumvent their intentions. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, for instance, restrictions on the amount of cloth a woman’s skirt might contain fed the popularity of chopines, which were large stilt-like shoes whose platform soles at times reached heights of twelve to eighteen inches. Perched on these lofty pedestals, late-Renaissance women required more cloth in their dresses so that their skirts reached the ground, another demand of propriety. Thus, as in this case, new fashions often bred a continued outpouring of restrictions, as Italian governments legislated against the chopines even as they had once turned to consider the widths of women’s skirts. The second broad type of sumptuary legislation aimed to confine the consumption of certain expensive items of dress to members of the aristocracy. These measures were particularly widespread in the kingdoms of Western Europe. In France and England, for instance, the consumption of costly furs like ermine or of rare feathers was generally reserved only to those who were of noble birth. In this way clothing styles tended to buttress the established social order, to serve as marks of social distinction, and to encourage attempts to get around the regulations. Restrictions of one kind against consumption, then, tended to inspire attempts to control consumption with ever more specific laws, as state and city officials constantly labored to defend against what they perceived were attempts to flout their authority. In most countries, though, the punishments meted out to those who violated sumptuary legislation were comparatively mild when compared against those reserved for theft and other crimes. A system of fines was most frequently used to compel those who violated the laws to comply.

Moral and Economic Incentives

The tradition of controlling and limiting consumption in Western Europe stretched back into the early Middle Ages and even had its precedents in Antiquity. The high tide of sumptuary legislation in Europe, though, occurred between the fourteenth and early eighteenth centuries at a time when Western industry, commerce, and society were all growing more diverse, and when industry presented consumers with more choices of rich cloth than ever before. At the beginning of this period, problems related to overpopulation, famine, and the Black Death of 1347-1351 winnowed away at Europe’s population. Subsequent recurrences of the plague and outbreaks of other epidemics meant that by 1450 there were forty percent fewer people in the continent than there had been in 1300. It was not until about 1620 that the European population again reached its pre-plague levels. In every European region, this massive decrease in population produced long-term inflation, as labor became a commodity that was relatively dearer than previously. Inflation, in turn, made it more difficult for young couples to marry, since the cost of establishing a household was now considerably greater than before. The first rise in the adoption of new sumptuary laws that occurred during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries responded to these realities, as town officials in Italy and elsewhere in Europe tried to limit consumption—particularly of expensive clothing—as a way of keeping household costs low. From the first, these heightened efforts were sanctioned and supported by the religious orders of the day, and the Franciscans and Dominicans, in particular, rode to a high tide of popularity by condemning the wasteful vanities of contemporary society. Women’s dress figured most prominently in the sermons of these friars, and fashion was, it was generally agreed, primarily a woman’s problem. These judgments were not merely a form of clerical misogyny directed against women, but arose from the peculiar facts that surrounded clothing in both the late-medieval and early-modern world. Cloth was an expensive but necessary commodity, and the establishment of any new household required enormous supplies of linens, bolts of fabric, and other supplies. In Renaissance Italy, the surviving marriage contracts show that families were often incredibly attentive to the precise needs of their children, and the families of prospective brides and grooms competed against each other to display their ability to provide for their offspring. In the weeks immediately before and after a marriage took place, brides and grooms exchanged a series of gifts, the most important of which were the dowry payment made from the bride’s father to the prospective husband and the trousseau, or women’s clothes given by the groom to the prospective bride. The dowry payment substituted for a woman’s share in her father’s inheritance, and although it was not equal to the sum that a son received when his father died, it was nevertheless a substantial share of a family’s wealth. As fewer young men and women were able to marry in the period between the late fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the cost of dowries steadily rose to encourage young men to contract marriages. Yet the rising costs of dowries brought with it other attendant problems, as the other marriage gifts that couples exchanged before their wedding—particularly the trousseau—also rose in magnificence alongside the increase in dowries. In Florence and other cities it became customary for prospective husbands to spend as much as a third of the sum that they received in a woman’s dowry to shower their future wives with a trousseau and other rich gifts before the marriage. It was these customs—customs over which women had little control—that tended to identify fashion and consumption as primarily a problem generated by women.

Psychology of Limited Wealth

In modern times our own economic assumptions have come to differ radically from those of the late-medieval and early-modern world. In the modern world consumer purchasing is taken to be a sign of the health of any economy, and consumer spending is almost universally interpreted as a positive good that aids everyone’s economic well-being. The purchase of clothing, luxury household goods, and other consumables is tracked in modern economies as a key indicator of economic health, since it reveals the disposable income that people possess at a given moment. In the late-medieval and early-modern world, by contrast, the total wealth of any society was believed to be scarce and limited, and was linked in the minds of political theorists and the state’s officials to the supply of gold and silver coinage that existed within a country. This psychology of limited wealth gave rise to the many efforts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century kings and princes to limit imports and to foster national industries that might discourage consumption of goods made abroad. While cloth and the other raw materials required in items of dress were produced everywhere in Europe, key centers of luxury production were located in Italy and in the Low Countries (modern Holland and Belgium). The flavor of much economic regulation at the time was protectionist, encouraging products that were produced domestically while discouraging the consumption of luxury items. Since many of the luxurious silks, taffetas, and expensive trims that decorated Baroque dress came from relatively few areas throughout the Continent, the efforts to limit consumption were often motivated by attempts to prevent imports. Paradoxically, these efforts often stimulated demand, making lace, golden cloth, and other fabulously expensive items have all the allure of forbidden fruit. These contradictions were observed even at the time; the late sixteenth-century philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne pointed out that prohibitions against the wearing of velvet and gold braid did little more than “give prestige to these things and … increase everyone’s desire to enjoy them.…” Then, as now, attempts to prohibit certain items of clothing produced unexpected results, often encouraging the very same perceived vices as the regulation was intended to curtail.

Increasing Importance of Economic Arguments In Sumptuary Restrictions

If medieval Franciscans and Dominicans had labored to destroy the taste for frills and lace, Calvinists and French Jansenists took up the attack on luxury as a vice in the seventeenth century. Christian morality remained an important feature of sumptuary restrictions at the time, but economic arguments were increasingly being used to justify these regulations. The seventeenth century saw a rash of new sumptuary laws throughout Europe, except in England. By this time the market economy and the trade in cloth and other items of apparel was a significant force in the economy of almost every European region. This rising tide of commercialism, though, was not greeted with universal enthusiasm, and almost everywhere kings and princes responded with a host of regulations designed to keep demand for certain luxurious items in check. Gradually, the old Christian moral arguments used to condemn waste in clothing became less important. In Continental Europe, dress codes now functioned to reinforce social hierarchy, and regulations became minutely concerned with outlining just what items of dress were permitted to each social class. The dominant economic theory of the seventeenth century—mercantilism—pointed to the development of a notion of a “national economy,” and protectionist arguments about defending a country’s money supply now assumed a greater importance in defending sumptuary law than traditional Christian moral arguments condemning extravagance. The aim of most laws enacted at the time was to prevent imports, rather than to enforce a sober moral vision. By the eighteenth century the increasing penetration of the cloth industry and market economies throughout Europe, and a shift in economic arguments toward new theories that celebrated consumption, was to make the old order of controlling luxury increasingly difficult to maintain. In almost every country throughout Europe sumptuary restrictions gradually disappeared, or their enforcement was relaxed at this time, a recognition of the vital role that consumption now played in the economic household.


In England, by contrast, sumptuary law disappeared a century earlier than in other parts of Europe. The country’s controls on clothing were abolished in 1604 when Parliament repealed the previous royal proclamations of Elizabeth I. During her reign the queen had frequently pronounced sumptuary proclamations that, like their French counterparts, attempted to enforce a vision of social hierarchy by limiting certain items of luxurious dress to members of the nobility or other high-ranking classes in society. The Stuart King James I who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 wished to continue to legislate his subjects’ clothing in this way, too, but in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, legislation enacted through royal proclamations had grown increasingly controversial in England. The English Parliament attempted to protect its prerogatives as the legislative power within the state by arguing that all regulation should originate under its supervision. In England, sumptuary legislation thus floundered on the disputes between Crown and Parliament that became increasingly common in the first half of the seventeenth century. Numerous new attempts to regulate dress at this time ultimately failed because of the constant wrangling that occurred between king and Parliament concerning the nature of their own powers and prerogatives. As these disputes came increasingly to take on the nature of a religious crisis between Puritanism and Anglicanism, disputes bristled in the country about clothing and the excesses of contemporary dress. The Puritans, in fact, supported a sober and restrained style, in contrast to the aristocratic Cavalier party that stood behind the Crown. Puritan settlers took the traditional regulations of sumptuary law to New England, where a host of restrictions on dress appeared in the seventeenth century. Yet in England itself restrictions on clothing disappeared, not because they were unpopular in and of themselves, but because of disagreements about how they should be formulated and enacted in the English state.

