The fashion influencers of the French Revolution
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The fashion influencers of the French Revolution
In an undated image provided by Carrie Glasse/Barnard College, a fashion plate from the Journal des Dames et des Modes, a pre-Vogue, pre-Harper’s Bazaar magazine that launched in Paris in 1797, amid the French Revolution, shows a turban of Turkish fabric. Anne Higonnet’s “Liberty Equality Fashion” explores radical shifts in fashion that embodied the ideas of the French Revolution and the women who led the charge. (Carrie Glasse/Barnard College via The New York Times)

by Dina Gachman

NEW YORK, NY.- Most days, Anne Higonnet is able to keep her cool. She’s a distinguished professor of art history at Barnard College and Columbia University. Her research has been supported by the Guggenheim and Harvard Radcliffe Institute fellowships. She chooses her words, her tone and her clothing carefully. One day in 2017, though, as Higonnet was quietly working at the Morgan Library & Museum, decorum flew out the windows. She did something slightly unscholarly: She yelped.

“I began to hop up and down, which is a little bit rude,” Higonnet said. “Everyone is polite and quiet in these reading rooms, but inside, all researchers have that loud moment when you’re just so excited. I went to the librarians and said, ‘I’m so sorry I made so much noise, but you have something you don’t even know that you have.’”

That something was an extremely rare and complete set of fashion plates from the Journal des Dames et des Modes, a pre-Vogue, pre-Harper’s Bazaar magazine that launched in Paris in 1797, amid the French Revolution.

The publication documented a brief but crucial period in which clothing, especially women’s clothing, became an unprecedented force of cultural and social change. Corsets, heavy wigs and other restrictive sartorial norms were tossed off to make way for flowing, transparent dresses, handbags as statement pieces and toucan feathers sewn into white crepe dresses — a look that Joséphine Bonaparte, future empress of France, wore to a ball.

The discovery of the plates shed light on the role of fashion in the French Revolution, and on the contributions of the three audacious women who led the charge — a story that Higonnet tells in her new book, “Liberty Equality Fashion: The Women Who Styled the French Revolution.”

Higonnet’s three muses are Bonaparte, Térézia Tallien and Juliette Récamier. These close friends broke rules, cut their hair short and chose simple muslin dresses cinched with madras scarfs instead of the frills and poufs that defined Marie Antoinette’s rococo taste.

“History handed me three incredible style leaders who had such amazing personal stories,” Higonnet said of Bonaparte, Tallien and Récamier. “At that point, it became about wanting to tell the true story of revolutionary fashion but also wanting everyone to know that the fastest change in clothing history ever had been led by women.”

Years earlier, Higonnet had pushed back against the idea of going into academia and spending long hours hunched over books. Her father, Patrice, is a French historian who told his young daughter tales of the French Revolution as bedtime stories. Higonnet loved learning about her heritage, but she didn’t view it as a calling.

“Like all kids, there’s a moment when you really react against your parents,” Higonnet said. “I thought, there is no way I’m going to become an academic.”

Instead, she decided to learn a trade. She loved seeing “accurate and evocative” period clothing in movies and theater productions, so she studied and practiced theatrical costume-making during her undergraduate years at Harvard University, only to find that she couldn’t land a job. Higonnet applied to some art history doctoral programs “as a backup,” and wound up at Yale University. She was offered a teaching job during her first semester. Ten minutes into her first discussion section, she realized how much she loved it. “I guess the fates were pushing me that way,” she said.

While she was writing “Liberty Equality Fashion,” Higonnet came up with the idea to teach a class called “Clothing” and treat the study of fashion as a legitimate academic arm of art history. She thought she would need a room for about 25 students. Then pandemic lockdowns happened, and “all pedagogical bets were off.” In the first semester, taught over video, there were about 130 students.

