Dressed for the Gods: Women, Modernity, and Neoclassical Fashion in Post-Revolutionary France – Mackenzie Aker

MAY 24, 2021

In art and in life, the past is consistently revived to speak to concerns of the present. In the late 1700s, interest in the Classical era was stimulated by significant archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, placing the art and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean at the forefront of European cultural discourses. [1] These discoveries led to a movement of both male and female makers who drew inspiration from art, literature, and utopian ideas surrounding antique cultures and incorporated them into their contemporary practices. [2] This text is concerned with the resurgence of ancient Greek aesthetics in French fashion in the decades following the Revolution (1789-1799). During this moment of fluctuating identities and social roles, neoclassical dress became a significant site for the reiteration and subversion of gendered power structures through aesthetic signs. Considering the concept of the ‘long nineteenth century,’ the (relatively short) period between 1790 and 1810 which marks the Neoclassical era, lay the cultural groundwork for what would become European modernity [3]. It is during these critical years that neoclassical clothing came to dominate French womenswear.

The codified dress styles of neoclassicism were deeply gendered, and their significations were applied strategically. While neoclassical clothing was principally consumed by elite women, it still marked a significant aesthetic and ideological shift, in which wearers sought to visually align themselves with the projects of Enlightenment, globalization, and assertion of individualized subjectivities. When employed by women, neoclassical dress and its representations in art and visual culture created opportunities for female agency through increased comfort, mobility, and self-representation. Ultimately, it also worked to elevate feminized discourses of fashion into the realm of high art.

During this period of political uncertainty and shifting identities, ancient Greece became the central reference for aesthetic beauty and ‘goodness’ in nature. [4] The element of nature was evoked in French neoclassical dress through the emphasis on comfort and the female body’s liberation from the corsets and weighty Rococo fabrics of the prior era. [5] Neo-Grecian fashions were commended for granting the female body freedom to expand and become healthy as “nature intended” — for pregnant bellies to grow, domestic work to be done (shopping, chasing children, active housework), and especially to breastfeed. [6] While Rococo fashion became deeply associated with the oppression and excess of the ancien régime, the aesthetic concept of neoclassical dress became associated with revolutionary ideas as women’s health and maternal roles were considered vital to the nation’s regeneration. [7] Despite the patriarchal tone of this rhetoric, neoclassical fashion did afford women greater mobility and agency in urban spaces— allowing for more freedom to participate in culture and society at large. Flat shoes, such as the ancient Greek cothurne (Fig. 1) allowed women to move outdoors with comfort, walk through the city, and generally remain outside of the home longer and with fewer inhibitions. The style’s lightweight muslins and gauzes also demanded less time and assistance when preparing to leave the home, which again allowed for increased physical mobility, time, and independence.

Despite these practical benefits, when employed with a nationalist, publicized agenda, neoclassical aesthetics assumed different theoretical properties. For instance, the Toilette des Dames ou Encyclopédie de la Beauté (a volume of medicalized reflections on female beauty) published articles in the early 1800s delineating how one’s choice of fabric should reflect one’s sex [8]. Light, draped, classical fabrics (like muslin) were appropriate for women, in opposition to heavy, woolen, more ‘masculine’ fabrics. [9] In 1789, the journal l’Arlequin wrote on the topic of sheer shawls that they should “veil forms, not hide them […], the great art is to reveal the nude under the drapery”. [10] In a more political tone, the Journal des Dames et la Mode wrote “our beauties always preserve their taste for nudity. Truth is nude. Must we make it a crime to approach truth as closely as possible?” [11] Publicized discourse surrounding classicism in fashion were thus widely associated with both the aesthetic ideal of the Greek female nude, as well as oppressive ideological principles about power, democracy, and gender performativity. The consistent narrative between these publications is that, in order for women to participate in the projects of classicism, they should be the aesthetic subject/object— not active participants.

