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19th-Century Working Class Living Conditions in France: Clothing and Its Significance

Erica Cefalo

    Throughout the autobiographies collected in Mark Traugott’s The French Worker, the textile industry is possibly the most often mentioned employer of the urban working class. Men, women, and children alike worked long hours earning low wages weaving on the looms and breathing the toxic fumes of chemical fabric treatments among other varying harsh conditions. Consequently, it is interesting to note that the working class people who constituted this workforce were the most deprived of decent clothing to wear. The salaries they earned for making clothing did not afford them the opportunity to buy clothing of their own. In addition, it seems that it was not uncommon that a lack of the means to buy proper clothing would hold some lower-class people back from opportunities that were extended to the better-dressed members of society. It is patently obvious that social lines were drawn according to dress throughout the century, much as they still are today.

    Of all the accounts we find in this collection of autobiographies, it is interesting to note that the ones that seemed the most focused on clothing as a theme were generally those of the most destitute. Martin Nadaud, who was born in 1815 to a poor family in the country village of La Martinèche, constantly refers back to the subject of clothing, especially calling attention to the inferior quality of his own clothing. He recalls travelling to Paris for the first time and being outfitted with a suit made of drugget. Drugget is a woolen fabric (Nadaud’s came from sheep raised by his own family) noted for its unpleasantly coarse texture, and Nadaud describes his suit as being "stiff as cardboard. (189)" Later on in his story, he gives an account of the pleasure he feels in being dressed up in fancier clothing, and adds: "The fashions inspired by the variety of cloth and materials that our burgeoning factories and mills had begun to produce and make available to the public were taking hold in the minds of the workers. (211)"

    Similarly, in the case of unskilled laborer Norbert Truquin we find a heightened interest in clothing; some might even call it an obsession (he meticulously notes each instance that someone provides him with an article of clothing, no matter how small the item or how mundane the incident). Like Nadaud and others, Truquin places great importance on the rare moments when he is able to obtain better clothing. He recounts his childhood in the late 1830s and recalls being taunted by other children for the rags he was forced to wear. Even after the death of his first master he notes his desperation for clothing: "I carried off with me one of the dead man’s shirts as well as a pair of pants that I hid by fastening it under my armpits.(258)" And upon being taken under the wing of a pair of prostitutes at the age of ten he remembers clearly: "They…. got busy outfitting me with a complete set of clothes… they made me shoes out of their ankle boots and covered my head with a tasseled cap. My joy knew no bounds." (260)

    Truquin also gives a little insight into the social importance of clothing as far as public privileges were concerned in mentioning that the only reason he was able to enjoy museums, public gardens, and other monuments in Paris was because he had a frock coat made for him for his First Communion. These supposedly "public" establishments therefore must have required a dress code. He also writes that certain working girls in a boarding house who earned over a franc wore bonnets with red ribbons to distinguish themselves above those who earned only eighty centimes and covered their heads with handkerchiefs. Jeanne Bouvier’s account of life as a Parisian maid during the Third Republic reinforces the idea that finding a job was difficult for those who were not dressed to impress. She tells of a cruel employer who snaps at her that no one else would hire a girl "who owned no clothes and no wardrobe. (354)"

    According to Agricol Perdiguier’s passage, the journeymen participating in the brotherhood "Les Compagnons du Devoir de Liberté" during the 1820s also had a dress code. Even on hot days, the men were not to remove their required jackets and ties and according to the articles of an initiation ceremony it was forbidden to enter the Mother (Mère was the common name for the inns where the journeyman stayed) "on Sundays or holidays without stockings or gaiters. (177)" Furthermore they stated "During the week you may not wear shirt sleeves or your work apron or come without a tie." (177)

    In addition, references to shoes are almost too numerous to recount here. Even those who were somewhat better off complain about the wearing down of soles on shoes and the embarrassment it would cause to have to go shoeless. The torture of wooden shoes also proves to be a common memory. These wooden shoes often tore up the workers’ feet to the point of drawing blood.

    Complaints of poor clothing amongst the working class may seem trivial compared to the malnutrition and hard labor that also plagued their lives. Naturally, the language and manners of the working class then tended to be less formal than their bourgeois neighbors. Their garments were one of the most visible factors tying them to their poverty and setting them apart from the bourgeoisie.



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