During the later years of the French Revolution (1789–99) at the end of the eighteenth century, many fashionable young people of the upper and middle classes adopted a style called à la victime, or "like the victim." This fashion imitated the look of the thousands of people who were executed by the government during the bloodiest period of the revolution. Sporting scarlet ribbons to symbolize the blood of the dead, and cutting their hair short the way the executioners cut their victims' hair, these young people celebrated the fall of the old government while cheering themselves through a horrifying period in history.
The French Revolution led to sweeping social changes in French society. The luxurious lives of the wealthy had created a great deal of anger among the French poor and middle class. This anger at the nobility exploded in many violent acts during the revolution. Some of these acts, such as the opening of the great prison called the Bastille and attacks on the homes of wealthy nobles, were carried out by mobs of poor people. Other acts, like the "Reign of Terror" and other executions of enemies of the revolution, were carried out by the new government with the support of cheering crowds. The Reign of Terror is the name given to a nine-month period in 1793 and 1794 when over sixteen thousand so-called "enemies of the state" were executed in a public square in Paris, France. These enemies, mostly wealthy nobility and royalty, were killed with a new machine called the guillotine, which executed people quickly and efficiently by dropping a heavy blade to slice off their heads. The wonder at the modern marvel of the new killing machine combined with the fear, rage, and excitement aroused by all the deaths, led to the creation of fashion à la victime.
The revolution had brought an end to the excessively ornate fashions of the early to mid-1700s. Gone were the tall powdered wigs and hairdos and brilliant jewelry. Fashionable men and women cut their hair short and ragged, high on their neck in the back with curls falling over their foreheads in the front. This à la victime cut imitated the way the executioner sheared off the hair of those who approached the guillotine, so that the blade could cut cleanly through the neck. Women's gowns became simple loose dresses, like the nightgowns and underclothes worn by those who were herded from prison cells into carts bound for the public square and death. Red ribbons became stylish, worn around the neck to indicate the bloodline where the head was cut, or wrapped in an "X" across the breasts and around the arms to represent flowing blood. Both women and men wore small reproductions of the guillotine as jewelry. Ladies' hats were designed to look like the Bastille, a prison that had symbolized the cruelty of the old government. For supporters of the new government, these fashions symbolized the demise of the oppressive old rulers.
Though fashion à la victime was mainly for those who wanted to show support for the new government, there were also bals à la victime, or "dances of the victim." These were large parties to which only those whose relatives had been guillotined were invited. Guests wore black neckbands and armbands and danced together to mourn their dead by celebrating life. The simple styles of the fashion à la victime transformed into the Greek-inspired styles of the late eighteenth century such as the robe en chemise.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Ribeiro, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1988.