The French Revolution and the London Stage, 1789-1805

By George Taylor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Performance and performing

In the last quarter of our own century, much has been made of issues of personal identity. Concern for the individual rights of racial and sexual identities seems to have replaced for many people a consciousness of class and a sense of social solidarity. This is partly the cause, and partly the result, of changing political agendas on the national and international scene. One of the main cultural expressions of this desire for personal respect and visibility is how people dress to present themselves to the world their appearance declares a 'self image'. So if we cannot argue with reality, we can at least manipulate appearances. The fashion statement is supposed to create a new personality, and clothes are marketed as a means of transforming the self by changing the image. Thus in our own time dress has become political. During the period of the French Revolution too, dressing was used to define and to proclaim personal identity in the face of social upheaval. Street fashions could assert, or disguise, political positions, while theatrical costumes were used to manipulate ideological opinion. Of course, the values and anxieties of any culture can be analysed by how it dresses, but the 1780s saw the emergence, not only of an organised fashion industry, but of a new self-consciousness of how dress can declare political alignment as well as social status and this awareness was inevitably reflected in that living mirror of fashion, the stage.

During the mid-eighteenth century fashion was the exclusive concern of the rich, ostentatiously displaying their wealth and leisure. Coats and waistcoats, skirts and petticoats were constructed with the maximum of material, layered and embellished with lace and bullion. But in the 1780s the ideal image changed from the idle courtier to the useful merchant or worthy squire. Clothes became simpler with worsteds, cotton and muslin replacing silk, satin and brocade. Men dressed in tailored jackets and short waistcoats over riding breeches

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