“Up-” or rather “Downcycling” in the Ancien Regime

Wearing vintage is hardly a modern hipster eccentricity.  Hand-me-downs have always dominated in the pre-Walmart era. But in certain eras the custom had a greater effect on the social fabric of the poor. In ancien regime France,  the Parisian poor distinguised themselves from the desperate looks of ragged peasants outside the city.  In his blog, Jefferson in Paris, Harlan Lewin, cites a contemporary commentator, the Marquis de Paulmy, in his “Précis de la Vie privée des Français” (1779). http://jeffersoninparis.com/fashioninjeffsparis.html. The Marquis notes that peasants in the far reaches of the countryside consider a leather shoe a nearly unfathomable luxury. They make do with clogs or even ropes wrapped around their feet.  However, the fashion divide was absent in Paris and the larger cities, where inhabitants could purchase the used clothing of the rich for a fraction of the original cost. And most used the custom well to their advantage:

“Everybody is well clad there, and seems as if he could afford to change his linen and coat twice a day.” Most Of the artizans (sic) dressed in imitation of their betters when they were not at work, and it was no uncommon thing to meet in the streets a lot of dandies, fashionably dressed and girt with a sword, who turned out to be barbers, printers, tailors, or shopmen. The females of the lower classes were always neatly dressed, sometimes with remarkably good taste, and the Paris grisette was renowned throughout the whole of the 18th century for her neatness of attire.”

So let’s compare:

The peasant dress is no doubt an accurate rendering, except that it would be ragged and dirty as a general rule. The aristocratic toilette would be carefully scented and maintained by an army of laundresses and lady’s maids.

If clothes make the man, what kinds of attitudes would result from this trading up? Inferiors were supposed to look that way, but by these accounts the urban proletariat failed to convey the deference required in both style and word.  Smelly rags might convey anger well but repurposing the clothes of the oppressor would send a much clearer message, “What’s yours should be mine, and it is and will be.”

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