Dressing A Nation

Who needs a uniform? What does it mean to adopt one? And what connects people who dress the same? These questions were on the minds of entrants to the Swedish Royal Patriotic Society 1773 essay competition, which asked whether Swedes might benefit from sharing a costume, as well as a language and a territory.

Historian Mikael Alm has analyzed the entries. Many arguments in favor are practical: a national costume frees those in public life from the whims and expense of fashion. It replaces the flimsy garments of Paris or Naples with something suited to the Swedish climate. It reduces imports. It is logical for patriotic Swedes to favor local wool over French silk (just as Indian nationalists would promote khadi in the 1920s). But the authors also aimed to change society. Foreign fashions were enjoyed by an aristocracy who owed more loyalty to family than country, and they were craved by an increasingly cosmopolitan middle class who had more in common with German merchants than Swedish laborers. Clothing is a form of soft power, and national dress might bind the Swedish polity together.

The mood was turning against elaborate courtly dress across Europe. The simple frac began to displace the habit habillé, a silk or satin coat and waistcoat with embroidery and lace trimmings, sometimes known as French dress. Like the best luxury goods, its extravagance made it awkward and expensive. That didn’t stop commoners with money from wearing it. (As good nouveaux riche, they remained keen long after the elites had moved on.) But there were practical reasons for its decline even before the Revolution made dressing like an aristocrat in France exceptionally bad for one’s health.

Yet the Swedish essayists weren’t intending to erase social difference. One proposed a “practical” scheme of color coding by men’s professions: priests in black for seriousness; burghers in blue for their military duties; peasants in grey for the dirtiness of their jobs, surgeons in crimson for the dirtiness of theirs. Each seems logical, but the overall effect is a classification of role and rank. The same is true for other entrants who, Alm reports, used buttons and accessories to signify status. These projects recall medieval sumptuary laws, which forbid extravagant dress because—don’t we know it—pride is a sin, and luxury the royal road to committing it. But rather than ending inequality, they carefully regulate it, ensuring that only the right person wears silk. The quest for national dress was similar: as much about ordering those inside the nation as protecting them from degeneracy beyond it.

The habit habillé died out, but clothing continued to signify social division. During parliamentary struggles at the end of the century, the English elite divided into blue and tan (for the Whigs and the Prince of Wales) and blue and red (for George III and the government). But the more profound divisions were not rank or faction but sheer power. As court historian Philip Mansel notes, the Duc d’Orléans, while advocating the frac, often wore military uniform. As future king, he knew the importance of linking himself to the army. A certain part of society often decries the foreign tastes of a sophisticated bourgeoisie, while another part despairs at the lavish indifference of those at the very top. But both need to find some common ground when presidents develop a taste for gold braid.

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