Fashion Trends in the Early Seventeenth Century

Spanish Dominance

During the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the styles of Spain dominated throughout Europe. In the long reign of Philip II (r. 1556-1598) the country was undoubtedly the most powerful in the continent, enriched as it was through its New World colonies and vast European holdings. Despite financial and military setbacks in the second half of the sixteenth century, Spain dominated European affairs, and its manners and clothing were widely imitated by aristocrats and wealthy city people from Austria and Hungary in Central Europe to the Netherlands and France in the west. While Spanish style achieved a general acceptance throughout much of Europe in the later sixteenth century, its influence did not persist past the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth. Thus the great age of Spanish fashion in Europe coincided roughly with the period of the country’s international prominence. After 1620, Spain’s defeats in wars against its rebellious subjects in the Netherlands and its disastrous involvements in the religious and political intrigues of the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe left the country impoverished and in an increasingly weakened state on the international scene. Yet in the years that Spain’s dominance over European affairs persisted, Europe’s aristocrats and merchants tended to conform to the styles of the Spanish court and its royal officials, who came to be widely admired throughout Europe for the elegance yet severity of their deportment and the somber dignity of their clothing.

Elements of Spanish Style

In discussing the influence of Spain at this point in European fashion, a distinction must first be made between the styles of Spain itself and the ways in which they were interpreted and refashioned elsewhere in Europe. Spanish clothing was widely known and respected in Europe around 1600 for the skill displayed in its tailoring and the magnificence of its materials. Wealthy and aristocratic Spaniards favored dark and somber colors that set off their jewels and other elements of decorative trim. Elsewhere in Europe, the restraint evident in Spanish fashion was frequently jettisoned, and helped to inspire fashions that were more purely decorative. Indeed the period between 1580 and 1620 saw some of the most elaborate costumes appear in court societies throughout Europe, and these were notable for their exaggerated lines and sheer artifice. During the sixteenth century several Spanish innovations in dress had spread throughout Europe, including the farthingale, the cape, and the ruff. The farthingale was known in Spanish as the verdugado, and had first appeared as an element of women’s dress in the country around 1500. The farthingale was a stiffened underskirt frequently outfitted with wood or whalebone hoops that made a woman’s skirt stand out and fall into a cone-shaped pattern. Elsewhere in Europe this pattern inspired considerable innovations, as in France where farthingales appeared in the second half of the sixteenth century that were constructed in a simple drum rather than cone shape. By the end of the sixteenth century such skirts had often become very wide, as can be seen in many of the late portraits of the English Queen Elizabeth. To accentuate the lines of these English farthingales, it became common to tie a bum roll around a woman’s waist so that the skirt stood out even further from the farthingale’s structure. The ruff was a second popular Spanish style of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and one that, like the farthingale, was open to an almost infinite variety of elaboration and reinterpretation. In Spain, these fashions for the neck were actually quite restrained, but with the introduction of starch throughout Europe in the later sixteenth century, they became quite large and complex everywhere else. The craze for the ruff’s elaborate sculpted ripples and cartwheel patterns reached its high point in the early years of the seventeenth century, but its popularity faded by about 1620. By contrast, the taste for cloaks or Spanish capes proved to be more enduring. The fashion for these loose-fitting outer garments had spread throughout Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, and had showed considerable variety in length and cut. Cloaks were worn over both shoulders or artfully draped over just one. In Spain, capes had usually been constructed out of heavy and dignified cloth, but elsewhere in Europe, they, like other elements of Spanish dress, became elaborately decorated. The cloak had a perennial appeal as well. It persisted as a man’s style throughout Europe for much of the seventeenth century, but was replaced in the 1670s by the French justaucorps, a long fitted jacket worn over a shorter vest. In the eighteenth century, though, capes made a comeback, particularly as an element of evening attire.

Character of the Spanish Style

Like much of the clothing of the later Renaissance, the Spanish styles of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that were popular among wealthy and aristocratic Europeans were notably complex, elaborate, and uncomfortable. The act of dressing itself was a complicated task for the wealthy, and the aid of servants was frequently necessary to apply many layers of clothing. In contrast to the modern world in which Westerners usually wear only under and outer garments, early-modern Europeans wore many separate items of dress that combined to create a complete ensemble. Women’s outfits consisted of a farthingale, petticoats, corset, outer skirts, a bodice, sleeves, a stomacher (a decorative V-or U-shaped garment that was worn over the bodice), a ruff, and from time to time, other elements like the cape or the bum roll. Men’s garments were also multi-layered, and consisted of stockings, hose or britches for each leg, undershirts, an outer doublet, a ruff, and a cape. Both men and women often wore corsets. In the period mind, beauty was not natural, but an achievement of human art. Clothing may have covered the human form, in other words, but it also attempted to improve upon it, changing the contours of the hips, the torso, and so on, so that the figure took on shapes that were not natural, but highly contrived and decorative. After 1620, many of these more artificial elements of style softened somewhat before fashions grew even more formal and contrived in the court dress of the later seventeenth century.

The Rise of the Netherlands

A Victorious Rebellion

Since the 1560s the counties of the Low Countries (modern Belgium and Holland) had been waging a war of independence against Spain. To protect Spanish authority in the region, Philip II had fortified his positions in the region that is today Belgium. At Antwerp, he had created a bastion of Spanish and Catholic authority, and the religious intolerance that became customary there eventually resulted in the migration of many Protestants and Jews from the southern Netherlands into the free counties of the north. The largest of the counties that comprised the United Dutch Provinces was Calvinist Holland, where the revolt against Spanish authority produced a burgeoning population and an increase in trade. In Amsterdam, the policies of relative religious tolerance fueled the economy’s swift development during the seventeenth century, while at Antwerp to the south, trade and commerce stagnated. In this period, the southern Netherlands remained a center of elite learning and culture, while Holland became the center of a thriving trade empire. In this way Dutch influence spread throughout Europe through the region’s many trading contacts with other important financial centers on the Continent.

Character of Dutch Culture and Costume

Although a hereditary nobility existed in the United Dutch Provinces, the character of life throughout the region was shaped by its cities, where merchant and commercial activity dominated. The Dutch church was Calvinist, and despite the presence of numerous religious minorities in the region’s cities, Calvinism shaped the ethos of the country. In dress, religious convictions came to be expressed in a fondness for dark colors and a less ornate and decorated style. In this regard Dutch clothing came paradoxically to imitate the somber fashions of Spain that had been prevalent in that country during the previous centuries. These styles had generally grown more elaborate and ornate as they had been accepted elsewhere in Europe, but now the rise of Dutch influence throughout Northern Europe in particular promoted an increasingly conservative and less artificial style. In contrast to the clothing worn in the previous generation, the fashions Dutch traders and merchants favored were less constricting and confining and more comfortable. Corsets, farthingales, and other examples of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century artifice were now abandoned in favor of outfits that granted their wearers greater freedom.


Two of the most characteristic decorative items of the time were the ruff and lace. Lace, the product of an industry that had thrived in the Netherlands since the Middle Ages, was almost always confined in Dutch fashions to the wrists and neck. During the seventeenth century Dutch traders conducted a busy trade in lace, which was primarily woven by peasant and poor city women in the towns of Flanders in the southern Netherlands. In contrast to the strongly geometric patterns of the later Middle Ages and the sixteenth century, this Belgian lace became increasingly ornate after 1600, first incorporating floral patterns into its designs and then elaborate, running scrollwork patterns by the mid-seventeenth century. Somewhat later, small freestanding ornaments came to be inserted into the open weave of the fabric at regular intervals. The techniques used to produce these highly prized designs relied on a combination of methods that were both native to the region and which were imported from Italy. During the Middle Ages Belgian lacemakers had developed their art by weaving together threads from scores of bobbins assembled on a frame with hundreds of pins rising from its surface. The character of this work was fine, but angular in its orientation since the threads were woven around numerous pegs. In Venice and other Italian centers of lace weaving, producers had long relied on the needle to create designs that were more freely flowing. By the seventeenth century Belgian lace weavers had developed ways of combining both types of art, thus producing work that was highly prized throughout Europe for its great delicacy and imaginative designs. The trade in lace thus became a major source of revenue, as the bolts of fabric from the towns of the Southern Netherlands constituted major imports in England, France, and elsewhere on the continent. At the same time, the trim was notoriously expensive, and prompted efforts to copy the work. In France, for example, King Louis XIV’s chief minister Colbert imported Venetian weavers and issued a royal grant to underwrite the establishment of a state industry in lace weaving in 1665. At Alençon, Rheims, and a number of other centers of production throughout France, he charged weavers with copying the most intricate patterns of Belgian and Venetian weavers, while at the same time prohibiting the import of any more of the trim. His efforts gradually bore fruit; by the end of the seventeenth century, lace produced in France—particularly at Alençon—had acquired a reputation comparable to its Italian and Flemish sources of inspiration. Colbert’s successful protectionist efforts to establish a native French industry were not duplicated elsewhere in Europe, where lace production failed to get off the ground as little more than a homespun pastime until the nineteenth century allowed for its production by machine looms. To stem the tide of Dutch lace imports, most states tried to limit demand for the finery. In this regard the restriction placed upon lace consumption in the mid-seventeenth century by the Puritan officials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was typical: lace was forbidden to all but the wealthiest members of society. In this way its cachet as a sign of social distinction only rose in most people’s estimation.


