Bastille Dayby 159
The sight of les tricoteuse, the women who sat impassively judging, recording and knitting without pause as the tumbrels and the heads rolled by, must have been one of the most chilling scenes of the French Revolution. In his novel A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens went a step further. His unforgettable character, Madame Defarge, created a knitted register of those who would soon be sent to ‘the national razor’. Once entered into her coded textile your fate was sealed. Those who wanted to escape the revolutionary zeal of les tricoteuse and the guillotine would have been wise to display the sartorial symbols of a good patriotic citizen. The pre-revolutionary excesses of the Ancien Régime; the silks, satins and elaborate hairdressing were swiftly replaced by a dress code that echoed the plain clothing of the ‘sans-culottes’ (a derogatory term for the poorer members of the third estate who could not afford the fashionable knee-length culotte). The correct finishing touch to a citizen’s outfit was ‘the bonnet rouge’, a soft, red, conical hat also known as a Phrygian cap. Its origin as a symbol of liberty lies in the fact that it was worn by freed slaves in Roman times. In France in the 1790s it was often embellished with a tricolore cockade (a knot of ribbons) which merged the blue and-red of Paris with the white of the disposed Bourbon monarchy – a decorative touch that could put you head and shoulders above your less stylish comrades. Celebrate this year's Bastille Day on 14 July with Selvedge. This is an extract from Beth Smith's article in the Francais issue of Selvedge.
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