The French Revolution of 1789 to 1793 irrevocably changed France and French society. The socio-political upheaval also had a profound effect on fashion. The excesses of the Royal House of Bourbon and the French aristocracy were marked by extravagance and finery in all things. The fashions of dress were no exception and were marked by expensive fabrics, bright colours, conspicuous and demonstrative designs. The violent upheaval of the French Revolution sought to put an end to all class distinctions and as such, fashions became very simple and inexpensive.
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Before the revolution, expensive and colourful fabrics were normal amongst the upper classes and anyone aspiring to imitate their ways. Royal colours such as reds, purples and gold were typical of aristocracy, made of materials such as velvets, silks, ribbons and lace. After the revolution it was nearly suicidal to display any form of extravagance in an individual's wardrobe and these materials were replaced by the much simpler and cheaper materials such as cotton.
Men's fashion post-revolution was marked by a trend towards conformity and simplicity. Dark colours, leathers and cottons replaced silks and velvets as the favoured materials. The half-knee trouser style that symbolised the aristocracy was replaced by the ankle-length trouser known as the pantaloon. Simple leather boots, low in heel and square at the front were adopted. Powdered wigs were discarded in favour of short hair and black felt hats turned up at the front were all adorned with the ubiquitous display of the tricolour cockade.
Dress as a form of social class distinction was a way in which the aristocracy could control the masses. Women's clothing was stiff, simple and uncomfortable. The revolution brought about changes in attitude. Poorer women were able to use the social change to adopt lighter, more comfortable fitting dresses. However, frills and ruffles were still frowned upon as ostentatious, as were bright colours. As with men's fashion, it was a near universal feature of every citizen to wear the patriotic red, white and blue colours of the tricolour cockade.
Directory and Empire
After the initial turbulence and incredible violence marked by the early years of the French Revolution, a period of increased social and political stability followed, known as the Directory. The Directory was followed by the new French Empire of Napoleon. During these periods, the fear of violence lessened and people began to tire of the drab clothing and rigid social mores its wear encouraged. Brighter colours returned, new and extravagant styles began to emerge and the leathers and fabrics were once again faced with competition from the finer fabrics common in pre-revolutionary times.
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