Friday, January 20, 2012

Dress to Kill


Our quote of the week comes from R.R. Palmer's classic study of the Reign of Terror, Twelve Who Ruled, and concerns the 20 special commissioners whom members of the Committee of Public Safety appointed to oversee the political reconstruction (and destruction) of Lyons, after that city rebelled against the Republic:

"The commissioners were apparently in need of clothing, and their wants were not modest. For each one, out of the public funds, were ordered, to be exact: a blue coat with red collar, blue trousers with leather between the legs, breeches of deerskin, an overcoat and leather suitcase, a cocked hat with tricolor plume, a black shoulder-belt, various medals, six shirts, twelve pocket handkerchiefs, muslin for six ordinary cravats, black taffeta for two dress cravats, a tricolored belt, six cotton nightcaps, six pairs of stockings, two pairs of shoes, kid gloves a l'espagnole, boots a l'americaine, bronzed spurs, saddle pistols and a hussar's saber." (Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton UP, 1941/2005), 167.)

Palmer includes these details to make a more entertaining narrative. Modern historians, following the lead of Linda Colley, might pause to consider the social significance of these ad hoc commissioners' wardrobes. The colored coat and trousers, cocked hat, and handkerchiefs were marks of a gentleman (or at least of someone rich enough to afford clothing of high-quality fabric); the spurs, boots, pistols and saber denoted a member of the nobility, or at least one qualified to ride and bear arms; the tricolored belts and plumes symbolized the republic; and the deerskin breeches were fashionable at the time and probably came from North America. The Committee on Public Safety, which dispatched this special commission to Lyons, may have wanted them to appear as modest sans-culottes adorned in virtuous homespun, but the commissioners themselves had other ideas: they wanted to be armed noblemen, ready to ride down their government's enemies. Which indeed they did: the commissioners at Lyons went on to execute over 2,000 people in France's second city. Maybe the "blue trousers with leather between the legs" were chafing them a bit too much.

(The awesome anime painting of Louis Antoine Saint-Just is courtesy of Ysa, from Deviant Art, and is used with permission of the artist. The original image may be found here. Copyright (c) 2008-12 by Ysa.)

1 comment:

Sean said...

The trousers reinforced with leather are riding trousers, for certain. This mode of construction was part of the uniform for hussars.