|KCI – jacket, 1790 – revolutionary or royalist?|
These days, many costumers, me included, look to the fashions of the past and select items to make based on, well, their pretty-pretty. I know that I have thought “oh, I want a red gown; oh, I want a black gown; oh, yellow!” without much thought to what these colors represented in various time periods and places.
In Revolutionary France, color played a huge role in publicly announcing who you were and what side you were on. We are very familiar with the blue, white, and red being pro-revolutionary colors, but we may not be so aware of the other colors and what they represented. Here is a basic guide:
Blue, White, Red – colors of the Revolutionaries. They not only wore these colors as ribbon cockades, but in their entire dress.
|a liberty bonnet, a man’s hat that came to symbolize the Revolution.|
To be more specific, the red and blue were the original colors of the 1789 cockade, and the traditional colors of Paris. Red stood for Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris, and blue stood for Saint Martin, a symbol of care for the poor by the rich.
The white came in later, and is actually the color of the royal House of Bourbon. The addition of the white to the tricolore cockade was to symbolize Louis XVI’s support of the Revolution, which he was forced to show. The three colors are also said to each represent the three estates – the Clergy, Nobility, and Middle Class (or, everyone else who wasn’t clergy or nobility, “The Third Estate”).
|Selections from Dames a la Mode on Tumblr – very Revolutionary costumes.|
During the early 1790s, in Paris, wearing a costume of blue, white, or red showed your support of the Revolution, and everyone, including aristocrats and Marie Antoinette herself, wore these colors. To the upper crust it was a fad, or it was “safe;” to Marie Antoinette, it was demanded of her, although she would soon change her preferences for more royally-associated colors.
|Selections from Dames a la Mode – despite the redingote (center) being associated with Marie Antoinette and Austria, in its was commandeered as a nationalist symbol, in its Revolutionary form, as was the gaulle.|
Black, Purple, Yellow, Green – Royalist colors. These colors, each with their own association, were reviled by the Revolutionaries, and became dangerous to wear.
|Not a tricolore cockade to be see on these glaringly Royalist outfits – from Dames a la Mode on Tumblr|
Black and yellow were the colors of Austria, Marie Antoinette’s homeland, and much reviled by the people of France. Black was also an aristocratic color in general, and the color of mourning, specifically, at this time, the color of royal mourning, required for everyone in mourning the death of the young Dauphin as well as Marie Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph II of Austria. The public completely rejected the latter, and stopped wearing black altogether, in favor of heckling and sometimes assaulting anyone in Paris seen to be wearing a black band, clothing, or cockade.
|Green was the color of the Comte d’Artois; and black was that of the aristocracy. Fashion plates from Dames a la Mode|
Green was the color associated with another detested French royal, the Comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s brother, who was known to wear his signature color together with another we associate with royalty, purple. After her period of false patriotic show, Marie Antoinette also took to wearing green and purple, as well as the other royal colors.
To get a sense of the importance of color in the political arena of 18th century Paris, think about the color associations we have today. Americans, we know what these colors mean:
…and we know that Democrats wear blue ties, and Republicans wear red ties, a sartorial display of allegiance, just like in Revolutionary France.
How about sports teams? Fans wear the colors, and sometimes the special hats and other symbols, of the teams they support. This cheesehead isn’t all that different from a Liberty Bonnet (top) …
Now, of course, these color “rules” only apply to Revolutionary France, a relatively short period starting in 1789 with the fall of the Bastille. This is not to say that these colors – red, blue, green, purple, black, white – did not have meaning before this date, just that they became even more important during this time. Other countries also had their own color associations and “rules,” too, for instance, the buff and blue of the United States, versus the red and white of England. It’s always a good idea to brush up on “What Not To Wear, 18th Century,” before wearing, say, a red gown to, say, Colonial Williamsburg, 1780.
|That is a Royalist suit if I ever there was one – French, 1790, The Met.|
So next time you’re perusing the many catalogs of 18th century French dress, musing about your next project, think about how color factored in, what it meant in a political and social context. It is a great way to develop a character to go with your outfit, or at the very least, can spark some interesting conversation.
If you want to read more about this subject, I highly recommend Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution . Also visit, just for fun, Dames a la Mode, and have a look through the late 1780s-early 1790s fashion plates, and decide which are Revolutionary fashions, and which are Royalist.