Since the Middle Ages the traders of the Netherlands had been actively engaged in the marketing of woolen cloth, and the commerce in this valuable commodity had helped to transform the European landscape. Wool from England and Spain had long been the most coveted form of the material throughout Europe, and the increased demand for fabric necessitated that more and more arable land in these regions be given over to the raising of sheep in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In England, wool was a vital part of the economy and had spawned a number of acts of enclosure in the country’s parliament. In these laws the previously common lands of many towns and villages were turned over to producers, and the bitter controversies that these dispossessions caused was still a bitter memory in the country during the seventeenth century. The Puritan settlers who came to colonial North America, for instance, desired to protect the common lands of their villages in part because of their memories of the depredations that the wool industry had worked on England during the previous generations. The Dutch continued to trade in wool throughout the seventeenth century, yet at the same time the country’s traders began to tailor their own clothing from the fabric, an innovation in a world where the wealthy had long favored silks and velvet. To this time, woolen cloth had been used for garments primarily by the lower classes who wove their own homespun or purchased cheap grades of the cloth. In wealthy urban and aristocratic circles, wool’s use had been largely confined to stockings, undergarments, hats, and felt slippers. Yet wool was an imminently practical fabric, especially the worsted wools that became popular at the end of the Middle Ages. This new type of woolen cloth, named for the sheep-raising village of Worstead in Norfolk, England, was woven from the shearings of long-haired sheep and combed to produce a soft fabric that was surprisingly waterproof, resistant to wrinkling, and immensely durable. The taste that Dutch merchants helped to inspire for garments fashioned from worsteds persisted into the eighteenth century before linens and eventually cottons surpassed their popularity. The new fashion for woolen garments also sustained the production of woolen cloth in England, the United Dutch Provinces’ most active trading partner in the seventeenth century. By 1700 as much as two-thirds of the value of all British exports may have derived from the woolen industry, and outer clothing fashioned from wool had become a venerable staple in the wardrobes of Europeans.

Locks, Lace, and Leather

Dutch elements of style spread easily through Europe because of the commercial contacts of this small but important trading region. The freer-flowing garments the Dutch favored were soon imitated throughout much of Northern Europe. Like the Spanish style that had preceded its rise, Dutch style was popular largely because of its ready adaptability to different circumstances. On the one hand, Dutch clothing styles provided a practical form of day wear for merchants, bankers, and other members of the urban middle classes in Northern European cities. The emphasis on a new informality and on comfort, as opposed to artifice, was enthusiastically embraced in Europe’s cities, and the clothes that were favored there came to be relatively unadorned, even severe. Among aristocrats, though, elements of Dutch style continued to combine with a fondness for decoration, giving rise to courtly ways of dressing that favored generous amounts of lace and other trim by the mid-seventeenth century. By the 1630s, aristocratic dress in much of Europe had produced a style with a notable fondness for “locks, lace, and leather.” This way of dressing can be seen in the many portraits of King Charles I of England and his Cavalier supporters, many of which were completed by the great Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck in the 1630s. In one of these, Charles I From Three Different Angles (1636), the king’s two profiles and frontal view are depicted sporting the elaborately curled long hair and lace collars that were then the aristocratic fashion of the day. Another portrait from the same year, Charles I at the Hunt shows all the elements then in vogue in noblemen’s fashions, including a rakishly worn felt hat, an outer jacket or doublet worn over a lace shirt, and knee-length britches that met leather boots. The effect that such costumes produced was refined and elegant while at the same time allowing for greater comfort and freedom of movement than the fashions of the later Renaissance. In this way, then, the elements of Dutch style came to be combined with aristocratic tastes for luxurious opulence, and the fashions of the Netherlands, like those of Spain before them, came to be transformed in ways that were very different from their original source.

The Age of Louis XIV

French Civilization

During the long reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) France dominated affairs throughout Europe. Louis XIV assumed the throne when he was only five years old, and instability, revolt, and other troubles plagued his early years as king. During his minority his mother, Anne of Austria, and his chief minister Cardinal Mazarin dominated royal policy and administration. In the years following Mazarin’s death in 1661, though, Louis came into his own, announcing his intentions to rule without the aid of his ministers. Over the next half century he devoted himself to his own glorification and that of France as the most powerful state in Europe. Although he planned to rule alone, Louis nevertheless relied on a series of ministers to place his stamp on royal policy and administration. The first years of his independence were notable for rising standards of luxury at court, increased patronage of the arts, and a consequent brilliant flowering of French high culture. In such figures as Jean-Baptiste Molière (1623-1673) and Jean Racine (1639-1699) in the theater and Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) in the musical world, French taste set the standards for Europe. While influencing the rest of the continent, French arts and learning were, in turn, affected by the absolutist political doctrines practiced by the king and his chief ministers. Music, literature, painting, and architecture all flowed from the royal academies that Louis XIV founded, or which he expanded. These institutions controlled the production of works of art and the training of those artists who worked at court. They promoted tenets of design that were frequently raised to the level of rules that were inflexible and bound French artists to emulate classical principles. At the same time, the crafts and industrial production served as tools of royal government, as Louis XIV and his most influential minister Colbert nourished native French industries. The reigning economic theory of the age was mercantilism, a philosophy that linked a nation’s wealth to its money supply and which tried to foster exports while limiting imports as a drain on national resources. The rise of mercantilist theory points to the importance of a “national economy” in seventeenth-century Europe. Louis XIV’s ministers and officials carefully developed native industries in the production of lace, fabric, jewelry, and other consumables that might compete successfully against items that had long been imported from elsewhere in Europe. Although other centers of design and production continued to be important in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, the royal industries that Louis founded influenced styles throughout the continent, a testimony to the success of the royal policies that the king and his ministers practiced. By 1700, the idea of fashion in Europe was increasingly synonymous with the trends set by the French court and by wealthy aristocrats and members of the bourgeoisie who lived in and around Paris. As a result of these developments Paris emerged as the center of European fashions, a role that it has continued to play until contemporary times.

Zenith and Decline of Louis XIV’s Power

The centralized and absolutist policies of Louis XIV meant that the royal government in France dominated and controlled the country’s economy and industries. At first, particularly under the leadership of Louis XIV’s powerful minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), these economic policies produced brilliant results. Later, in less capable hands, many of France’s state industries underwent a period of stagnation before being renewed under Louis XV in the mid-eighteenth century. By the 1680s, though, most elements of Louis XIV’s regulation of the French economy were in place. The state supervised everything from lace making to road building. At the same time Louis’ grand pretensions and, in particular, his penchant for waging costly international wars intended to foster French preeminence meant that his state always rested on feet of clay. His desire to control his subjects’ religious beliefs and economic activity proved increasingly problematic as well. In 1685, the king revoked the Edict of Nantes. Since 1598, the terms of this royal edict had guaranteed a degree of religious toleration to French Huguenots, Protestants who held to the ideas of John Calvin. Under the influence of his pious second wife, the commoner Madame de Maintenon, the king’s attitudes toward divergent religious ideas had grown increasingly inflexible. In the years following the Revocation, French Huguenots were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. The migration of Huguenots to England, Germany, Holland, and colonial America proved detrimental to France’s economic life, since many of them were important artisans and commercial figures. Yet the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was only one of many measures that pointed to an increasingly rigid and high-handed royal administration. With the death of his chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert in 1683, Louis had been forced to rely on figures that were considerably less adept and who drew him into costly international wars. By the final years of his reign the advances that French industry and commerce had made paled in comparison to a mounting royal debt, corruption in public life, and an increasingly unpopular, yet nevertheless ambitious and grand, royal court. Although the king had been idolized and glorified throughout much of his life as the very epicenter of French life and culture, he ended his days as a widely unpopular figure.

Character of Court Life

Despite the long-term trends of Louis’ reign, it is difficult to overestimate the importance that France’s court life exercised on the imagination of Europeans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During his reign France’s royal court became the major force in setting styles and fashions throughout European aristocratic society as nobles from throughout the continent imitated the elaborate etiquette that was practiced in France and adopted innovations in art and dress that had been pioneered in and around Paris. The stage on which many of these trends were set throughout Louis’ reign was Versailles, the magnificent royal château that was located just outside Paris. During the 1660s Louis had begun to shower his attentions on this former royal hunting retreat, using it as a place for hunts, celebrations, and spectacles. In 1678, the king decided to expand the palace to truly grand proportions, and in 1682, he moved his government permanently there. At Versailles every element of daily life and court ceremonial was carefully choreographed and governed according to a formidable set of rules. These tactics were in large part a response to the series of rebellions known as the fronde that had occurred in and around Paris in 1648 and 1653. At one point in these revolts the underage king and his mother, Anne of Austria, had been forced to flee the capital and had even hid out for a time in a stable to avoid the angry crowds and rebellious aristocrats of Paris. To insure that he was never again subjected to such humiliation, Louis defined life in his court circle in ways that domesticated his nobles, transforming them into decorous but powerless courtiers. As was everything else in the life of the court, dress came to be dominated and defined by the figure of Louis XIV and his family. Certain costumes were prescribed for certain occasions, and among the small noble faction that surrounded the king during his reign, expenditures on clothing were truly profligate, often reaching standards of expenditure that were more than 100 times those of simple shopkeepers and artisans in the city of Paris. The number of aristocrats that attended the king at Versailles was relatively small, however, and the Parisian nobles who rarely attended court functions were far less lavish in their expenditures on clothing. Despite being confined to a relatively small portion of the aristocracy, the brilliant patterns of consumption at Versailles prompted criticism of the French nobility and aristocracy in general.

