The exceptional scale of the events triggered by the storming of the Bastille, conventionally designated as the beginning of the French Revolution, is usually weighed only from a political and social perspective.
However, back then, the very first indicator of any hierarchical distinction was the outward appearance made through the choice of clothing, itself imposed by the Ancient Regime. The revolutionaries soon understood that the repeal of any form of social discrimination had also to pass through the abrogation of the strict clothing code every person had to comply with.
The pre-revolutionary French society, and in particular the social classes that held the power, were fully aware of the significance of the appearance and of the symbolic import hidden behind garments and accessories: the clergy representatives had to wear proper clothes according to their position in the clerical hierarchy and the aristocracy had to show its pre-eminence compared with the Third State, this latter confined to a narrow set of simple garments. But the power of symbology was soon learned by the revolutionaries as well, who primarily chose the colours white, red and blu for the new-born Republic’s flag, and later exploited the message behind this juxtaposition also for the army’s uniform and for the ribbons to be applied on the clothes. The French tricolour soon became the graphical representation of the key values that guided the Revolution.
The principle of equality can be defined in contradiction with the luxury dictates of the Ancient Regime; the homogenization process can be equally observed in both men and women’s apparel: the dropout of any lavish accessory and the choice of humbler textiles were the inspiration guidelines for the creation of the sans-culotte uniform, representative of the modest clothes of the poorest; as far as the female appearing is concerned, the most remarkable changes regard the hair, worn without the hat, in some instances even cut à la Titus, like men.
The quest for equality was pushed even farer during the Reign of Terror, when Jacques-Louis David, perhaps the Revolution’s most representative artist, was asked to design appropriate uniforms for the egalitarian society; these clothes were not supposed to be occasional, but daily outfits that people could wear within their ordinary activities. Nonetheless, this attempt crashed soon into reality: not even an artist such as David, inspired by deep-seated republican beliefs, could find any concrete inspiration for the creation of symbolic uniforms that could also fit into daily life.
In addition, the egalitarianism in its extreme version risked to constitute a limit to the freedom of clothing, officially established by the Republic on October 29th, 1793.
The principle of freedom could be detected either in the use of symbolic elements, such as the Phrygian cap of freed slaves, or in the denial of any conventional clothing rule; for instance, even the Revolution’s leading figures showed in public occasions very different personal styles, either with a deeper attention for details, like Robespierre and Danton, or with humbler suits, like Marat.
As a matter of facts, no trend could be abstracted from the mechanisms of fashion, as testified by the specialist magazines of the time, that even got to describe the ideal outfit of the revolutionaries, on the one hand, compared to that of the anti-revolutionaries, on the other.
Despite the extraordinary egalitarian impetus, the new people of power, to whom the French Revolution had granted the maximum prestige, did not take inspiration from the peasants for their personal care, they did not dress up in fabric; they rather desired silk garments and accessories that could properly express their belonging to the renewed ruling class of bourgeois extraction.