Phrygian Cap/Bonnet Rouge

Self Portrait with a Phrygian Cap - Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson
Self Portrait with a Phrygian Cap - Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson. Public Domain

The Bonnet Rouge, also known as the Bonnet Phrygien / Phrygian Cap, was a red cap which began to be associated with the French Revolution in 1789. By 1791 it had become de rigueur for sans-culotte militants to wear one to show their loyalty and was widely used in propaganda. By 1792 it had been adopted by the government as an official symbol of the revolutionary state and has been resurrected at various moments of tension in French political history, right into the twentieth century.

Design

The Phrygian Cap has no brim and is soft and ‘limp’; it fits tightly around the head. Red versions became associated with the French Revolution.

Sort of Origins

In the early modern period of European history many works were written about life in ancient Rome and Greece, and in them appeared the Phrygian Cap. This was supposedly worn in the Anatolian region of Phrygian and developed into headwear of liberated slaves. Although the truth is confused and seems tenuous, the link between freedom from slavery and the Phrygian Cap was established in the early modern mind.

Revolutionary Headwear

Red Caps were soon used in France during moments of social unrest, and in 1675 there occurred a series of riots known to posterity as the Revolt of the Red Caps. What we don’t know is if the Liberty Cap was exported from these French tensions to the American Colonies, or whether it came back the other way, because red Liberty Caps were a part of American Revolutionary symbolism, from the Sons of Liberty to a seal of the US Senate.

Either way, when a meeting of the Estates General in France in 1789 turned into one of the greatest revolutions in history the Phrygian Cap appeared.

There are records showing the cap in use in 1789, but it really gained traction in 1790 and by 1791 was an essential symbol of the sans-culottes, whose legwear (after which they were named) and their headwear (the bonnet rouge) was a quasi-uniform showing the class and revolutionary fervor of working Parisians.

The Goddess Liberty was shown wearing one, as was the symbol of the French nation Marianne, and revolutionary soldiers wore them too. When Louis XVI was threatened in 1792 by a mob which broke into his residence they made him wear a cap, and when Louis was executed the cap only increased in importance, appearing pretty much everywhere that wanted to appear loyal. Revolutionary fervor (some might say madness) meant that by 1793 some politicians were made by law to wear one.

Later Use

However, after the Terror, the sans-culottes and the extremes of the revolution were out of favor with people who wanted a middle way, and the cap began to be replaced, partly to neuter opposition. This hasn’t stopped the Phrygian Cap reappearing: in the 1830 revolution and the rise of the July monarchy caps appeared, as they did during the revolution of 1848. The bonnet rouge remains an official symbol, used in France, and during recent times of tension in France, there have been news reports of Phrygian Caps appearing.