Beyond the aesthetic principles of neoclassical fashion, its representational value in the canon of art history cannot be understated. Classical art employs a system of representation in which images of women are used as signifiers to denote particular virtues. This representational system harkens back to classical Greek literature and the use of deities to serve symbolic or representational functions. For instance, deities are used to represent geographical or political regions. In the post-Revolution era, French nationalists strategically implemented classical symbolism within artistic works to align their own projects with ancient systems of power, success, and male genius. Classical personifications and depictions of the female body were appropriated to visually and culturally connect the two eras. However, such symbolism did not reflect a desire to include women in the projects of modernity. On the contrary, it represented a strategically male-oriented program, as women of the time were systematically excluded from it. Women were still heavily restricted from the art academies, participating in government, and while there was a rich feminist egalitarian movement in many urban circles prior to the Revolution, they were consistently suppressed by governing bodies. [12] Yet, personifications such as Marianne (the national personification of the French Republic), Liberté (liberty), Industrie (industry), and Vérité (truth) consistently emerge in French nationalist art of the era; they employed not just classical aesthetics, but classical modes of representation to place the Revolution’s projects within an ancient lineage of naturalism and masculine intellectualism [13]. This system uses images of women as aesthetic and symbolic objects rather than individuals living in their time.

Alongside these pervasive historical practices, however, there is also a history of affluent women electing to be represented as a classical personification in their own portraits [14]. This women-led practice uses the existing system of representation as a tactic to subvert the power dynamic implicit in works featuring female personifications [15]. In these portraits of women (and often painted by women), the identity of the sitter is not the virtue itself. Alternatively, the sitter claims the virtue and aligns it with their identity. Significantly, they no longer stand in the virtue’s place to symbolically communicate the nationalist ideals that exclude them.

As the discourse surrounding fashion shifted from an expression of Rococo aristocratic luxury to an expression of the individualized self, use of neoclassical clothing in portraits of elite women also enabled women to assert a sense of self, which engaged with popular culture and contemporary ideas after the Revolution. [16] When reclaimed by French women of the neoclassical period, the aesthetic signified “noble simplicity,” timelessness, and universal significance. [17] When a female painter applied such representational techniques, both the painter and the sitter actively placed themselves within the constructed lineage of historical genius.

In French painter Marie-Denise Villers’ Portrait of a Young Girl Drawing (1801), the subject of the painting is thought to be Villers’ peer Charlotte du Val d’Ognes in the personified guise of Perspective (Fig. 3). [18] The virtue of perspective is communicated through the oppositions in the painting which prevent it being fixed in a single historical moment: the subject’s classical clothing with her modern Parisian hairstyle and her classical pose in an identifiably modern room. The aesthetic references to classical and neoclassical academic traditions (which remove a female subject’s identity) provide the representational model for this painting; the subject gazes back at the viewer directly, refuting her anonymity. The broken window pane behind her also likely speaks to themes of gaze and power, as well as questioning the perceived ‘naturalness’ of neo-Greek pictorial representation. [19] Villers’ portrait challenges the viewer to consider their own perspective and what perspectives might be offered through the inclusion of women in academic and political spaces.

Artworks by women featuring neoclassical clothing also operate to elevate fashion to the status of high art in an academic system which privileged historical, portrait, and genre painting. [20]. Women, as both the producers and consumers of fashion, had many hands in the production and dissemination of neoclassical clothing— showcasing their own inventiveness and genius. [21] In response to their exclusion from and restriction within the academy, female artists found opportunities for agency and empowerment in the feminized discipline of fashion design. [22] The French gender historian, E. Claire Cage, writes “[…] fashion was an innate aspect of femininity, rhetorical moves to associate taste with fashion thereby made it an expression of an inherent aspect of womanhood. A sense of taste was thought to be linked to the essential quality of the self, thus women used their interiorized taste to reflect their individualism.” [23] While the discipline of fashion was largely constructed to be less serious than ‘high art,’ women counteracted this by using fashion as a vehicle for expressing their own subjectivities after the Revolution. [24]

