Fashion History of the French Republic. The fashions of the Directory.

French, Republic, fashion, costumes, modes
History of Fashion. Republic from 1790 to 1792. Republic 1793 and 1794.

The French Republic 1789 to 1802.

Table of content.

The year 1789 – Masculine style of dress – The double dress vainshes – Caps “à la grand prêtresse”, “à la pierrot” and “à la laitière – The “pouf” bonnet – Paint and powder disappear – Prediction by the Cabinet des Modes – Anonymous caps – Cap “à la Charlotte Corday d’Armont” – Trinkets “à la Bastille” – Stéphanie Félicité du Crest de Saint’ locket – Cap “à la Bastille” – Federal uniforms – Claims to equality in dress – Reaction under the Directory – “Incroyables” and “Merveilleuses” – Coiffures “à la victime” and “à la Titus” – blond wigs and black wigs – The Hòtel Thélusson – Which is the most ridiculous? – Mme. Tallien’s costume – Epigram on bonnets “à la folie” – Reticules – Transparent dresses – Lines by Despréaux.

Fashion during the Directoire period.

TIME has passed, and we have reached the year 1789. For a while, at least, we must bid farewell to the reign of Fancy. Farewell, Arcadia! Farewell, ye shepherdesses! Fashion is about to become simpler, as the horizon darkens.

At the period we have now reached, the tastes of women were serious, just as those of their husbands were political. They repaired to the Champs-Élysées in the dress of Amazons, wearing great coats and black hats, carrying a cane or a whip, wearing a watch on each side, and a bunch of rattling “breloques,” seals, and other appendages. Their hats were helmet-shaped.

Masculine style of dress

Such was the costume of the more audacious among them. Others, who shrank from adopting masculine attire, assumed a matronly appearance by wearing long trailing gowns of sober tint, either in silk or some fancy material. All wore very short-waisted bodices, displaying a good deal of the bosom, unless it were hidden by a gauze kerchief, or long scarf, which was either printed in colors, braided, or brocaded.

The double dress vainshes

The fashion of two dresses, one worn over the other, that had been so general in the latter half of the seventeenth century, and the first half of the eighteenth, had completely disappeared in favour of one gown only. The arms were either altogether bare, with a sort of padded strap at the shoulder, or were covered from shoulder to wrist by plain tight sleeves. Caps were occasionally worn, with velvet or silk crown, lace frillings, and a graceful bow of ribbon above the forehead. These caps were tied under the chin by a ribbon of the same color, and fastened at the back by a similar rosette.

Caps “à la grand prêtresse”

The caps of former times were little worn. Some, however, still remained in fashion; for instance, caps  “à la gran de prêtresse” (high priestess); these were made of white gauze, and encircled by a broad ribbon. Old ladies still wore caps “à la pierrot”, trimmed with quantities of lace. Nor were caps “à la laitière” (milkmaid) quite given up; they were worn at the back of the head. In 1789, the national cockade was worn.

The “pouf” bonnet.

Generally speaking, ladies preferred bonnets, and straw bonnets in particular, trimmed with flame-colored ribbon, and displaying waving locks under the brim. Others wore “pouf” bonnets, with the most extraordinary arrangements, on the outside, of military or naval trophies; these were very popular for several years.

Everybody carried a fan, or an embroidered handkerchief, in the left hand. But the women would no longer use either paint or powder – miracle due to the Revolution. Powder they considered unnecessary, paint ridiculous, and both savored of aristocracy.

Prediction by the Cabinet des Modes.

What a change had taken place between 1789 and 1795, in the aspect of the fair sex. At the time of the Convocation of the Notables, caps were made “a la notable,” trimmed with beads, artificial flowers, and feathers; next came caps “à la Turque,” “à la Bèarnaise,” and lastly “it I’anonyme,” for new names could no longer be found for all the vagaries of fashion. The Cabinet des Modes of Nov. 5, 1790, observes: “Our way of living is becoming purified; extravagance and luxury are diminishing.” The anticipation was correct, but it applied to a very brief period.

Charlotte Corday, French Revolution, portrait,
The last portrait of Charlotte Corday 1768-1793.

Cap à la Charlotte Corday d’Armont

Women either wore caps “à la Charlotte Corday,” a shape that is well known at the present day, or went bare-headed, or wore at most a Greek fillet, or a “baigneuse” trimmed with a large tricolored cockade, and showing the hair turned up in a chignon. Expensive costumes were very rarely seen. “Dèshabilles” In colored Jouy cambrics, Madras kerchiefs, or small red ones, took the place of brocades and silks and velvet caraco.