Court Dress

As he did in most other areas of court life, Louis XIV established rules and standards for the dress of his courtiers. Royal directives concerning clothing were quite specific. For instance, at each of the royal palaces and retreats that the court visited a different kind of court costume was prescribed. At the small palace of the Trianon at the far edges of the gardens of Versailles, men were expected to wear red embroidered with gold, while at the royal hunting lodge of Rambouillet, those who accompanied the king on hunts had to don blue outfits made of heavy fabric that were again embroidered in gold. As in most royal courts, the ceremony of presentation was an occasion that demanded a different kind of finery from the other balls, ceremonies, and festivities the court celebrated. No one might expect to move about in the court circles that surrounded the king without being formally presented to Louis XIV and the queen. For these ceremonies, women were expected to wear a dress with a tight-fitting bodice supported by a whalebone corset. Their dresses were required to have a long train and an opulent skirt, while the neckline had to be oval shaped and their sleeves short and decorated with profusions of lace. Most women’s dresses on this occasion were made out of black cloth to underscore the solemnity of meeting the king and queen, although women who were in mourning sometimes wore white to emphasize the difference between their own personal tragedies and the public ritual of presentation. Men’s dress was even more highly prescribed on these occasions, although it was not as costly as women’s. For men, the ceremony of presentation stretched over three days. On the first day, men were presented to the king in an elegantly embroidered justaucorps—a close-fitting, long coat that covered a man’s britches and often had highly decorated long sleeves. This style had developed around 1670, and the justaucorps was usually worn over an interior vestcoat. These three pieces—justaucorps, vest-coat, and britches—formed the basis for the modern three-piece men’s suit, but at the time the rise of this new fashion replaced a taste for elaborate britches known as rheingraves that had a wide leg and were decorated with elaborate lace flounces. With the new fashion for the justaucorps, French legwear gradually grew more restrained, and ornament came to be concentrated on the outer coat. On the second day of a man’s presentation at court, he was expected to undertake a hunt with the king during which he had to wear a vest and britches of red cloth and an outer coat of grey cloth. Finally, on the third day, men were presented to the king’s family, and were expected to wear another outfit that was less grand than that of the initial presentation to the king.

Dress at other Court Occasions

Court life demanded specialized clothing for a number of occasions. Besides royal hunts and ceremonies of presentation, life in Louis XIV’s court witnessed a steady progression of banquets, balls, diplomatic receptions, and theatrical and operatic performances that required sumptuous clothing. The ceremonies of the king’s and queen’s rising—known as thelevée—and of their coucher—that is, their retiring in the evenings—also became central features of Versailles’ daily schedule. Daily mass, too, was another occasion that called for finery. During the seventeenth century the cost of clothing a courtier for these occasions rose to new, unprecedented heights, but even this level of expenditure was to be vastly outdone by the excesses of the eighteenth century that followed. Dress and gambling were the two greatest expenses of those several thousand nobles who attended the king at Versailles. For courtiers, a typical day in the life of Versailles began with the levée. Louis XIV divided his ceremony of waking up and dressing into two parts, which became known as the petit levée and the grand levée. At the petit levée the king was washed, shaved, and dressed by his most trusted courtiers, and he said his daily prayers before being presented to a larger circle in the grand levée that followed. About 100 nobles attended these events each day, and it became a great honor to be asked to assist the king on these occasions. Daily mass, the hunt, and a tour through the gardens were other events that filled the day, but it was in the evening that court festivities really got underway. Beginning about six o’clock courtiers were entertained with plays, operas, several suppers, a ball, and gambling that stretched deep into the early morning hours. During all this time only members of the royal family were allowed to sit down; nobles who broke with this key rule of etiquette were dismissed from court. After catching a short nap in the early morning hours, the aristocrats who attended the king were expected to be elegantly dressed and coifed again to begin the new day by eight the next morning. This daily round of decorous, often frivolous activities was known to have physically, morally, and financially exhausted many nobles. Some fled court life rather than take part in the endless cycle. But for those who preferred royal offices and who desired to be at the center of power conforming to Versailles’ routines was a necessary evil in obtaining the king’s favor. At the same time the monotonous hum of royal social activity was not always constant. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, increasingly bleak financial realities, the king’s growing piety, as well as his advancing age meant that the cycle of Versailles’ social events grew more subdued. Still, taking part in the rituals of state within the palace proved even then to be a daunting and expensive affair. While minor innovations were made in court dress during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the patterns that Louis XIV stipulated for both men and women persisted until the French Revolution in 1789. The Revolution swept away such patterns of dress and abolished the royal court, although the restoration of the monarchy in the nineteenth century brought with it new prescriptions for court attire. By contrast in England, court apparel came to be defined and influenced in large part by French examples in the eighteenth century, but these patterns of dress at court presentations were amazingly long-lived. Until the 1950s, those presented to the English king and queen were required to dress with many elements of clothing that had largely been set down in the 1700s.

Fashion Beyond the Court

Clothing Society at Large

The fashions of the court of Versailles are among the best known in Europe during the seventeenth century, in large part because of the wealth of testimony that has been left behind in art and documents of the period. Outside these exalted circles, though, consumption of clothing was considerably less grand, even among those nobles who did not frequent Versailles or who went there only occasionally. Cloth was an expensive commodity, although it was one of the most universally produced items throughout Europe. For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the production of cloth was not mechanized as it was in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, but produced through a series of steps that have been described as a “putting out” system. Historians have described these techniques of production as “proto-Industrialization.” In this system cloth merchants known as mercers, rather than entrepreneurs or investors, parceled out various parts of the production process to families. Raw wool was purchased and then given over in succession to carders, spinners, and dyers, who prepared the thread for weaving. Once the cloth had been produced by various categories of weavers, the fabric was again turned over to others who were responsible for finishing it and returning it to the great cloth merchants who sold it. While these techniques provided for certain economies of scale that had been lacking in ancient and medieval methods of production, cloth was still an expensive commodity. Thus one of the most obvious distinctions in the early-modern world between rich and poor was in the amounts of fabric their clothes consumed. Female servants, by and large, did not wear floor-length skirts, but ones that reached only to the mid-calves or ankles. Male shopkeepers and workers did not wear the elegant embroidered justaucorps tailored from silk and other expensive fabrics, but instead wore chemises or shirts, vests, and jackets constructed of far less expensive cloth. Even a comparatively wealthy bourgeois woman did not waste fabric in trains and elaborate skirts that were common among the wealthiest aristocrats.

Household Inventories in Paris

Another picture of consumption patterns can be gleaned from the inventories compiled of household goods at death. These inventories were undertaken in order to levy inheritance taxes, and so some families may have eluded taxation by giving away part of the deceased’s wardrobe before the inspector arrived. Still in a great city like Paris a number of these documents survive and their profusion has allowed historians to gauge consumption patterns in the city around 1700. At this time about three percent of the city’s half million people were members of the nobility. Great diversity characterized these aristocrats, and many divided their time between the city, their country estates, and Versailles. Those with modest incomes consumed clothing in ways that were little different from prosperous artisans and merchants. But in wealth and splendor the value of the aristocracy’s clothing as a group far outstripped even that of the wealthiest merchants in the capital, although the Parisian nobility, as opposed to those who resided at Versailles on a full-time basis, spent comparatively little of their wealth on clothes and jewels. Studies of the death inventories reveal that the average Parisian noble wardrobe, together with its jewels, was valued at around five to six percent of the family’s total wealth. At the same time, the deep social divisions that existed in early-modern society become evident when the values of the wealthiest of the nobility’s wardrobes are compared against those of modest workers and shopkeepers. The greatest noble families spent as much as 200-300 times more to clothe and adorn themselves as workers with modest incomes did. Thus sumptuous wealth and extravagant consumption existed side-by-side in Paris with relative economy, even privation. The consumption habits of Parisian aristocrats stand out in even greater relief when it is remembered that studies of death inventories fail to take account of the substantial portion of the population who were vagrants and paupers, and thus were not subjected to inheritance tax. No group in the city was thus able to compete in splendor with the nobility, and although Parisian aristocrats may have been considerably more modest in purchasing clothes than those who surrounded the king on a daily basis, their standard of wealth vastly surpassed any other group in the city.

Clothing of the Urban Working Classes

The clothing of those who worked for a living in Europe’s largest cities—artisans, shopkeepers, and day laborers—still showed great variety, and even the better off and poorer members of the working classes often tried to emulate, albeit on a far more modest scale, the clothes of wealthy aristocrats. Female domestic servants sometimes received the castoff clothing of their mistresses, which served as partial payment for their labor. These women sometimes remade these clothes to suit their own circumstances, reusing the vast quantities of material that had once been consumed in trains and elaborate skirts to fashion new garments. Like those men and women who served as tailors, milliners, and in the other industries related to the aristocratic clothing trade, the servants of the wealthy were often far better dressed than the poor day laborers or those in the humblest trades. Yet even at the bottom of the social spectrum, the poorest of French working women who were known as grisettes displayed a concern about their clothes. The term grisette had its origins in the simple gray woolen cloth out of which these women’s dresses were usually cut. In literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries grisettes were frequently charged with having exaggerated romantic sensibilities, for falling prey to unscrupulous men, and for sliding into the world of prostitution that existed just below their class. At the same time grisettes, it was often observed, had a single outfit reserved, much like modern “Sunday best,” for special occasions. While these outfits were usually made from materials that were far cheaper than the clothes of upper-class women, they often imitated the kinds of fashions worn in aristocratic circles. Such outfits provided a release from the drab functionality of everyday dress. The grisette’s custom of wearing these outfits at public events on holidays and special occasions points to the increasing importance that clothing had in the eighteenth-century world as a marker of social distinction for all urban people. A poor working-class woman, anxious to better her social circumstances, saw clothing as an avenue to advancement, and as she dressed for public events after the working day, she aimed to project an image of higher social standing to attract suitors. At the same time, her efforts marked her, in the minds of those from higher classes, as an upstart, and spawned criticism and ostracism.