Now, the class that Higonnet thought of as an “insane experiment” is one of the most popular classes at Columbia and Barnard. Her lessons are never dull, and, at times, they are a little funny. In one lecture, she compared 16th-century codpieces to a modern codpiece created by designer Thom Browne for his spring of 2020 collection. Later, she pointed out an illustration of a man wearing one of the fashions of his day. “Are these not the shortiest little fancy pants?” Higonnet asked her students. Her glee over fancy pants and codpieces, her yelps over fashion plates in a research library, point to a deep love of the history of clothing, and the stories behind the styles.

Higonnet said she spent “thousands of hours” engaged in research for her book, which, at times, reads like a juicy (but accurate) historical novel about three friends living during the Reign of Terror — a time of mass executions, bloodshed and imprisonment — who viewed clothing as an expression of autonomy, democracy and fierce rebellion.

“All three women had nothing left to lose after the Terror,” Higonnet wrote. “Desperation opened their minds. They would not be defeated. They would do more than survive. They would make the most of what history had dealt them.”

Each woman faced powerful hurdles to thriving, even surviving, Higonnet said: Tallien (a beautiful and sexually liberated “It Girl” of the French Revolution) had been imprisoned and sentenced to death; Récamier was forced into a sham marriage; and Bonaparte had also been imprisoned and ridiculed by society.

Those tumultuous years were also “a time for the inconceivable alternatives,” Higonnet said. “It was this moment where people were willing to really change how they lived, and I find that so heartening about humanity. These three women overcame so much to be so creative. They gave every other woman a chance to be free.”

Higonnet wanted the fashion plates at the Morgan to be widely accessible, so she enlisted a few graduate students to help her digitize them and put them online. Her former doctoral student Barthélemy Glama, who is now adviser to the president of the Louvre, worked on that project. He observed Higonnet’s research and writing process, during which she “excavated thousands of archival files” at museums and research libraries in New York, Paris and Kyoto, Japan.

At the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, Siddhartha V. Shah, another former doctoral student who was then the museum’s curator of South Asian art, showed Higonnet Bengali muslin and Kashmiri shawls that influenced the styles of her three muses in the 18th century. When describing these materials in the book, Higonnet writes, “It took two-man teams eighteen months to make an average shawl, three years to make a superlative one. The finest could be pulled through a finger ring.”

The brief window that allowed Bonaparte, Récamier and Tallien so much agency when it came to style ended abruptly in 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France. In so doing, he brought back pre-revolutionary laws and established a code in which wives could not own property or buy anything without a husband’s permission.

In a chapter called “Order in the Wardrobe,” Higonnet writes that Napoleon jailed a milliner who made a bonnet for Joséphine Bonaparte because he didn’t agree with her price. (She had the milliner set free.) He also stained one of his wife’s gowns with ink because he wanted her to wear something more to his liking.

For his coronation, the costume he forced Joséphine Bonaparte to wear — a heavy skirt “weighted with emphatically French gold-metal-thread embroidery and a dense red velvet train” — was a powerful symbol of the end of an era. A light muslin dress was out of the question. To top off her royal look, as dictated by her husband, Higonnet writes that “a bulbous tiara fenced in her head.”

Despite these changes, the three women held onto their independence in whatever ways they could, and Higonnet likens their contributions to breaking style boundaries to what is done by people such as Harry Styles today, or fashion influencers who can turn a look into a trend with a click.

Glama, Higonnet’s former student, said that hearing her frame the three women in her book this way helps current students contextualize the impact they had during a time when women’s bodies, actions and styles were controlled and scrutinized by those in power. “You realize that the role they played is actually a very political and cultural one,” Glama said, “and one that is powerful and meaningful.”

The stories of the book’s three muses are fascinating, and, for Higonnet, the revolution in clothing ushered in by these women might shed light on ways we can tackle issues impacting the world today — issues related to sustainability, fair trade, cultural appropriation and gender identity.

“I think one of the reasons I’m really fascinated by clothing is that I sort of look sideways at the fashion industry,” Higonnet said. “I’m fascinated by it, but I’m not always living inside the fashion industry’s rules, so I’m particularly impressed by its power. Academics love to be that way. On the edge of institutions, looking in.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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