Yet Fashion contrived to respond to all the events of the time. The smallest trifle that attracted the attention of the masses was instantly turned to account in some adjunct of dress. Was a rhinoceros or an elephant exhibited at the Jardin des Plantes. Instantly caps were manufactured “à la I’elephant,” or  “au rhinocèros.”

Paris, Pont Neuf, 18th century
Pont Neuf

A swallow pursued by a sparrow-hawk having fallen to the ground on the Pont Neuf, a head-dress “à l’hirondelle” was forthwith invented. It consisted of two little gauze wings stretched on steel springs, which fluttered at each side of the head with the lightest breeze. A Chinaman came to Paris, and immediately there was a rage for hair dressed” à la Chinoise,” and for pointed shoes. Crescents were worn in the hair, in honor of the Turkish ambassador’s arrival in the capital.

With regard to jewelry, the case was the same. On the taking of the Bastille, small fragments of its stones were set in gold or silver, and worn as necklaces, bracelets, and rings.

Comtesse de Genlis, Revolution, fashion, costumes,
Mdlle. Félicité de Genlis 1746-1830

Stéphanie Félicité du Crest de Saint’ locket.

The well-known Mdlle. de Genlis (Caroline-Stéphanie-Félicité Du Crest de Saint-Aubin, comtesse de Genlis, marquise de Sillery 1746-1830) wore a locket made from a stone of the Bastille, cut and polished, and bearing the word “Liberte” in brilliants; above this a diamond represented the planet that shone on July ‘4, and round the locket was a laurel-wreath in emeralds, fastened by the national cockade in precious stones-blue, red, and white.

The fashions à la Bastille.

The fashions “à la Bastille” lasted for some time. The cap “à la Bastille” represented a doubly castellated tower in black lace.

Coiffures, redoute, France, Revolution, Headdresses, fashion
Coiffures de 1790. D’apres des gravures du temps. Coiffure dite sans redoute. Coiffure dit à la nation.

A favorite head-dress was a hat, with a spade, a sword, and a cross embroidered in green silk, surrounded by olive branches; symbolic of the three estates – the nobility, the clergy, and the Fashionable Frenchwomen adorned themselves with jewels “à la Constitution,” also known under the name of “Rocamboles.” Their so-called “Constitutional” earrings were of white glass, in imitation of rock-crystal, and bore the word “Patrie.”

A very large bouquet, “à la nation,” was worn high up on the left side, composed of flowers of the three colors, mingled with a profusion of myrtle. A costume “à la Constitution” comprised a helmet-shaped cap of black gauze, a cambric neckerchief, a vermillion sash, and a very fine cambric gown covered with little bouquets of white, blue, and red flowers.

Fête de la Fédération, Revolution, Directory,
The Fête de la Fédération of the 14 July 1790. Celebration to commemorate the first anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille and the unity of the French Nation

In the course of the following year, 1790, the Federation at the Champs de Mars was commemorated by the creation of the Federal uniform for ladies by a dressmaker of the Palais Royal. Fans “à la federation” were on sale, and women, joining in the movement, wore hats in honour of “the nation and the charms of liberty,” with flowers, feathers, and tricolored ribbons.

Modes, revolutionnaires, Directory,
Modes revolutionnaires. Paris, sept. 1789″, mars, avril et aout 1790.

I might give many more examples, for each event of the Revolution was marked by a corresponding innovation in dress, hut let it suffice to state that at the period of which I am speaking, the whole theory of fashion was based on the assumption of equality in dress. This may be proved by referring to an engraving of the time, that I have published in my “Histoire-Musee de la Republique.”

All classes were commingled, willingly or unwillingly, through love or through fear; and many wealthy persons rigidly adopted simple attire. It is easy to understand the effect of this state of things on Fashion. The Revolution had proscribed gowns of silk or white muslin, as recalling too vividly the attire of the Ancien Règime.

The Republican style of garment entirely enveloped the wearer, and gracefully defined the figure. It was fastened with buttons, and a sash “à la Romaine” was knotted on one side. The effect, taken as a whole, was charming. Jouy cambric was the material usually adopted; the “déshabille à la démocrate,” however, allowed of a “pierrot”, in brownish-green satin.