The Clothing Industry

At almost all layers of society, clothing was in constant circulation. Jackets, shirts, and linens were passed on as prized possessions to sons and daughters. Clothes were also used to settle bills with merchants, as part of the annual pay given to servants, or they were frequently sold or exchanged with secondhand dealers once they had outlived their usefulness. Even the wealthiest aristocrats often rented the outfits and jewels they required to attend court functions or to be seen at fashionable weddings and other social events. At Versailles and other royal palaces, the dictates of Louis XIV allowed all Frenchmen free entrance, provided they possessed the required hats and clothes. Such decrees stimulated the growth of rental merchants, who established themselves at the gates of Versailles and other royal palaces to rent the required dress to those who wished to gain entrance. In Paris, by contrast, more than a third of the population may have been employed in all facets of the clothing industry, that is, from the finishing and sale of cloth to the making of fashion accessories like wigs. At the apex of the Parisian clothing industry stood the mercers (purveyors of fabric), drapers, tailors, and wigmakers, many of whom set up shops in the area around the Palais Royal in the center of the city and in other fashionable quarters in town. Tailoring was a profession that required a great deal of training, and consequently tailors commanded large fees for the production of their made-to-order clothing. Beneath the shops of the greatest tailors, milliners, and wigmakers, though, was a diverse network of cheaper clothiers, secondhand dealers, and other producers. Cobblers, fan-makers, glovemakers, milliners, and furriers were just a few of the many professions that made up the clothing industry, although many of the city’s population consumed clothes that were bought secondhand, or that were cheaply made at home or by seamstresses, rather than by the artisan tailors who catered to the wealthy.

The Rise of Linen

One change during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that made a big impact on consumption habits was the increasing use of linen. Linen, a fine cloth made of threads woven from flax, had been in use to dress beds and to produce underwear for the wealthiest Europeans since the Middle Ages. After 1700, however, linen’s use grew enormously throughout society, and the linen industry emerged as an important part of the European fashion world. Linen became a sign of social distinction as well as a marker of one’s personal standards of cleanliness. If eighteenth-century Europeans still did not change their linen undershirts, chemises, and underwear every day as most modern people do, it was important in urban society to present an image of freshly starched collars, sleeves, and wristbands. Dirty linen became increasingly synonymous with slovenly behavior and sexual disorder. Armies of laundresses were needed to care for the sheets, shirts, napkins, and tablecloths of urban households, and in the countryside, thousands of linen weavers churned out various levels of finery in the cloth. In hisConfessions the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) related his misfortune in suffering the theft of his linen shirts one Christmas Eve. While the family was at religious observances, someone stole 42 of the garments from the philosopher’s home. By this time in the philosopher’s life, he wrote, he had already come to realize the vanity of style, and the theft freed him from his last remaining tie to middle-class respectability. Although Rousseau’s comments were, in part, a condemnation of the reigning fashion for linen, many Europeans seem to have shared his youthful consumption habits, and with the spread of industrialized production techniques in the later eighteenth century, the fashion for linen became even more deeply entrenched into European society.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s experience with his linen demonstrates another trend that was common to the age: theft of clothing. Since clothing was a necessary, yet expensive commodity it was subject to frequent theft. In fact, one recurring literary motif of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature portrayed the sellers of used clothing—a key industry in all European cities—as dealers of stolen goods. In reality, the evidence suggests that these poor shopkeepers and peddlers were generally honest business people whose activities were well supervised by the police. In Paris, most used-clothing sellers were women, and, in fact, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they seemed to have played a key role in identifying to the police groups of criminals who were stealing clothes and trading in them on a black market. In Paris, the trial records from the eighteenth century reveal a steadily increasing number of complaints of clothing thievery. This type of theft seems to have been practiced mostly in Paris’ poorer quarters, as the poor robbed the poor. Yet in the later decades of the century, the victims of many of these thefts came from the wealthy aristocracy and bourgeoisie of the city; evidently thieves were becoming more brazen and selective in the choice of items that they stole. This evidence thus points to the importance that new standards of consumerism were producing in a country like France, as even the poor desired to possess and trade in the items prized by upper-class society.

Dress Beyond the City

Although the clothing styles worn in the continent’s cities are better documented than those of the surrounding countryside, the vast majority of Europeans in the eighteenth century were peasants who were relatively unaffected by the fashions generated in urban society. In some regions the percentage of people that lived on the land was more than eighty or ninety percent of the total population. While in some areas close to large cities country men and women emulated some dimensions of the urban world, much of Europe still lived in relative isolation from those styles. It is consequently inappropriate to use the words “fashion” or “style” to describe the clothing worn by the large and diverse class of Europe’s peasants. The wealthiest members of this class certainly possessed resources comparable to artisans and tradespeople in the cities. Yet almost everywhere, most peasants were relatively unconcerned with emulating the styles they saw when they brought their wares to urban markets. The clothes these men and women wore were most influenced by necessity, and their patterns of dressing changed only very slowly over time. The fabric used for peasant clothes were homespun or cheaply purchased woolens, linens, and sometimes even cloth woven from hemp, the raw material for rope. Although there was considerable regional variation in the clothes that peasant men and women wore, common items of dress were nevertheless shared across much of the European peasantry. Costly dyes used in urban clothes were not common in the fabrics used in peasants’ outfits. Instead, men’s clothing were most often brown, grey, and black, while women’s outfits expanded on these basics with occasional flares of blue, yellow, and red. The shoe, an invention of the late fifteenth century, was common in the countryside, although in many parts of Europe peasants continued to wear wooden clogs or wooden soled leather footwear known in French as sabots. Peasant women did not wear corsets or paniers, the elaborate hoop contraptions used to extend the line of a woman’s hips. Instead, an almost universal outfit consisted of a calf-or shin-length skirt gathered at the waist. Over the top of this garment, women wore an apron that sometimes included a bib that covered their fitted undershirts and bodices. Lace caps were a common form of headgear, while scarves were often worn around the shoulders, the ends of which were sometimes tucked into the bodice. Almost everywhere, men wore a form of britches and a vestcoat over-top a linen, wool, or cotton shirt. Generally, decoration and embellishment were spare on peasants’ clothes, a sign of these garments’ function as a creation of necessity, rather than of style.

The High Tide of French Fashion

French Influence on Europe

During the second half of the seventeenth century France had emerged as the pre-eminent state in Europe under the rule of Louis XIV. Although the king’s reign was plagued with problems, particularly in the years after 1700, France’s hold over the cultural imagination of Europe in the eighteenth century remained strong. During the eighteenth century, Paris, one of Europe’s true metropolitan cities, continued to be the center of the fashion industry. Parisian fashions were avidly followed elsewhere in Europe, and the dress of the eighteenth century acquired a feature that it has possessed until present times: its frequent changeability and constant alteration to suit stylish society’s sense of the times. It was not until the later years of the eighteenth century that the notion of an “annual fashion season” really took off and became a feature of urban societies throughout Europe. But throughout the century the forces that made fashion an infinitely alterable landscape—subject to subtle modulations of whims, fancy, and tastes each season—were gathering steam in Paris. In the early years of the eighteenth century, French fashion dolls outfitted in the latest examples of court and city dresses were sent out from Paris to merchants and royal courts throughout Europe. These dolls were displayed in shop windows and kept women abreast of the latest trends in France. Later in the century, the fashion magazine replaced these dolls, performing much the same task of keeping women up to date on changes in style. The fashion magazine thus provided a cheaper and more convenient way to inform women of the latest changes in taste, and allowed for the circulation of fashion knowledge among an even broader range of society. Through these marketing innovations France secured a position in the world of European dress that it continues to hold even in contemporary times.

New Lighter and More Decorative Styles

The French fashions that eventually conquered Europe were not the elaborate and imposing ceremonial dress typical of Louis XIV’s Versailles, but a new sort of clothing that reflected the changing tastes of the eighteenth century. In the years following the death of Louis XIV, the tastes of wealthy Parisians began to change rather quickly. The new king, Louis XV, was the great-grandson of the Sun King, and when he acceded to the throne he was only five years old. His uncle Philippe, the Duke of Orléans, served as his regent. In the later years of Louis XIV’s reign, the king’s increasingly rigid piety and France’s involvement in costly and draining international wars had given a tone of gravity to the times. Although the French state was heavily indebted at the time of Louis XIV’s death, the Regent Philippe favored styles and fashions that were lighter and less grave than those of Louis XIV’s era. Despite France’s problems, the early years of Louis XV’s reign were notable for the appearance of a new “Regency Style,” a style actively supported by the Duke of Orléans. Philippe moved France’s government from Versailles back to Paris, where a glittering aristocratic society was just beginning to develop the salons and other social institutions that were to discuss the ideas of the Enlightenment. In the houses of the wealthiest Parisian nobles a new fashion emerged for rooms that were filled with light and with splashes of gold. The art used to fill these spaces suggested scenes of everyday enjoyment, that is, of popular pastimes undertaken in parks, at fairs, or in the countryside. New fabrics made use of patterns inspired by Chinese or Arabic designs that gave an exotically foreign taste to the interiors of the time. Thus the Regency fashions that flourished in France during the later 1710s and 1720s laid the foundations for the elegant, yet light and sprightly features of Rococo style that by the mid-eighteenth century defined upper-class tastes.

