France has long been viewed as a leader of European fashion, often taking basic trends to the next level. This tendency was particularly distinct in men's costumes during the 17th and 18th centuries, when Frenchmen cut swashbuckling and cavalier figures, pairing vivid shades of blue, pink and yellow with lavish ornamentation.
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The 17th century in France was the age of the Chevalier. Men wore doublets, a jacketlike shirt, sometimes layered with a sleeveless jacket, called a buffe. Their trousers were puffy breeches which extended to mid-calf or just below the knee. Stockings and square-toed boots with soft leather cuffs, known as bucket-tops, were worn with most outfits. Men wore wide-brimmed hats with sweeping plumes and short capes, often slung over one shoulder to keep their sword hand free. Noblemen and knights decorated their outfits with ribbons and bows, large lace collars and ornate cuffs.
The traditional outfit for an 18th-century Frenchman was a three-piece suit, consisting of knee breeches, vest and flared jacket that reached to the same length as the breeches. Aristocrats dressed up the suit with silk stockings, a lacy shirt, elaborate cuffs and a cravat. Boots gave way to high-heeled shoes, and swords began to be replaced with walking sticks. The tri-cornered hat also became vogue. Towards the end of eighteenth century, lower class men began to abandon knee breeches and stockings in favour of ankle-length trousers, often made from red-and white striped fabric. These trousers, combined with a short woollen jacket and red, knit hat became the classic outfit of the revolutionaries.
Moving into the 19th century, Frenchmen began to abandon the frills of previous eras and dress in sleek-fitting suits of dark green, brown and blue. Tailcoats came into fashion, often double-breasted and cut straight across in the front at the waist. Full-length trousers took the place of knee breeches. Shirt collars were high, held in place by a cravat wrapped snugly around the neck. For a time, large, semicircular hats became popular, but were later replaced with top hats.
While the fashions of Paris evolved along with the rest of Europe, some French provinces, such as Brittany and Bordeaux, retained their own costumes. Well into the 19th century, provincial Frenchmen still wore knee breeches along with the boots or gaiters. Double-breasted, wraparound vests, reaching from neck to waist, were very common and usually worn under a short jacket and sometimes with a colourful sash around the waist. Red, blue and white were the most frequently used colours.
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- Cultures and Costumes: Symbols of their Period: France; Alycen Mitchell; 2003
- The Historical Encyclopedia of Costumes; Albert Racinet; 1988
- The Costumer's Manifesto: Traditional Dress: Provincial France 18th-19th Centuries
- Men's Fashion: The Complete Sourcebook; John Peacock; 1996
- The History of Costume: Late Nineteenth Century - French Folk Dress