Rose Bertin, Directory, couture,
Rose Bertin c. 1780 by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Reaction under the Directory

The reign of Rose Bertin (Marie-Jeanne Bertin 1747-1813) had ceased with that of Marie Antoinette. But although the queen of France found no one to take her place, that of the queen of Fashion was aspired to by a Mme. Rispal, who, advertising in the “Journal de Paris,” offered a choice of dresses “pékin velouté et lacté” (velvety and milk-like), in African silk and in Chinese satin.” She undertook, moreover, to make up caracas “à la Nina,” “à la Sultane,” and “à la cavaliere;” short skirts “à la Junon” and “à la Renommée;” and gowns “a la Psyché,” “à la ménagère,” “à la Turque,” and “au lever de Vénus.”

The above were republican garments, of which the cost bore no comparison with that of dress in the eighteenth century. But the reaction of Thermidor was followed by a reaction in dress; and under the Directory, when the Terror was over, women went from one extreme to the other, and spent ruinous sums in flowers, jewellery, and diamonds. In this respect the year 1795 is a remarkable one. Were the fashions of Louis XV.’s time about to return? Were red heels, panniers, powder, and patches “coming in” again? Well, not absolutely; but the return to things of the past was manifested in many ways, and the more so because the number of parties, balls, and concerts was simply incalculable.

“Incroyables” and “Merveilleuses”

The imitation of the classical dress worn by the Greeks and Romans produced the Incroyables  and the Merveilleuses (Gallery),  the mere pictures of whom seem to us at the present day like caricatures, and afford us some idea of the extraordinary freaks of Fashion. Charles Vernet (Antoine Charles Horace Vernet 1758-1836) has given us admirable types of the Merveilleuses, who were the feminine exaggerations of the time of the Directory; of the Incroyables it is not within our province to speak.

Merveilleuses, French, Revolution, costumes, Directory
Merveilleuses Parisiennes, sous le directoire. D’après des estampes du temps.

Above:  Merveilleuses Parisiennes, sous le directoire. D’après des estampes du temps. Après le 9 Thermidor. L’An III.  Femme d’un général. L’An V. Voile a l’Iphigénie. Sac a deuse. L’An VI.

Incroyables, Français, Directory, Mode
Francais sous le directoire. Mode dite des incroyables. D’après Chataignier, et Carle Vernet.

However, amid all their exaggeration, the chief types of fashion under Barras (Paul-François-Jean-Nicolas, Vicomte de Barras 1755-1829) and La Réveillère-Lepeaux (1753-1824) are plainly discernible. Anglomania was the rage. “Everything that is untouched by Anglomania,” says “Le Messager des Dames” in 1797, “is declared, by our Merveilleuses, to be ‘bourgeois’ to a frightful degree; to be in hideously bad taste.” This somewhat singular predilection, at a time when we were at war with the English, is explained by the fact that Mdlle. Rose Bertin’s work-women had left France in order to take up their residence in London.

The Anglomania of the Merveilleuses, however, soon faded before a more serious passion —”Anticomania.” Every woman wished to dress in the antique style, and painters provided models for ladies “de grand genre.” Head-dresses were various. The hair was sometimes cut short and curled, and sometimes powdered and drawn back from the face, after a fashion that recalls to some extent the reign of Louis XVI.

Gowns were short waisted, with long tight sleeves or short ones, the arms bare, or covered with long kid gloves; the skirt rather trailing, and trimmed with gimp, put on in Greek patterns. The foot and white stocking of the “merveilleuse” was scarcely visible beneath her dress “à la Flore” or “a la Diane.” She also affected tunics “à la Ceres” and “à la Minerve,” and coats “à la Galatée.”

A simple handkerchief, or a small shawl of plain cashmere, was worn on the neck. Felt hats, not unlike those worn by men, were occasionally trimmed with flame-colored ribbons. But the more fashionable ” merveilleuses ” preferred a toque trimmed with ribbon in like manner, and very effectively ornamented with a couple of white aigrettes. “What confusion, and what fickleness !” observe the brothers De Goncourt. ” Caps a la paysanne, à la Despaze, and Pierrot caps! Caps à la folle, à la Minette, à la Délie, a la frivole, à I’EscIavonne, à la Nelson! There a simple bit of muslin, and an unpretending gauze lappet ; here a turban turned up with five blue feathers!