Neoclassical styles essentially paired a sense of rapid change (the essence of fashion) with the lasting cultural legacy of antiquity. [25] As trends and styles change quickly in fashion culture, the aesthetics of antiquity are considered timeless. For instance, Villers’ painting Une Étude d’une Femme d’Après Nature (1802), featuring a female subject, subverts traditional academic representation by placing a process of fashion design within an aesthetic model rooted in classicism and academic training. The title is suggestive of nude studies (“après nature”) conducted in the academies from which women were barred. The title also suggests that this image of a woman alone, outdoors, wearing flat shoes and loose comfortable clothing, should be viewed as natural. This counteracts the male-dominated art historical ideal of the natural female as nude. Additionally, the black neoclassical dress and veil subvert the normative Greek/classical fashions which were white, like (frequently nude) marble statues. [26] The composition of the painting mirrors that of the famous Hermes sculpture as he adjusts his sandal, highlighting Villers’ classical education through explicit reference and subversion (Fig. 5). Her subject’s attire places her in a contemporary moment, within an ancient lineage of excellence: while the dress of the subject is neoclassical in style, the padding in the rear points to the fact that the dress is a work of contemporary fashion— not of classical drapery. [27] The gloves beside her foot are treated as expressionistic commodities, holding the shape of her hand and long fingernails, signalling her taste through aesthetic choice. [28] The black lace of the veil is referential to delicate silk laces produced in Lille during the early 1800s. Villers drew inspiration from French fashion plates and publications of the era in the construction of her subject’s clothing, which pinned her subject identifiably in France rather than ambiguously in the ancient past. [29] With these depictions, Villers mirrors the process of affluent women choosing fabrics and selecting styles at a seamstress’ studio— acting as both curator and influencer and creating fashion for individualized bodies and tastes. [30] Villers references classical composition and historicism through the construction of her image, while calling attention to the process of contemporary costume creation and the agency said process entails. She effectively places fashion design within the standard of academic painting while also placing it within an established cultural lineage of classical veneration. As with Villers, representing neoclassical fashion in artworks became a site of cultural agency for women after the Revolution. In The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire stated that this practice finds beauty in rapidly modernizing female subjectivities and occupations through finding the eternal in the ephemeral, and by placing the ephemeral within a cultural lineage of permanence. [31] In the resurgence of classical aesthetics in post-Revolutionary France, neoclassical clothing became a significant site of performative agency and independence for French women, especially artists. Despite the dominant patriarchal structures and rhetoric in post-Revolution decades, the women of this era harnessed the sociopolitical weight of the classical era to participate in European modernity— using clothing to represent their subjectivities and exert agency over their representation in art and visual culture. Additionally, neoclassical art became an important moment for the elevation of fashion in France, raising it as a serious art form and opportunity for women to assert their power as individuals and arbiters of taste.



Abray, Jane. “Feminism and the French Revolution.” The American Historical Review 80, no. 1 (February 1975): 43-62.

Beaudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life.” In Art In Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 493-506. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 

Cage, E. Claire. “The Sartorial Self: Neoclassical Fashion and Gender Identity in France 1797-1804.” Eighteenth Century Studies 42, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 193-215.

Cailleux, Jean. “Aspects of Neo-Classicism in France.” The Burlington Magazine 115, no. 840 (March 1973): i-xii.

Deferrière, Alexandre. L’Arlequin, ou Tableau des modes et des goûts, 1798-1799. Quoted in E. Claire Cage: “The Sartorial Self: Neoclassical Fashion and Gender Identity in France 1797-1804.” Eighteenth Century Studies 42, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 193-215.

Dymond, Anne. “Embodying the Nation: Art, Fashion, and Allegorical Women at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.” RACAR: Revue d’Art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review 36, no. 2 (2011): 1-14.

Journal des dames et des modes (September 1798). Quoted in E. Claire Cage: “The Sartorial Self: Neoclassical Fashion and Gender Identity in France 1797-1804.” Eighteenth Century Studies 42, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 193-215.

Siegfried, Susan L. “The Visual Culture of Fashion and the Classical Ideal in Post-Revolutionary France.” The Art Bulletin 97, no. 1 (March 2015): 77-99.

[1] Jean Cailleux, “Aspects of Neo-Classicism in France,” The Burlington Magazine 115, no. 840 (1973): ii.

[2] Ibid, iv.

[3] Ibid.

[4] E. Claire Cage, “The Sartorial Self: Neoclassical Fashion and Gender Identity in France 1797-1804,” Eighteenth Century Studies 42, no. 2 (2009): 196

[5] Ibid, 198.

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Cage, 198.

[8] Ibid, 200.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Alexandre Deferrière, L’Arlequin, ou Tableau des modes et des goûts, 1798-99, 42, quoted in Cage, 200.

[11] Journal des dames et des modes (September 1798), quoted in Cage, 200.

[12] Jane Abray, “Feminism and the French Revolution,” The American Historical Review 80, no. 1 (1975): 44-46.

[13] Anne Dymond, “Embodying the Nation: Art, Fashion, and Allegorical Women at the 1900 Exposition Universelle,” RACAR: Revue d’Art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review 36, no. 2 (2011): 4-6.

[14] Cailleux, x.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Cage, 204

[17] Cage, 205.

[18] Susan L. Siegfried, “The Visual Culture of Fashion and the Classical Ideal in Post-Revolutionary France,” The Art Bulletin 97, no. 1 (2015): 80.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Siegfried, 77.

[21] Cage, 206.

[22] Siegfried, 84.

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