Book Review: Patriots Against Fashion

patriots against fashion

In the second half of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, various countries in the Western world underwent both revolutions and reforms that are especially noteworthy for dress history. The French Revolution and its effects on the clothing of the upper class is well documented, a touchstone for the concepts of protest dress, trickle-up fashion, political fashion, and more. Although I couldn’t find a caption for the cover image (just a copyright note), the red phrygian cap brings to mind that bloody exercise, and will be the most familiar case of nationalism and revolution for most readers.

One of the real strengths of Alexander Maxwell‘s new book, Patriots Against Fashion: Clothing and Nationalism in Europe’s Age of Revolutions, however, is his insistence on including historical examples from a wide range of Western countries. Newspaper clippings from Madrid, Polish poetry, Latvian law, and first-person Turkish accounts are integrated seamlessly with the more common French and German fashion magazines and British colonial writing. As he states in his introduction, the book “refuses to conflate the history of ‘Europe’ with the history of its two greatest powers.” (5)

The academic tone and few illustrations may turn readers off, and the amount of information here can be a bit stunning. Maxwell layers on his primary source examples, at times a little thick. But one can hardly complain about extensive and inclusive research like that which Maxwell offers in this book.

From "Patriots Against Fashion" by Alexander Maxwell. Palgrave, 2014.

From “Patriots Against Fashion” by Alexander Maxwell. Palgrave, 2014.

Although a pile of books have been published on fashion and revolution, they have often focused on one or two countries (or nations), providing an in-depth study. Patriots Against Fashion offers instead a broad comparative study of clothing and nationalism. Revolution is often an attempt to redefine a nation, to streamline, democratize, renew–for the love of a place. Citizens strive–and sometimes give their lives–for what they see as a better version of the country or nation that they love. Who defines nationalism, and what does it mean to be Latvian, for example? How is that expressed through clothing, and could it be improved with a national costume?

Clothing is visual and immediate; your appearance on the street defines your position, real or imagined, directly to your fellow walkers, shoppers, or protesters. In the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, fashion was generally considered a feminine vice, shallow and seductive. Male figures of power, be they doctors or politicians, offered not only critical views of fashion, but also passed laws regulating this and forbidding that. One solution to the “problem” of fashion was national dress, separate for women and men. The men’s versions may have included variations for fancy occasions or military service, depending on the country, but Maxwell focuses on the “uniform,” an everyday outfit worn by “all members of the nation.” The (male) leaders of various countries had many reasons for imposing–or suggesting–a national costume, and there were a range of expectations regarding how these costumes would be manufactured, paid for, and distributed. Was the monarch/government to impose it, or “civil society” to “spontaneously adopt” the costume? Would it be based on a sort of formal-military combination, or would it find its roots in regional folk dress?

From "Patriots Against Fashion" by Alexander Maxwell. Palgrave, 2014.

From “Patriots Against Fashion” by Alexander Maxwell. Palgrave, 2014.

Theoretically a democratic action, Maxwell describes how national dress was actually discriminatory, as various groups were forbidden from wearing the proposed national dress; this echoes nationalism’s darker, racist tendencies.

The author leads us through a logical and well-organized set of chapters, setting up the general attitudes toward fashion in the period, with a focus on anti-fashion in all its iterations. He gives many contemporary examples of fashion’s popular association with a greedy elite and unnecessary waste, both monetary and material. He describes reactions against the “tyranny” of fashion, including the most striking (and well-documented): sumptuary laws.

Maxwell then offers case studies for four different “types” of national uniforms proposed or instituted by various nations: Absolutist, Democratic, Minimal, and Folk Costumes. Absolutist come from monarchs and other absolute leaders, including Gustaf III’s unpopular national Swedish dress. Democratic dress is, as the name suggests, for the people and by the people. Here, Maxwell uses the French Revolution as the prime example, while noting that democratic national dress was a topic of discussion in Germany and America before the revolution in France.

Despite its theoretical practicality and universality, national dress would have been a radical move in many countries, and the realities of putting them into practice were essentially insurmountable. Gustaf III here in Sweden actually made his vision a reality, if for a short period of time. But a full outfit wasn’t necessary to show one’s national pride or political affiliation, and perhaps the most popular versions of “national dress” were simple items of clothing or accessories that spoke volumes. Maxwell gives headwear examples, citing the cockade, the bonnet rouge, and the fez. Can these be considered uniforms? As objects or items of clothing they were relatively uniform, but they were worn with citizens’ regular outfits, by both sexes in some cases, and could cross social lines. Here, they are offered as “minimal national uniforms,” no less meaningful than a whole outfit. Elective and powerful, the hats Maxwell describes were wildly popular patriotic symbols in ways we can only imagine now.

The national costume’s nostalgic turn is described in his chapter on folk costume as national dress, from Welsh national costume to Greek foustanela. He addresses the very important–and very current–concept of “buying local.” Even if a national costume failed to gain popularity, buying goods and dress-related services made in your country was considered very patriotic. The whimsy of fashion could be swayed to meet the needs of nations undergoing growing pains. For example, this excellent quotation about Hungarian fashion, written by a British observer in Budapest 1869 and cited by Maxwell:

To subscribe to a journal of a fashions, written in the Hungarian language, is spoken as an act of patriotism. All this seems to us very absurd, but from the standpoint of the Hungarians themselves it is quite intelligible. The most mindless and frivolous of women, even if she have neither husband nor child, has still some influence in society. (199)

That statement is in turn quite absurd to modern readers, but probably intelligible to those (men) reading it in the mid-nineteenth century. Maxwell follows through to the twentieth century in his final chapter on haute couture and textiles, an extension of the buy local-patriotism discussed in the former.

With its extensive research and truly European outlook, this book is a must-read for those interested in the time period. It would be an excellent complement to the more specialized works on specific revolutions, and is rich with primary-source quotations and citations to inspire a rich term paper. With all of his primary source research, I imagine Maxwell must have come across a great number of images, and I wish there were more included here. It would have been exciting to be able to make a visual comparison across countries to accompany his written comparison; maybe that is a different book, or a future project.

Compact, academic, and thoughtful, this book is definitely aimed toward those with more than a passing interest in the subject. In fact, he suggests that this is not a fashion history book at all, but instead a contribution to the study of nationalism. It is too a fashion history book, I argue, and a much more nuanced and well-researched one than many intentionally fashion-based history books I’ve read.


Lead Image: Cover of Patriots Against Fashion: Clothing and Nationalism in Europe’s Age of Revolutions by Alexander Maxwell (Palgrave, 2014).


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Further Resources:

**I feel like this is way skewed toward France and England, if you have good non-London, non-Paris suggestions please leave them in the comments section and I’ll add them here!**

Condra, Jill. Encyclopedia of National Dress: traditional clothing around the world. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

Jones, Jennifer. Sexing la Mode: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France. Oxford, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2004.

Purdy, Daniel. The Tyranny of Elegance: Consumer Cosmopolitanism in the Era of Goethe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Roche, Daniel. Jean Birell, trans. The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the ‘Ancien Régime.’ Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Starobinski, Jean and the Kyoto Costume Institute. Revolution in Fashion: European Clotthing 1715-1815. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.

Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: what Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution. New York: H. Holt, 2006.

Wrigley, Richard. Politics of Appearances: representations of dress in Revolutionary France. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2002.

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