We’ve met the Parisian Romantics, their love for macaroni and their underground posturing – see now what they wore and why.
From an individualistic, late capitalist society, it is easy to say that fashion is simply a way of self-expression – or to criticise and dismiss it as a sign of consumerism. Fashion is not usually taught in history classes – how silly and frivolous! – and yet it speaks volumes about society. Costumes mark and shape our bodies; they tie us to our communities and differentiate us from it. Of course, its supposed superficiality and unworthiness as a topic of serious academic study is profoundly linked to its inherent ~femininity – that’s a rant for another day.
Clothing “works to imbue the body with significance, adding layers of cultural meanings, which, because they are so close to the body, are mistaken as natural” (Joanne Entwistle, 2000)
Fashion, then, is a key aspect of the ‘set of effects’ that make up gender – I will write about Judith Butler and Teresa de Lauretis at some point. Women and men have certainly used fashion to signify gender, class, and all kinds of cultural allegiances, and the Romantic period was no exception.
As Romanticism took hold of Paris in the 1830s, artists and culturally-inclined people felt the need to embrace their true nature and to renounce artifice. In the theatre and the ballet, costume designers strived for authenticity, paying attention to the stories’ settings, but they also looked to the trends offstage. The idea that our appearance reveals our character developed in the modern city, with growing bustle and industry. The rush of the anonymous crowd resulted in a concern with decoding others in order to get to the ‘truth’ of them – after all, they might be disguised! Think of all those sensational, double-identity novels! This “true to oneself” fashion, however, still exaggerated people’s silhouettes.
For that decade’s fashion, think contrasts: big, ballooning heads, padded shoulders and chests; tiny, laced waists; wider, also padded, hips; narrow ankles and shoes. Clothes were made to fit better with the development of waist and under-arm seams; coats became longer and sometimes had rich, shawl-like collars. Men’s trousers substituted breeches, which in the 1820s were not even required for formal events, and they were high-waisted and supported by braces. Women’s waist descended to its natural level and eventually became pointed downwards, while skirts were gathered at the back and around the sides, falling in soft draping folds. Patterns occuppied the whole outfit, rather than having extra decorations – they were fussy enough and kind of… terrible. Authors and celebrities of Romanticism often came from higher or middle classes, or at least actively gave thought to fashion as cultural icons; working-class fashions are not included in the sources I’ve consulted so far.
Fashion was everywhere in Paris; press publications became cheaper and increasingly popular, and consequently so did fashion magazines. I will do a series on fashion press at some point; for now, let me point to the Journal des Dames et des Modes (1820-1839) as an example. Technological developments such as lithographies and, later, photography, made the distribution of fashion plates much easier. Paper dress-up dolls were common, and sometimes they came in the shape of celebrities – marketing strategies haven’t changed at all. The link between costume and class is especially obvious in the case of the grisettes – urban working class young women were referred to by the colour they wore.
Parisian Romantics were an easy target for satire, wearing colourful outfits inspired by the Middle Ages, often literally theatrical costumes. The turn to the medieval was not the result of whimsy or a conservative stand, but rather a radical political statement. It underscored their participation in – or appropriation of – popular, modern forms like the Gothic. Victor Hugo’s 1831 Notre Dame de Paris is the most famous example of this appreciation. Women did participate in Romanticism and in these trends, but, of course, women’s fashion has been more closely regulated throughout western history, either by convention or by law – I haven’t been able to find examples as outlandish as men’s.
Parisian Romantics, then, were actively interested in representing themselves through their clothes as well as through their art; for all their musing about the spirit, they articulated their discourse through materiality. Like contemporary urban youth subcultures, they differentiated themselves from mainstream society through style at the same time that they resembled one another, building a sense of community.
Should I learn more about the Romantic fashion? Yes! Most of our 21st century approach to fashion and consumerism comes from the Romantics’ obsession with statements and modernity. Stay tuned for the final part of this series and future posts on fashion history and costume design.
I dig the vibe. I’m glad! You can learn more at:
- Entwistle, Joanne: The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress, and Modern Social Theory.
- Wilson, Elizabeth: Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity.
- This short introduction to 19th century fashion from the Victoria & Albert Museum.
What should I accompany this with? Some cassis and a game of dominoes with your grisette friends, followed by a dramatic reading of extremely detailed outfit descriptions.