Subject: sans-culotte 'without knee-breeches' revolutionary partisan
Setting: French Revolution, France 1790s-1810s
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
"'We are the sans-culottes… poor and virtuous, we have formed a society of artisans and peasants. we know who our friends are: those who freed us from the clergy and from the nobility, from feudalism, from tithes, from royalty and from all the plagues that follow in its wake.'
On 8 September 1793 the sans-culottes society of Beaucaire, a militant group that rose to prominence during the most violent years of the French revolution, gave this rallying cry. But it wasn’t through words and actions alone that they stamped their mark on history. What they wore also made a powerful statement.
"The name sans-culottes translates to 'without breeches', referring to the more casual trousers worn by the working classes. The sans-culottes expressed their new freedoms through their clothing, transforming dress which had been a mark of poverty into a badge of honour. They proclaimed to the world that their clothing, once a sign of oppression, was now a sign of freedom. The people had found a voice and suddenly the ordinary, the 'artisans and peasants', became extraordinary.
"What the sans-culottes claimed to have stood for and the reality of their actions are two different things. But they do provide a fascinating look at a group who used clothing to celebrate the freedoms brought about by the French revolution, a conflict lasting from approximately 1789 to 1799. It is difficult to describe the social makeup of the sans-culottes, a radical and often violent faction whose most active years were between 1792 and 1794. Ostensibly the faction was filled with members of the labouring and lower middle classes - small shopkeepers, artisans, craftsmen, and those who did heavy manual labour, though their ranks were later swelled by sympathetic small landowners. They idealised a simple existence where all citizens were equal. But the defining feature of the sans-culottes was not the participating social classes or ideology, but their dress."
"As it had been in the centuries before the French revolution, dress was a potent visual indicator of social status in the late eighteenth century.
"Fabric was extremely expensive, and an elegance of appearance was associated with an elegance of character. Being well dressed was a significant investment, both financially and socially. Fashionable dress for men was a three-piece suit consisting of a coat, waistcoat, and breeches. A man’s status was shown through both the fineness of fabric and trims as well as the tailoring. This was before the age of fast fashion. Everything was handmade to order. A suit would be sewn to the exact measurements of the customer, ensuring a perfect fit. The ability to afford such tailoring was a show of wealth as well as lifestyle. Well-fitting clothing was restrictive, thus a man in a perfectly tailored suit was a man of leisure.
"The dress of the working class was different to that of the nobility and bourgeoisie - clothing was looser, allowing for the movement required of manual labour. The basic components of coat and waistcoat remained, but the tight breeches were replaced by loose fitting trousers (le pantalon) to allow for more freedom of movement. It is from this significant difference that the sans[-]culottes took their name. In addition, the typical uniform of the sans-culottes included a short jacket (le carmagnole), wooden shoes, (les sabots), and a red cap of liberty (le bonnet rouge).
"The dress of the sans-culottes was not new or different, it was the same style of dress which had been worn by the working-class for years, but the context had changed. As author and fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell said: 'Their working-class trousers served as shorthand for their radical pride in their humble origins and egalitarian values. In many ways, it was comparable to young people proudly wearing torn, distressed, or sagging pants today: a deliberate and highly visible rejection of authority and polite society in general.'
"Ironically, the anti-fashion statement of the sans-culottes became a fashion in itself. Some members of the bourgeoisie and the elite adopted the sans-culottes uniform as a way of showing sympathy with the revolutionary cause. Philippe Halbert, a Yale University history of art doctoral student, said: “There was something ‘fashionable’ about the sans-culottes even as they eschewed aristocratic sartorial conventions.” Dressing in the sans-culottes style became a way to express visually loyalty to the revolution, an increasingly important statement during the violence of the reign of terror, when loyalties were constantly questioned and even wearing the wrong colour could lead to imprisonment or execution."
* Fashion 2018 p638
"Phrygian cap, Bonnet phrygien, Bonnet rouge Ancient Greek soft cap or bonnet of felt or leather with a high crown, forward curving peak, and chin strap, adopted by the French Revolutionaries as an emblem of liberty."
* Fashion 2018 p639
"Sans-culottes Name given to the French Revolutionaries or Jacobins to distinguish them from the aristocrats. The term referred to the fact that these men wore trousers rather than the knee-breeches (culottes) of the nobility."