A turban, made by La Despaux, ‘ that Michael Angelo of milliners,’ will be formed of a pink handkerchief; another will be of lilac crape, two rows of beads, and above them a rose and a heartsease! And as for hats! hats ‘à la Primrose,’ negligently covered with a half handkerchief; turban hats, round hats ‘à I’Anglaise,’ gleaner’s hats, Spencer hats, and beaver hats, owe their names to Saulgeot! Does Mme. Saint-Aubin (Félicité de Genlis) take the part of Lisbeth? Mdlle. Bertrand flings a large bunch of roses on straw, and it becomes a hat (a la Lisbeth.’ The assembly of the Norman electors is nicknamed ‘the chess-board of Normandy,’ and a ‘chess-board’ hat’ immediately makes its appearance.”

Merveilleuse, French, Revolution, Directory
Merveilleuse c. 1793

We must also mention wigs “à I’Aspasie,” “à la Venus,” “à la Turque,” Greek and Roman wigs, art head-dresses in the style of Sappho; “Doisy” nets, linked tiaras formed of the glittering links of a threefold chain of gold; and “les cheveux baignés,” that is, the real hair, worn with a diamond crescent. By way of ornament, dressmakers frequently made use of small pieces of gold, silver, copper, or steel, very thin, and with a hole in the middle; they were generally of circular shape, were sewed on to the material, and called spangles.

Thence the popular song :- ” Paillette aux bonnets, Aux toquets, Aux petits corsets! Paillette Aux fins bandeaux, Aux grands chapeaux! Paillette Aux noirs colliers, Aux bIancs souliers! Paillette, Paillette aux rubans, Aux turbans. On ne voit rien sans Paillette!” “Spangles on the caps, On the toques, On the little bodices! Spangles On the soft hair-bands, On the large hats! Spangles On the black necklaces. On the white shoes! Spangles, Spangles on the ribbons, On the turbans. Nothing is to be seen Without spangles!”

All the adjuncts of dress remind us of antique times; we may note the shape of shoes in particular-when, indeed, women were not satisfied with wearing gold rings on their feet. It is curious to remark how greatly shoes resembled sandals, only partially covering the upper part of the foot. They consisted of a light sole, fastened to the leg by ribbons. Coppe was the principal “cothurnus” maker, and was said to lend to that class of foot-covering “inconceivable coloring, freshness, eloquence, and poetry!” Dresses called “Athenian” were made of diaphanous material. They were open at the sides, from the waist to the lower edge of the tunic. Gowns made with trains were worn for walking.

The celebrated Eulalie was particularly clever at drawing the long trains of gowns “à I’Omphale” through the sash. If any one presumed to assert that from their feet to their heads women were too little clothed, they would reply,- ” Le diamant seul doit parer Des attraits que blesse la bine.” (“The diamond only ought to adorn Charms which are hurt by wool.”)

Their light attire exposed them to diseases of the chest, nay, to death itself, but they braved all dangers for the sake of Fashion. The gold rings shining on their feet could not protect them from the cold of winter, and yet they remained faithful to gauze-veiled nudity. A fashion of wearing no chemise lasted only one week. In consequence of the depreciation of the paper currency, sixty four francs in assignats was charged for the making of two caps; gauze for three caps cost 100 francs; two dozen cambric-muslin pocket-handkerchiefs cost 2400 francs; a brown silk gown, 1040 francs; and a batiste gown edged with silk, 2500 francs.

Coiffures “à la victime” and “à la Titus”.

titus, Juliette Recamier, fashion, france, revolution, Directory,
Hair à la titus. Juliette Recamier 1777-1849.

This was in 1795. A year later an embroidered tarlatan mantle cost 7000 francs; the making of a cap cost 300 francs; a gown and a fan, 20,000 francs; and the silk for a mantle, 3000 francs. These extraordinary prices rose higher still as the value of the paper currency diminished. The best dressmakers were Nancy for Greek, and Mme. Raimbaut for Roman costumes.

A Parisian lady required 365 head-dresses, the same number of pairs of shoes, 600 gowns, and twelve chemises. Among the ephemeral fashions of the Directory one was to dress the hair “à la victime.” This entailed the loss of the victim’s tresses, which were cut off quite close to the head. Ladies who adopted the coiffure “à la Titus” were absolutely compelled to wear a red shawl and a red necklace, that the whole costume might be in harmony.