The Triumph of the Rococo at Court

Although these new standards of taste were rather quickly adopted in Paris, the dress of the court was at first barely touched by them. The prescriptions of Louis XIV on dress in court circles continued to be respected, particularly at formal state occasions. But by the 1730s and 1740s the winds of change in clothing styles were having their effect even there. Although Louis XV moved the government back to Versailles and relied on the elaborately formal etiquette of his great-grandfather’s time, he carved out a private world for himself, his mistresses, and family in the grand palace that reflected the lighter, less serious tastes of the era. In the 1730s he redecorated an apartment of private rooms in the palace in the new less ponderous fashions of the day. He relaxed the observance of sumptuary regulations in France, helping to sponsor an era of magnificent display and seeming abundance. During his long reign, women at court and in Paris’s wealthy aristocratic circles played a new role as arbiters of fashion. The expenditures of aristocratic women on clothing were by this time about twice that of men, and the greatest women of Louis XV’s court—including his most powerful and enduring mistress, Madame de Pompadour—defined the fashions of the era, giving rise to an era of Rococo indulgence and opulence that now seems in most modern people’s minds to be synonymous with the style of the entire eighteenth century.

Rococo Women’S Fashions

The chief innovation of the period in women’s dress was the garment that became known throughout Europe as the robe à la française, a gown that was worn over a bodice decorated with a stomacher (a decorative V-or U-shaped garment) and outfitted with hoops or paniers that supported its skirt. The gown was parted in the middle to form a V-shaped opening that allowed contrasting or identical underskirts to show through, thus creating an impression of an abundance of cloth and material. In the 1740s, these styles were often decorated with a profusion of bows, lace, elaborate braidwork patterns, or embroidery, and the sleeves of the gown were cut to make elaborate flounces at the elbows that were usually decorated with lace. While trains were common in the early years of the robe à la française’s appearance, they tended to be ever more restricted to court circles, where the train was an obligatory element of dress. During the 1740s and 1750s the hoops or paniers of these skirts grew progressively wider. The fashion soon became popular among wealthy and aristocratic women almost everywhere in Europe, spawning regional variations. In England and Scotland, for example, women had abandoned the broad hoops typical of French gowns of this type by the 1750s, and instead favored only small side hoops at the hips or no hoops at all. The resulting innovation made their skirts trail elegantly behind them on the ground as they walked. Therobe à la française became one of the most popular upper-class fashions throughout Europe, and it reflected the reigning taste for costly silks, brocades, and floral patterned fine cloth of the day. Many of the fabrics used in these costly creations also reflected the taste for Chinese and Arabic motifs, and during the 1760s and 1770s, the rising popularity of cotton meant that the garment came to be made out of this fabric as well. At court, more elaborate dresses constructed of taffeta, brocade, and other expensive fabrics remained the rule, but cotton offered the advantage of quicker production times, and thus a cheaper price tag, bringing the elegance of the robe à la française into the reach of a broader number of women in society. Many of the new cotton fabrics used at this time for dresses were printed, rather than woven from colored thread, thus greatly simplifying their production. Of all the cotton manufactories that turned out cloth used in these elaborate aristocratic fashions the most famous was the French factory at Jouy, near Versailles, an institution that gave its name to the toile du Jouy fabric popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. Louis XV had acquired this industry in 1760 at the instigation of his one-time mistress Madame de Pompadour. For many years, Madame de Pompadour and her circle at Versailles had disregarded royal regulations against the wearing of richly printed fabrics, fabrics long acquired from foreign sources. Pompadour’s daring fashion innovations were thus a force that encouraged Louis XV in his plans to found a national industry for the production of printed cloth. The Jouy factory turned out a succession of prints that were filled with exotic Chinese, Arabic, and Indian motifs as well as scenes of everyday life. Since their appearance, these prints have become known in most European languages merely as toile. The influence of the fabric stretched throughout Europe and the many high-quality cotton prints produced there were avidly copied elsewhere.

Men’s Wear in the Mid-Eighteenth Century

For most of the eighteenth century the three-piece ensemble that included a justaucorps, vestcoat, and britches remained the dominant pattern of male dress in French aristocratic society and came to be adopted throughout many parts of Europe. This style had first appeared during the late 1660s at Versailles and in Paris, and it continued to be elaborated upon in the eighteenth century. By 1700, the justaucorps worn at court occasions had become increasingly tight fitting, and was now embroidered at its front opening with gold and silver thread or with lace made from these precious metals. Floral patterns eventually gave way on the justaucorps to more restrained patterns of embellishment, while the interior vestcoat tended to become ever more elaborate in its decoration. It was not uncommon for the decoration on these jackets and vestcoats to cost a great deal more than the velvets, silks, and taffetas out of which they were constructed. The colors used in the most elaborate of these male costumes in the first half of the eighteenth century now appear quite garish to modern eyes. Such dress, though, was worn in the evening, when the glow of candlelight softened the effect and refracted the light brilliantly off the bright metal surfaces and precious gemstones that were used to decorate the buttons. In England and the Dutch Republic, patterns of male dressing were far more restrained than in France or Germany. The Protestant ethos of these countries made the elaborate display typical of Continental dress seem too opulent for daily wear. English men were said to prefer browns, dark grays, blacks, and blues, and although aristocratic men donned costumes for ceremonial occasions at court that were almost as grand as those of their Continental counterparts, men’s costumes were, on the whole, restrained in England when compared to France. Men generally avoided a great profusion of decoration on the clothes they wore on the streets of London or Amsterdam. In contrast to the many different kinds of women’s dresses that were popular throughout Europe and the many variations that existed in women’s wear for different occasions, men’s fashions were relatively standardized in much of Western Europe by the eighteenth century. The three pieces that comprised men’s primary wardrobe—britches, vestcoat, and justaucorps—were common to men of affairs and commerce almost everywhere, and were only distinguished by the wealth of their fabrics and decoration.

The Wig

While the custom of wearing wigs had been common in the ancient world, it had generally died out in medieval Europe where religious leaders taught that false hair was a sinful indulgence. During the sixteenth century, though, the elaborate styles of hair worn in Renaissance cities saw the popularity of hairpieces grow among women. Queen Elizabeth had more than eighty of these to dress her hair in the elaborate hairdos of the period, while her cousin, the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, was also known for her great quantities of false hair. During the seventeenth century wigs had first become common as menswear at the French court of Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643). For the first years of his reign, his son and successor Louis XIV avoided wearing wigs since he was generally proud of his full head of hair. Still the custom grew among Louis’s courtiers, many of whom relied on wigs to imitate the young king. The years of the mid-seventeenth century saw wigs make their way into the fashions of the age, since the tastes of the era favored long male locks that were elaborately dressed into curls. When Louis XIV began to go bald around 1670, he, too, succumbed to the fashion for wearing wigs, and false hair among French men became all the rage. King Charles II and his court established the practice in later seventeenth-century England, and by 1700, the wig was required menswear in English cities, reaching the zenith of its popularity in the first few years of the new century. As wigs became a common fashion accessory for men, their shapes and forms altered. Originally intended to serve as a replacement for men’s hair, the wig functioned more and more like an element of fashion. The colors favored grew increasingly fantastic, first evidencing a flair for grey and white, later for such colors as pink, blue, and lavender. In England and elsewhere in Europe, the styles of wigs men wore also reflected their station in life, with men of the law generally favoring a different kind of peruke, as they were then known, than merchants or country gentlemen. Although wigs continued to be worn by men after the first two decades of the eighteenth century, they were gradually confined more and more to ceremonial occasions and to circles of the nobility. Women, by contrast, retained a fondness for false hair much longer than men, although even among women a new fashion for more naturalistic hairstyles developed in the last decades of the eighteenth century. During the Rococo period, women’s hairstyles frequently grew to enormous heights. Women’s wigs were sometimes outfitted with replicas of model ships, dressed with turbans in imitation of Arabic styles, or with pompoms constructed of fur and feathers (a style inspired by Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour), and with other excesses that were frequently mocked and caricatured even at the time. Urban legends grew about women whose wigs had harbored nests of vermin, and the doors of carriages grew higher to accommodate the styles. Stories of court women who had to hold their heads outside carriages to avoid spoiling their hairdos were common. These styles came to a high tide of popularity in the 1760s and 1770s before beginning to wane. In the years that followed, a taste for more naturalistic, less artificial hair fashions grew, so that by the 1780s women in portraits were seen sporting rather simple lace caps or restrained hats placed atop free-flowing, seemingly natural hair.

