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.
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.
Man’s Tailcoat (c. 1790) [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).
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.
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.
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/