The Hòtel Thélusson

Many ladies always dressed their hair “à la sacrifièe.” They were also partial to wigs, blond at first, and afterwards black, though this” anti-revolutionary” style met with great opposition both on the stage and in print. Twelve blond wigs were included in MdIIe. LepeIletier de St. Fargeau’s wedding trousseau. Mme. Tallien possessed thirty; each cost five and twenty louis. At a party at the Hôtel Thélusson, great admiration was excited by a lady whose hair was dressed in the Greek style,-a band of cameos representing Roman emperors encircled her head. Her gown was of crape, embroidered in steel.

Mme. Tallien’s costume

Between 1799 and 1801, the fashions, it must be conceded, were not particularly graceful. A caricature that has almost become an historical document, appeared under the Consulate.

Thérésa, Cabarrus, Madame,Tallien, Notre-Dame,  Thermidor, Fashion, neo Greek style, Directory
Hair à la titus. Thérésa Cabarrus, Madame Tallien, “Notre-Dame de Thermidor“ 1773-1835. Certain together with her friend Joséphine de Beauharnais, the fashion in the neo Greek style.

It represents a gentleman and lady both dressed in the extreme of fashion, in 1789, 1796, and 1801. Beneath the picture the author asks the question, “Which is the most ridiculous?” But women cared little for what might be said of them; they laughed at comments, epigrams, and caricatures alike. Not only did Mme. Tallien create a furore of admiration at the Frascati balls, in an Athenian gown, wearing two circlets of gold as garters, and with rings on her bare and sandalled feet, but there were other heroines of fashion, if I may so express myself who dressed “à la sauvage,” or threw over their shoulders a blood-red shawl (Sang-de-boeuf), squeezed their waist into stays “à l’humanite,” and wore on their heads either a hat “à la justice” or a cap “à la folle.”

Epigram on bonnets “à la folie”

The following epigram was composed on the caps “à la folle;”-” De ces vilains bonnets, maman, quel est le prix? -Dix francs.-Le nom? -Des bonnets à la folie. Ah ! c’est bien singulier, interrompit Nicolle: Toutes nos dames en ont pris.” (“What is the price, mamma, of those ugly caps?” “Ten francs.” “The name?” “Madwoman’s caps.” “Ah, that is strange,” interrupted Nicolle, “For all our ladies wear them.”)


Fine ladies carried an embroidered bag or reticule, vulgarly called” ridicule.” The author relates an anecdote here to which justice cannot be done in English, as the play upon words cannot be translated, The anecdote is as follows: ” Une dame, ayant perdu son sac, voulut le faire afficher. ‘Fi donc!’ lui dit un mauvais pleasant, ‘faire afficher un ridicule, quand on en a tant!'” In 1803 a certain great lady wore a tunic of netted beads, with pearls in her hair, which was dressed diadem fashion. At the King of Etruria’s fête, her hair was arranged like the quills of a porcupine; a long gold chain and enormous locket hung round her neck. Another lady adopted a cap exactly like her grandfather’s night-cap, a veil falling below her waist, and a tunic with which her puce silk spencer made a startling contrast. Others, again, adhered to the transparent costume, with shoes sandalled high up on the leg. It was difficult to tell from the appearance of these ladies whether they were Greek, Turkish, or French women.

Josephine Beauharnais, Hairstyles, empire, regency, fashion
Hairstyles by Josephine Beauharnais

Lines by Despréaux

The over-transparency of their attire gave rise to the following song, by Despréaux, in eight verses, of which I transcribe the first only: – “Crâce à la mode On n’a plus d’cheveux; Ah! qu’c’est commode! On n’a plus d’cheveux On dit qu’c’est miecux!”. (“Thanks to the Fashion No one has any hair (his); O! how convenient! No more hair, They say it is better so!”)

The fashions of the Directory, especially the transparent dresses, remained in favour during the early part of the Consulate. We may mention the following novelties: Jewish tunics in organdy muslin or silk, light or dark blue, buff or striped; drawn bonnets in organdy, and straw bonnets with “chicorée” trimming. Long hair was a thing of the past; every woman wore her hair “à la Titus,” and covered the cropped skull with false hair, “cache-folies,” or “tortillons.”

Source: The history of fashion in France, or, The dress of women from the Gallo-Roman period to the present time by Augustin Challamel, Frances Cashel Hoey, John Lillie. Publisher: New York, Scribner and Welford, 1882.


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