Reaction to the Rococo

Changing Tastes

During the 1770s fashion began to change in Europe rather quickly. By this time the tendency toward opulent decoration and to fanciful and fantastic clothing seemed to many to have been spent. While richly decorated women’s dresses and men’s suits remained popular in some court circles for a time, new and simpler styles first began to appear in England and then to spread to Continental Europe. English fashions, although profoundly influenced by the French throughout the eighteenth century, had long evidenced a fondness for simpler and less artificial lines than those popular in France. French innovations, such as the use of elaborate paniers or hoop skirts, had been widely popular in the country among women, but had given rise to native innovations. By the 1750s, English women began to abandon the paniers altogether or merely to favor hip pads that widened this area of the body. They also began to wear dresses in which the cloth was gathered and elegantly arranged to flow toward a woman’s back. The reigning fashion common among upper class and aristocratic women in England became known throughout Europe as a robe à la anglaise, or “English robe.” It was simpler than its more elaborate French counterpart, but no less feminine. Where the robe à la française had been open at the front to reveal a woman’s corset, bodice, and petticoats, the English version fit more snugly, and was all of one piece. The classic formulation of such robes was far simpler than the elaborate concoctions that had been popular in France during the height of the Rococo period. Typically, a robe à la anglaise’s skirts were gathered at the back and allowed to fall in folds. A colored sash often held these folds in place and was worn high, just below the bust line. A new fondness for cotton muslins and for dresses made from white cloth and other lighter colors as well as the new cotton fabrics replaced the once great affection for expensive taffetas, silks, velvets, and brocades. English women also began to wear simple fichus—that is, scarves made of transparent material—around their shoulders, one of the defining elements of the “English style.” The new fashion spread quickly among aristocratic woman in Continental Europe, although France at first resisted the greater naturalism of these dresses. Despite the resistance offered by members of the French court and aristocracy, these fashions had begun to make inroads there by the 1770s.

Impact of the Enlightenment

The new styles of the era were, in part, inspired by the impact of Enlightenment thinking in Europe. In France, one of the most important literary vehicles for conveying the new values of this movement was the Encyclopédie, a massive, multi-volume project begun by the French Enlightenment thinkers Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean D’Alembert (1713-1787). Published in 28 separate volumes during the years between 1751 and 1772, the Encyclopédie was not widely read by all French men and women, although it was avidly consumed by the upper echelons of society. The enormous work did not convey a single point of view, but Diderot and D’Alembert enlisted authors whose opinions often fit closely with their own. Fashion was one subject touched upon in hundreds of entries, with the Encyclopédie offering opinions on the history and usage of scores of items of clothing as well as giving advice generally on elements of good taste, manners, and etiquette. As the primary guiding spirits behind this enterprise, Diderot and D’Alembert championed the cause of social utility in clothing, customs, and consumption. They believed, in other words, that society’s customs and even its clothing should be judged according to whether they were truly useful. Thus in contrast to the guiding spirit of opulence and decoration that had prevailed in the Rococo style, the Enlightenment championed an aesthetic that stressed naturalness over artificiality. Of course, the ideas of philosophical thinkers like Diderot and those he enlisted to write for the Encyclopédie did not immediately shape the clothes that were worn in aristocratic society. But the criticism of the artificiality of the eighteenth-century style laid the foundation for a new taste that cultivated greater simplicity and utility over mere decorativeness.

The Spread of English Tastes

For much of the eighteenth century, close contacts between England and France had invigorated the world of fashion in both countries. While English aristocrats and wealthy Londoners generally avoided the extremes of opulence of the French Rococo style, they had nevertheless adapted those fashions to their own purposes, and both men and women of the upper classes had kept abreast of the changes in style that emanated from Paris. At the English royal court the styles of prescribed dress closely resembled those worn at Versailles and in other French royal palaces by the mid-eighteenth century. Yet in their great rural estates, England’s aristocrats generally favored clothes that were more rustic and natural than those worn by the wealthiest French nobles of the period. The fondness for hunting and other outdoor pursuits gave rise to the creation of the riding habit, a close-fitting coat and britches worn by both men and women. These rustic fashions, the Baroque equivalent of modern “sportswear,” were constructed of simpler, more practical fabrics like wool and cotton than the sumptuous silks, taffetas, and velvets worn by the French upper classes at the time. Although these styles were initially resisted in France, they had begun to make inroads there in the 1770s, and by the following decade were widely popular among the country’s aristocrats. In the years immediately preceding the French Revolution, Queen Marie-Antoinette and members of her circle at court often indulged their love of English informality by choosing dresses that reflected the more natural and comfortable styles preferred in Britain. In 1783, the queen allowed one of her favorite portraitists, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun, to paint her wearing this kind of dress. When the portrait was displayed that year at the Royal Academy’s annual salon, it caused a great controversy; members of Parisian society complained that the queen had allowed herself to be painted in nothing more than a chemise, the equivalent of the modern slip. Vigée-LeBrun’s picture was soon withdrawn from the exhibition, but the furor that it caused helped to popularize the simple yet feminine style in French society. These dresses were usually modeled on the chemise and were sewn in a simple cylindrical tube shape. Equipped with a drawstring at the neck, they were worn gathered at the waist with a sash. Thus in place of the artifice of hoops, trains, and ruffled sleeves that had long served to delineate members of the court, the queen and members of the French aristocracy sided with the cause of English informality. Marie Antoinette and members of her circle indulged their affection for these comfortable styles at the queen’s retreat, the Petit Trianon, a small palace at the edge of the grounds of the Versailles, much to the consternation of many of the traditionalists at court. When the party returned to the royal chateau to participate in the grand receptions of state, though, the tradition of court dress with its rigid and unbending rules continued to hold sway at Versailles.

Men’s Dress

The increasing divide between French elegance and English informality and practicality were perhaps even more notable in men’s dress than in women’s. In France, men in the 1770s continued to wear elaborately trimmed outer and vest coats that were tailored to show off rich fabrics of silk and other costly fabrics. By the 1780s, though, English styles were present among members of the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie in France. By this time, the more informal and comfortable frock coat had become the norm of middle class and aristocratic dress in England as both day and evening wear. The frock coat had originally been an element of hunting clothing worn by gentlemen and aristocrats in the countryside. Throughout the eighteenth century its cut had grown simpler, and in place of elaborate cuffs and side pleats, English men favored garments that were elegantly tailored, yet devoid of decoration. By 1750 the fashion for the frock coat had spread almost everywhere in the English speaking world and was common attire for men of commerce and political affairs, country gentry, and even New World colonists. In England, the combination of frock coat, waistcoat, and britches was worn everywhere except at court, and the elaborately cuffed sleeves had disappeared in favor of simple slits at the wrists. Decorated side pleats had also been replaced by a short skirt on the jacket that was held in place by slightly stiffening the fabric. The most common element of design in the frock coats of the time was their relatively small, turned-down collars. Instead of the elaborate lace flounces that had once been worn under these garments, English men now favored undecorated linen shirts and a shorter waistcoat that was of a complementary but lighter color from the dark fabrics usually used to tailor the frock coat. Simple tan britches completed the outfit. In keeping with this more informal fashion, men wore their hair naturally or lightly powdered, and the wig soon fell out of use altogether except by members of certain professions and among domestic servants, particularly footmen. While French men resisted these styles for several decades, they had gained a foothold amongst the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie by 1780, and in the years that followed the frock coat and britches became even more popular. Emulation of English dress was stimulated by the dictates of fashion, but at the same time the fondness for things “English” represented an important triumph of Enlightenment thinking in France. For most of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau had celebrated the customs and mores of the island country for their modernity and freedom. Now, as the French Revolution approached, English styles became one way in which France’s aristocrats and bourgeoisie expressed their fondness for the concept of greater liberty.

The Fashion Press

The taste for the new informal styles that emanated from England was fed throughout Europe by the increased production of fashion plates: engravings of men and women dressed in the most stylish clothing of the day. By the 1770s fashion plates had begun to replace the dressed mannequin dolls that had long been sent out annually from the major dress and tailoring shops in Paris to courts and shops throughout Europe. The custom of illustrating clothing in engravings had long existed, although not until the later eighteenth century did publishers and designers begin to exploit the possibilities of the press for satisfying an appetite for news of the fashionable world. During the sixteenth century German engravers and printers began to publish large collections of engravings known as Trachtenbücher, or “costume books.” The purpose of these volumes had been to illustrate the various types of dress worn by members of society’s different orders and professions. As the custom of producing these costume books spread throughout Europe, these books served by and large to satisfy an anthropological interest. Costume books, for instance, had often informed their readers of the kinds of clothing that were worn in societies throughout the world, satisfying an innate human curiosity about the exotic customs and manners of other peoples. In the later decades of the eighteenth century French artists, designers, and printers began to sense the commercial possibilities that lay within the medium. They now used it to satisfy readers’ desires to learn about the latest styles worn by the country’s aristocracy. In 1775, one of the most brilliant and beautiful of all the costume books appeared under the title Le Monument du costume physique et moral de la fin du dix-huitième siècle(Monument of the Physical and Moral Costume at the End of the Eighteenth Century). The accomplished artist Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) drew many of the designs for the plates that illustrated the work, while the novelist Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) wrote the accompanying text. Today, the work’s illustrations continue to be widely admired, and their influence on fashion journalism has long been recognized. In capturing the styles and dress of the period, Moreau and the other artists who contributed to the series did not pose men and women lifelessly, but instead, like modern photojournalists, they showed a young man and woman of fashion going about their social duties on the Parisian scene. The work’s prints thus captured its imaginary characters in the fashionable world in settings that were by and large natural.

