Updated: Oct 28, 2021
By: Faith Brammer
Today it’s not uncommon to see fashion overtly linked with politics and activism, from Biden 2020 t-shirts to Black Lives Matter hats, but fashion has always been a form of resistance.
(Madame de Fouler, Comtesse de Relingue, by Louis Boilly; Portrait of a Young Girl by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s )
During the French Revolution, French statesmen Maximilien Robespierre, sentenced more than 17,000 supposed enemies of the French Revolution to death via beheading by heavy blade of a guillotine. Robespierre sought to overthrow the monarchy and aristocracy and bring about a more democratic system of government in France. In 1792, He successfully argued for the execution of King Louis XVI after the king attempted to flee the country and escape to Austria due to the political unrest happening in Paris during the 1790s. In 1793, Robespierre, who had aligned himself with the left-wing Jacobin political party, was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, which was established to protect France against its enemies and put a stop to counter- revolutionaries. Robespierre inaugurated his bloodthirsty Reign of Terror in September of 1793, executing anyone who was even suspected of supporting the monarchy or thought to be working against the revolution. In 1794, with tens of thousands dead, Robespierre and his revolutionary counterparts were arrested by the National Assembly and the National Convention declared Robespierre an outlaw. He and his associates were sentenced to death by guillotine without a public trial.
In the days that followed the Reign of Terror, many young aristocrats reputedly came together in clandestine dances to celebrate the end of living in fear and the return of normality within society. Many youths lost close family friends to the massacre and post-tragedy and they gathered together to mourn their lost loved ones in revelry at underground bals à la victime (victims’ balls). The balls were something of an urban legend in Paris, with very little to no first-hand accounts of the events remaining today. Functioning as a tribute to the dead, the rumored gatherings had a specific dress code. Many women wore red chokers or ribbons around their necks, to symbolize the slice of the guillotine’s blade. Men and women alike had their hair cropped short at the neck, as the victims did before execution to ensure the blade would sever the head without any complications.
The symbolic haircut was originally known as the coiffure à la Titus, chiefly worn by pro-republic men, who admired the Roman Republic--it was inspired by the busts of Roman emperors. Eventually, revolutionary women also adopted the cut. It became viewed as a symbol of the resistance. However, as rumors of the bals à la victime started popping up post-revolution, young aristocrats adopted the haircut as part of their elaborate mourning and the style eventually worked itself into mainstream upper-class fashion. The very people targeted by the revolution claimed the style as their own, morphing it into a symbol of aristocracy--the coiffure à la Titus became the coiffure à la victime.
The dances have been sensationalized throughout history, to the extent that many historians have trouble discerning which accounts are accurate. In the 1830s, French historian Théophile Lavallée, who wrote Historie des francais, deemed the dances events “at which one danced in mourning clothes, and to which only individuals whose relatives had perished on the scaffold were admitted.” 20th-century historian Ronald Schechter says the dances were “marginal rumor hardly mentioned by contemporaries [that entered] the historiographical canon as an unquestioned fact…Victims’ ball tales grew primarily out of the literary soil of ‘guillotine romanticism’ and the fantastic in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.”
Without primary sources documenting the dances, it’s hard to entirely tell fact from fiction. However, based on paintings from the time, we know the cut was real, despite the elaborate and twisted origins of the dances where they were supposedly popularized. Whether the dances themselves were urban legends or not, the coiffure à la victime was fashion as a form of resistance, a subtle protest against the ills of society.
Ronald Schechter, “Gothic Thermidor: The Bals des victimes, the Fantastic, and the Production of Historical Knowledge in Post-Terror France,” Representations, No. 61, Special Issue: Practices of Enlightenment (Winter 1998)
“Maximilien Robespierre.” EHISTORY, The Ohio State University.
“Women's Hair First Cut Short for Guillotine .” The Cornell Daily Sun 5 May 1944