Impact of Sartorial Culture on Female Politics during the French Revolution

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Marina Nye, Albright College
The French Revolution saw radical social change, including a transformation of sartorial culture. The Revolution invigorated a focus on neoclassicalism, sequentially creating a societal cult of antiquity, simplicity and the natural form. This new perspective made stays, the essential garment of the eighteenth century, obsolescent and cleared the way for the appearance of the corset. By surveying the ideal female form this poster seeks to explain how the introduction of the corset impacted and reinforced women’s role in the private sphere.

Revolutionary interpretations of Ancient Greek ideals translated into discussion over fashion and the female form, as a reaction to conservative monarchical ideologies. French bourgeoisie women rejected the notions of the pre-revolutionary era by adapting a Grecian empirical shape to mainstream fashion that was an antithesis to the silhouette of the antecedent Versaille-dominated era. Stays became inessential in the creation of the empire silhouette, and were even viewed negatively due to their relationship with the old regime. Many French women refused to wear stays because they represented the monarchy. Stays, therefore, became a physical embodiment of the old regime.

The contempt for Marie Antoinette as symbol of perverted sexuality was but a facet of revolutionary discussions that, rather than allowing women into the public sphere, recast them in the home as emblems of superior morality and virtue. Rather than granting women civil liberties, the revolution proceeded to strengthen patriarchal control while lessening female autonomous identity. Constrictions of patriarchy would only continue to tighten into the the Napoleonic era.

Consequently, instead of a simple fashion trend, revolutionary clothing become a mandatory facet of the period’s political discourse. Clothing was a means for revolutionary women to express political opinion without the liberty of having a political voice. Yet the effort was counterproductive, and female participation in fashion became an excuse for men to bar women from entering the political realm. Any aspect of cultural influence that was under the purview of female control, like sartorial culture, was automatically disassociated from politics. The inextricably of fashion and perceptions of women’s role made any sartorial politics innately apolitical. The corset helped define women’s role at the dawn of the Romantic era. Corsets became a principle justification to disregarded women as foolish and irrational post-revolution while categorizing men as emblems of rational thought for promoting the natural form.

The introduction of corsets in the early 19th century only cemented patriarchal perspectives on women’s apolitical nature due their focus on frivolous accoutrement. The popularization of the corset was a continuation of the domestic and the apolitical role of women. Corsets became the antipode of natural beauty yet the epitome of moral superiority. The new disposition on identity categorized women’s roles as mothers, and became essential to the transformation of the new nation. It is no coincidence the popularization of corsets entered societal practice in a time where domestic values were on the rise. The corset solidified new conditions of womanhood, and would continue to stiffen the separation of public and private spheres in the 19th century.

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