How Women Managed to Express Their Own Rebellion During Revolutionary France: Through Clothing

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Women, Clothing and Political Culture in Revolutionary France

A study of a number of sources from the revolutionary period in France gives us an insight into the ways in which women used clothing to position themselves within an increasingly volatile sociopolitical environment. In reaction to this conception of personal appearance as a “free space” for female expression, a strong backlash from revolutionaries against certain dress norms sets out the ways in which men sought to “defend” the revolution using implicitly patriarchal notions. With this in mind, it becomes clearer how male revolutionaries employed a number of techniques to limit the mobility of women within revolutionary and republican ideals.

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It is clear that women envisioned dress as an important tool in the creation of a common revolutionary ideal that included them. In Nanine Vallain’s 1793 painting An Allegory of Liberty, we see a clear attempt to associate womanhood with the most vivid and active aspects of the revolution – here, Liberty takes a dominant pose and holds the red Phrygian cap thus adopting a central symbol of the revolution. The importance of dress for female revolutionaries in this way becomes even clearer when we consider the Decree from the same year, which effectively prevented women from encouraging other women to wear the red cap, as a sign of the widespread nature of this practice as a way for some women to publicly demonstrate their adherence to the revolution. It is important, then, to consider the fact Nanine Vallain – as a female revolutionary at the beginning of The Terror – deliberately chose to paint Liberty not only as a revolutionary woman but, more importantly, as one who was involved in the law-making process, as the legislation in her right hand would suggest. At this point in the revolution, it is already visible how dress could become a volatile space for radical revolutionary action.

In line with these attempts by revolutionary women to carve out an image of revolution and republicanism that was inclusive, the male-dominated revolutionary scene sought to prevent their adoption of revolutionary symbols in an implicitly patriarchal attempt to defend the new political arrangement. The 1793 Decree declaring that “no person of either sex may constrain any citizen or citizeness to dress in a particular manner” seems from the outset to be in line with the revolutionary ideals of individual freedom and expression, yet in his speech supporting the Decree we see Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine denouncing the mere notion of women associating themselves with the revolution through dress – “Now they ask for the red cap. They will not rest there, they will soon demand a belt with pistols.” D’Eglantine goes on to equate red-capped women with “adventuresses” and “amazons” in what becomes an explicit attack on female engagement with revolutionary ideals. Importantly, When he warns the National Assembly that “you will see lines of women going to get bread as if they were marching to the trenches” it becomes clear that d’Eglentine’s attack is steeped in a fear of female participation even in the most basic of democratic processes. This “fear” held by many male revolutionaries seems to become reality by 1795 when we find evidence of women dressing as men to lead revolutionary women in what seems to be conceived by officials as “riotous” behavior. An interrogation transcript from the 1795 Riots does indeed support the idea, as posed so cynically by d’Eglentine, that women felt the need to dress up with the revolution in order to take part in it – the woman accused is alleged worn a “three-cornered hat with a red and blue plume” and carried a saber in its scabbard. Almost reflecting the fears outlined by d’Eglentine in 1793, the General Assembly of Section Montreuil issued by late May 1795 a denunciation of “women who usually dressed as men” and “incited rebellion”. It is clear that the patriarchal instincts of the revolution, in its most volatile years, was to police and restrict the ways in which women were able to express revolutionary sentiments through dress.

These sources have already shown us how women used dress as part of their attempt to create a more inclusive revolutionary ideal as well as the nature of the male backlash. An analysis of the nature and purpose of these sources, however, also gives us an insight into the tactics used by the revolutionary movement to police the ways in which women used dress. In both d’Eglantine’s speech to the National Convention in 1793 and the interrogation transcript from 1795 it is clear that official equate transgressional dress norms – i.e. the red cap and men’s clothing respectively, in this case – with rebellious behavior and the intent to incite other women to rebel. Where d’Englantine makes a distinction between “mothers, daughters, and sisters of families occupied with their youngers brothers and sisters” and revolutionary “adventuresses, female knights-errant, emancipated girls and amazons,” the members General Assembly of Section Montreuil make a distinction between “these women who incited rebellion” and “respectable citoyennes content to stay in their households” – in both cases, active revolutionary women are delegitimized, because of their use of revolutionary clothing, by men who invoke typically matriarchal images as the only ideal of womanhood. It is important to consider also that these sources emanate from exclusively male environments – the representative assemblies and the police station – not only because they demonstrate the strength of support for the monitoring of female dress norms among male revolutionaries but also because they suggest both the legislative and enforcement arms of the French state during this period where deeply concerned with doing so.

The stakes were high for revolutionary men seeking to defend the revolution from the “passions” of women, and protecting symbolic clothing was a central part of this. D’Eglentine’s assertion that women’s “adornment” is “the most powerful passion of women” is an acknowledgement of the importance of dress for self-expression in the sense that, in this case, it is coupled with a fear their expression will be one of violence. Equally, the fact the very first question in the police’s interrogation of the suspected rioter is “why isn’t she wearing the clothes appropriate to her sex?” and their complete dismissal of her explanation in the authorities’ summary explicitly denotes a deep institutional concern with the appearance of women. This concern becomes central to the French’s self-conception in the years following The Terror. By the late 1790s, Vallain’s Allegory of Liberty had been transformed by male revolutionaries into La Republique in an attempt to sanitize allegorical conceptions of the new French state by wholly disassociating women from the revolution. In La Republique, we see a female image of the state devoid of the Phrygian cap and pike; in contrast to Allegory of Liberty we see her also devoid of contemporary clothing in an attempt to symbolize her position “above politics,” consequently enshrining the exclusion of women from political participation in the allegorical image of the state. The transitions from Liberty to Republic of course tell us a lot about how French revolutionaries conceived their state before and after the execution of the King and during two very different stages in the revolution, but they also depict the trajectory of the idea of women’s inclusion in the revolution’s ambitious project – the Assembly members who had expressed deep concerns with an image of revolution which, through clothing, was inclusive of women had, by the late 1790s, succeeded in replacing the actively-revolutionary Liberty with a decidedly-matriarchal cap-less Republique.

The very sources which primarily denounce women’s participation in the revolution – through recruitment, protest, and self-expression – also reveal the way in which dress and clothing was a key tool for women in France during this period. Understanding personal appearance as a deeply contested arena during the revolution must then also come with an acknowledgement of the deeply patriarchal nature of the groups and institutions which sought to drive republican ideals. In this sense, we are able to better comprehend the role dress norms played in outlining the role of women, guided their attempts in search for representation and determined male revolutionaries’ moves to develop and enforce oppressive conceptions of “womanhood.”

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