Men’s Fashion During and After the French Revolution (1790-1810)

Fashion Flashback: Given that fashion was instrumental in the creation of Canada, this blog series explores the development of what Canadians wore one era at a time.


Man’s Suit. (c. 1810). [Source]

To call the French Revolution a watershed event would not be an exaggeration. Lasting from 1789 until 1799, this period of tremendous upheaval forever transformed France and its effects stretched far beyond the French borders. In Canada (or rather British North America), changes could not only be felt politically and socially, but even in the fashion realm as well.

So how exactly did ten years of European turmoil affect clothing on the other side of the Atlantic? Let’s take a look at men’s fashion first.

Le peuple sans-culotte (The Sans-Culotte People) (c. 1792) [Source]

The French Revolution really brought about the old cliche “clothes make the man,” because fashion became a political statement. No matter how rich a guy was, he was dressing like a commoner; like a san-culottes. Part of this was to save his neck. Literally. The other part was that the spread of democratic ideals meant a shift away from aristocratic symbols, particularly clothes. Lace cuffs, knee breeches, ruffles, frills, frockcoats, lighter colors, high heels, big wigs, the flamboyant Macaroni style—all of this fell out of favor. In its place came the rise of darker clothes, ankle-length trousers, matching jackets, suits, and short, natural hair. If that sounds kinda like modern masculine wear that’s because it is. The French Revolution (in addition to the American Revolution) sparked that lasting change because they were the start of the slow process towards the democratization of Western society.


Would you believe me if I told you they are the same guy? These paintings of Marquis de Lafayette demonstrate the transformation of men’s fashion over a couple of decades. On the left is a portrait of Lafayette sometime before 1791 and on the right is one from 1825.

Fun Fact: This fashion shift also brought about the end of sumptuary laws. If a poor man or woman saved up enough money, they could finally buy nice clothing without the fear of being arrested.


Alexander MacKenzie
by Thomas Lawrence (c. 1800)

These new fashion trends swept through British North America quite easily. Why? Many members of the New France nobility had already fled back to France during the 1760s after the British conquest. As such, the men who filled the upper and middle ranks of British North American by the 1790s were essentially successful businessmen who took their fashion cues from Britain and France.

Portrait of Pierre Sériziat by Jacques-Louis David (1795).


Man’s Tailcoat (c. 1790-1795) [Source]

Great Britain played an important role in this fashion shift as well. British fashion for both men and women was typically more simple, especially in comparison to their French counterparts. The rise of the British Empire over the course of the 19th century meant the spread of their fashion sense. Their influence is especially notable with how fast darker clothing became popular. The rising middle class in Britain (due to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) preferred to wear darker hues and soon so did most others who fell into this socioeconomic range. British North America is the perfect example of all of this because with every passing year as more and more British immigrants came, the formerly French colony turned into an English one.


Probably George Vancouver
by Unknown Artist (c. 1796-1798) [Source]


Simon McTavish
by Unknown Artist (Before 1804).


Hon. Peter Russell [President and Admin of Upper Canada, 1796-99]
by George Theodore Berthon (c. 1882).

The long skirts of coats were cutaway in front, on the backside long tails remained. The top part of the coat did not change too much yet, however lapels did shrink a bit. Waistcoats (often double-breasted) with high collars were fashionable until around 1815. Wool and silk continued to be popular fabrics. Underneath shirts were still made of linen. Around their necks were either an attached collar or a cravat wrapped stylishly.


Portrait of J. B. Belley, Deputy for Saint-Domingue
by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1797).


Man’s frock coat of grey striped wool. (1790). [Source]

Perfect tailoring and the right cut replaced lace and embroidery as the way to distinguish quality and separated the wealthy from those who weren’t. Nevertheless, despite the anti-aristocratic trend when it came to formal dress men still preferred to wear coats with heavy embroidery. Flowers continued to be a very popular design for silk dress coats.


Coat. About 1795, 18th century. [Source]


Court Suit. 1774–93. [Source]

As for footwear, hessian boots were popular in the 1790s. With hats, although tricorne hats were still worn, the above Portrait of Pierre Sériziat shows how men’s hats were beginning to get taller and would eventually evolve into the top hat. Even provincial governors in Upper and Lower Canada traded in their wigs and feathered tricornes for tall beaver hats with plain bands. Last but not least, the changes in men’s fashion made its way into boy’s clothing. As such, sons looked like miniature versions of their fathers.


Mawdisty Best and His Brother outside Rochester Cathedral
by John Opie (c. 1800). [Source]


What do you think of the shift in men’s fashion post-French Revolution? Do you prefer what they wore before or do you consider these changes to be more than welcome? Thanks for reading!

Please Note: The female version of this post will be published on January 19th and not the 12th due to a certain someone’s 201st birthday on the 11th.


Sources

Palmer, Alexandra, Fashion: A Canadian Perspective. University of Toronto Press, 2004.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art Online Collection Database. Accessed from: http://collections.lacma.org/

McCord Museum Online Collection Database. Accessed from: http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/collections/

Ribeiro, Aileen, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750–1820, Yale University Press, 1995.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, World Clothing and Fashion: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Social Influence, Routledge, 2015.

Victoria & Albert Museum Online Collection Database. Accessed from: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/

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6 thoughts on “Men’s Fashion During and After the French Revolution (1790-1810)

    • cadeauca says:

      Haha, I too love how ridiculous fashion used to be…but then again, centuries from now people are probably going to say the same thing about our clothes!

      Like

    • Frakfayt says:

      Why ridiculous? No more than the flower-power style, or the conventional black suits/white shirt and tie you see among politicians, traders or some office peoples now. At least in this period, they were more creative, and blokes did not think they were effeminate because they would wear pale green, pink or light blue frocks and silk stockings.

      Like

  1. Matthew says:

    I’m glad the shift towards slimmer clothes happened because I can’t imagine walking around in super puffy clothes lol. Also Lafayette has to be the only guy who looks younger 35 years later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      Yeah that’s how I feel about the large dresses women used to hear. They’re beautiful and it would be fun to dress up in…but only as a costume. I’d grow tired of it after a few hours. They would be so cumbersome to wear day after day. Haha, I did a double take when I saw the second portrait. Would you believe he’s 68 in it?

      Like

  2. Regan Walker says:

    On women, I like the simpler attire. But I like the longer hair on men, tied back at their nape. There was a certain masculine elegance about it. And I liked the lace at the neck. Too, colors are a nice change from all that black when it comes to men’s clothing. On a masculine man, the contrast of lace and color was alluring. Thanks for the great post!!

    Like

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