Fashion Magazines

In the years that followed the success of the Monument other printers in Paris responded by commissioning series of fashion engravings from other prominent artists and distributing them in small collections. By 1778, two Parisian publishers, Jean Esnaut and Michel Rapilly, commenced the distribution of their Gallerie des modes et costumes français (Gallery of French Style and Costumes). Over the next decade Esnaut and Rapilly produced some seventy different collections of fashion plates that they released every few months. Each collection contained six colored engravings of costumes currently being worn on the Parisian scene. The popularity of the Gallery prompted many leading artists of the day to draw illustrations for these collections and thus high art and popular tastes for style combined to make the new fashion plates an immediate success. The Gallery’s appeal soon prompted other imitators, and by the later 1780s France had a number of regularly published fashion magazines or journals. The first of these, Les Cabinet des modes (The Cabinet of Style) commenced publication in 1785, but soon changed its name to Le Magasin du modes nouvelles françaises et anglaises(The Magazine of New French and English Styles) one year later to take account of the widespread popularity of more informal English dress. The periodical appeared every two weeks, complete with several fashion plates and articles that informed readers about the latest changes in dress. Despite the aristocratic tone of the magazine, publication continued even during the first years of the French Revolution, and in 1790, the journal became known merely as Le Journal de la mode et la goût (The Journal of Style and Taste). When the Journal ceased publication in 1793, other fashion magazines continued to proliferate on the scene, some appearing at intervals as often as every five days. By this time styles began to change so quickly that Paris’s new ranks of fashion journalists and illustrators faced a serious challenge in keeping up with the pace of style.

Fashion during the French Revolution


The years following the Revolution in France in 1789 brought massive upheaval and changes in French society, which, in turn, produced profound changes in dress and fashion. Clothing had long served in France as one of the most visible markers of social privilege and aristocratic status, so it is hardly surprising, then, that fashion was deeply affected by the course of revolutionary changes. The royal court’s dress had long been prescribed by an unbending etiquette that had originally been fashioned by Louis XIV, author of the absolutist system of government that had transformed the country into Europe’s greatest seventeenth-century power. During the eighteenth century this system had grown increasingly unwieldy, corrupt, and outmoded, and the privileges of aristocracy and the court seemed in the eyes of many to be an evil that needed to be rooted out if the country was to move forward. In the first years of the Revolution many aristocrats and wealthy French bourgeoisie agreed with this conclusion, and the initial phases of political change in the Revolution were marked by relative unanimity concerning the abolition of ancient noble privileges, clerical status, and distinctions of rank. A swiftly changing political scene, however, marked the clergy, the aristocracy, and those who served them as forces of counter-revolution among those who advocated more radical changes in government and society. During the Reign of Terror that began in 1792, thousands of French nobles, priests, and those who sympathized with them were guillotined. In the midst of these troubles, clothing played an important symbolic function, as men and women relied upon it to express their political convictions; dress became alternately a way to support or to condemn revolutionary change. The aristocratic fashions of the eighteenth century were seen as an evil that needed to be suppressed, and the Revolution moved to condemn those elements of dress that embodied traditional aristocratic society. Expensive silks, taffetas, velvets, and other costly elements of clothing were prohibited as France’s new government tried to dictate a new order in which fraternity, rather than privilege, might be realized.

Clothing as Symbols

From the earliest days of the Revolution elements of dress played a vital role in the political movement’s identity. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, the government of the city of Paris decreed that all citizens in the capital must wear a tricolor cockade, a round emblem constructed of ribbons displaying the city’s colors of red and blue as well as the monarchy’s standard white. Even Louis XVI bowed to this pressure, and when he was reconciled to the city of Paris following the famous attack on the royal prison of the Bastille, he and his family donned the revolutionary cockade to demonstrate their support for political change. The demand that Parisians wear the cockade of red, white, and blue became an immediately popular symbol of support for the Revolution, and spawned new fashions for clothing in the tricolor. Women wore skirts made from tri-colored fabrics or shoes with buckles of revolutionary cockades; men wore red coats, white stockings, and blue britches to express their support for political change. Yet not all Parisians bowed to such fashions, and those who supported the upholding of tradition, aristocratic privilege, and monarchical power sometimes wore pure white, the color of the Bourbon monarchy. In the highly charged political atmosphere of the early 1790s, however, such acts of defiance could result in arrest and persecution, so most Parisians accommodated themselves to the new requirements. The sudden changes in fashion also deeply affected the clothing industry in Paris. Many of those who had served aristocratic society in previous decades now found themselves without customers, as nobles and wealthy Parisians fled the city. Rose Bertin, once a prominent milliner and a designer of the queen’s dresses, even supported herself by selling cockades and other concoctions sporting the revolutionary colors. Bertin and other members of the town’s clothing trade now indulged revolutionary tastes to make ends meet.

In Search of a New Style

While the color of clothing and of accessories like the cockade played an important symbolic role in the early years of the Revolution, no immediate change in the style or cut of clothes occurred at this time. Instead most members of the bourgeoisie (the French middle and upper-middle classes) as well as many aristocrats that initially supported the Revolution instead wore the English informal fashions that had begun to gain popularity in France during the 1770s and 1780s. In place of the taffetas, velvets, and silks that were now prohibited as symbols of the old order and of aristocratic privilege, women’s dresses were made of cotton and linen, usually all of a single color, and men’s frock coats and britches were constructed of wool, and their shirts of linen and cotton. The triumph of the new style can be vividly seen in many of the portraits that Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), France’s great Neoclassical painter, and other revolutionary-era artists completed during the early years of the new order. In his 1795 portrait of his brother-in-law, Pierre Sériziat, David painted the sitter as if he was an English country gentleman, complete with tan britches, a dark outer coat, and a vest and shirt of white. To complete the allusion to the “English style,” the artist showed his brother-in-law sporting a top hat and riding crop. A similar affection for the standards of English informality can be seen in the painting that David completed of his sister, Madame Sériziat, in the same year. The artist showed the subject clad in the chemise, the simple tube-like dress gathered at the neck with a drawstring and here tied with a green sash at the waist. Instead of the elaborate coiffures typical of the world of the pre-revolutionary Old Regime, Madame Sériziat is shown with natural hair placed under a lace cap and a simple, yet elegant straw hat decorated again with green ribbon and bows. The child at her side wears much the same outfit. It was such dress that came to be increasingly the norm among those members of the bourgeoisie who supported the Revolution’s changes, as the course of fashion came even to be debated in the new national academies and societies of the time. During 1793 and 1794, the Société Popular et Républicane des Arts, the institution that replaced France’s Royal Academy of Arts, debated the question of clothing in a revolutionary age. David, one of its most prominent members, took part in these discussions, which lasted over four months, and his portraits of his sister and brother-in-law were presented at the institution’s salon in 1795, in part to demonstrate the society’s prescriptions for the reform of fashion. In its deliberations the Société concluded that clothing should be hygienic, should not advertise its wearer’s rank or status, and should allow for free movement of the body. In particular, the institution enjoined women not to contort their bodies into shapes through the wearing of corsets, paniers, or other devices, since these were styles that flourished under political despotism and which had largely restricted women’s freedom to move. The body should not be concealed or contorted by clothes, but rather enhanced by it. Thus in searching for ways to realize these dictates, French fashion adopted the English style, a form of dress that ironically had been embraced in the 1770s and 1780s by the French aristocracy. These fashions now expressed the Revolution’s longing for freedom.

Other Voices

As the reigning artist of his day, Jacques-Louis David tried to steer a path of moderation through the increasingly turbulent political world of Revolutionary fashion. Appointed minister of arts by the government in 1794, David received a commission to design the uniforms to be worn by France’s judges, municipal officials, and civil servants, a controversial duty at a time when radicals within the Revolution were advocating for the abolition of any distinction of rank or privilege. The uniforms that David designed for the new order thus tried to take account of the need for the French state’s civil servants to be distinguished from one another, while at the same time stressing their equality before the law. Despite his best efforts, David’s decisions were controversial, and by the mid-1790s, dress and fashion had emerged as important ways for French men and women to express their political viewpoints. During the height of the Reign of Terror—that is during the dismal years between 1792 and 1794 when many thousands were put to death for “counter-revolutionary” sentiments—groups like the Sans Culottes advocated for a more complete reform of French government and society. The Sans Culottes (meaning “without britches”) were drawn largely from the ranks of Parisian shopkeepers, artisans, and poor workers in the city, groups that had long worn trousers rather than the stylish knee britches of aristocratic and bourgeois society. The group’s uniform consisted of long trousers, a short-skirted coat known as the carmagnole, a tri-colored vest, and a bonnet rouge (or “red cap”), and their clothing became synonymous with their agitation for radical democratic reforms. This trend towards the politicization of clothing met a counter-trend in the mid-1790s, however, as greater peace and stability returned to France under the government of the Directory; groups of male incroyables (literally “unbelievables”) and female merveilleuses (“the marvels”) appeared on the Parisian scene whose clothing mocked the trends of the previous years. The female merveilleuses displayed daring amounts of cleavage or wore sheer dresses that exposed large portions of their legs underneath the sheerest of fabrics. Their dress thus mocked the Revolution’s dictates that women’s clothes should provide for greater freedom of movement by carrying them to a logical conclusion. The incroyables, by contrast, were dandies that distorted the new fashions the Revolution had helped sponsor, poking fun at the taste for English informality by sporting elaborately grand lapels, striped trousers, and bizarre “dog-eared” hairstyles. While the Revolution had hoped to found a new society in which all social distinctions of dress were outlawed, the incroyables and merveilleuses hoped for a time in which men and women might distinguish themselves purely for the imaginativeness of their clothing. Although their presence on the Parisian scene was relatively brief, both groups pointed to the emergence of a new consumer culture of fashion, one that now stretched far beyond the confines of aristocratic society, and which would in the following generations encompass an ever-larger portion of the European world. In the daring innovations of incroyables and merveilleuses we can see the genesis of the infinitely changeable and swiftly altering modern world of fashion. Since that time cosmopolitan Europeans have struggled to keep up with that world’s seasonal dictates.