Liberty Equality Fashion: The Women Who Styled the French Revolution by Anne Higonnet - review by Lucy Moore

Lucy Moore

Off with Their Petticoats

Liberty Equality Fashion: The Women Who Styled the French Revolution


W W Norton 304pp £25

After they were released from prison in Paris in the late autumn of 1794, both having narrowly escaped the guillotine, new bosom friends Rose de Beauharnais and Térézia Tallien found they had nothing to wear. Dressmakers and milliners had all but disappeared from a city still reeling from the Reign of Terror. In an era of desperate need and rampant inflation, a time when even the most prosperous took candles and bread with them when they went out to dinner, who could afford a silk dress, still less stays, hoops, acres of petticoats and several maids to sew you into it? 

The new feminine uniform they devised, making a stylish virtue of necessity, was simple, based on cotton chemises previously worn as underwear. In Liberty Equality Fashion, the art historian Anne Higonnet breaks down its creation into stages: over a period between 1794 and 1796, the multi-part formal gown became a single-part frock; sashes crept upwards from the waist to just beneath the bust; petticoats were abandoned. In 1788 a single party dress might have cost 150 livres. Eight years later, the entire wardrobe of Rose de Beauharnais, by now married to Napoleon Bonaparte and known as Joséphine, was worth not quite five times that, giving her eighteen mostly cotton dresses a rough value of thirty livres each.

Higonnet focuses on the period immediately after the Terror, and particularly on the clothes worn by three young women: Rose de Beauharnais, Robespierre’s beautiful nemesis Térézia Tallien, and the virginal seductress Juliette Récamier. 

Each of the ‘Three Graces’, as they were called, had endured hard times before their social triumph

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