18th Century, Textiles & Costume

Terminology: What is a Pierrot jacket?

This week’s terminology post is by a guest author that many of you will be familiar with: Lauren Reeser of American Duchess. ย We all know Lauren for her gorgeous 18th century recreations (and other eras), but mostly for her amazing, fabulous reproduction historical shoes.

In fact, pre-orders for the delightful early 20th century ‘Astorias’ close on the 3rd of Feb (just two days from now) so hurry if you want to nab yourself a pair at a discount!

Instead of talking about shoes, Lauren is going to discuss the history of one of her favourite 18th century garments:

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Those of you who are into 18th century costuming may be familiar with the various styles of jackets that became popular in the second half, and particularly the last quarter, of that century.

Woman's jacket, brown printed cotton ca. 1790, France, Acc. No. 1991-520, Colonial Williamsburgh

The most common tag for a jacket is “caraco,” but within that vast and over-used term, we have most commonly the casaquin, pet en l’air, and pierrot. Each of these has its own styling cues, and interesting origins of their names.

How about “pierrot” though? First off, what exactly is it?

A pierrot is a jacket style that became very popular in the 1780s and 90s. It consisted of a bodice with a ruffled “tail” in back. Sometimes pierrot jackets closed in front, and sometimes were made in a zone front style. The ruffled skirting in back could be various lengths, with any sort of trimming, and were most commonly added on to the bodice at the waist seam, but many fashion plates show them cut in one with the back of the bodice.

Pierrot Jacket, ca. 1785, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art

So why is it called a “pierrot?”

The literal French definition of just the word “pierrot” is “sparrow,” which makes a lot of sense when looking at the style of this jacket. They show a puffed up front, like a bird’s breast, and a little fluffy tail out the back. The French liked to name some of their fashions after animals, for instance, the Hedgehog hair style (“Jeune dame coeffee au herisson…”), so it may seem that “pierrot” was meant to say that the wearer of such a garment was like a little bird.

Birds - Tibetan Snowfinch Montfringilla adamsi by Adams, 1867-72 & a Pierrot in the Journal de la Mode et du Gout, April 1790

Or a fool.

When alone, “pierrot” may mean sparrow, but in a sentence, the meaning changes to “clown.” This is referencing a specific clown, also named “Pierrot,” who, as part of the initially Italian Commedia dell’Arte, became a prominent and popular figure in French pantomimes, beginning in the late 17th century, and gaining in popularity throughout the 18th century. (1)

Antoine Watteau, Pierrot, 1717-1719

In Pierrot-the-character’s case, his name is diminutive of Piero or Pier, or Pete. He is literally Little Petey. Initially the Pierrot character was a buffoon and badly defined, but he began to change in the 18th century, and take on the roles we know today – the sympathetic, lovesick clown in the floppy white suit. By the 19th century, Pierrot had become completely poeticized.

So what does this have to do with 18th century jackets?

The French loved to label their fashions with satirical names. The “reticule” is a common one, supposedly derived from “ridicule” or “ridiculous.” “Pet en l’air” translates to “fart in the air.” One hat style found in the Galerie des Modes is labeled “Bonnet au mystere ou Chien Couchant,” which has something to do with mystery and hunting dogs (setters). Several descriptions including the word “pierrot” could be translated as “clown,” for instance, below, “…a clown back with buttons of steel tile…” and “…clown with a stripe skirt trimmed with gauze…”

Pierrot Jacket, 1787. Translates to "a clown back with buttons of steel tile.", via the MFA Boston

Illustration of a pierrot jacket, 1787. The caption translates as: "clown with a stripe skirt trimmed with gauze" MFA Boston

It may be more likely that the jacket style, with its ruffled tail, may have more to do with Pierrot the clown that a sparrow. Pair this idea with the typical white skirt worn with pierrot jackets, in relation to the Pierrot character’s baggy white suit, and additionally the white powdered face of the clown in relation to the popularity of white makeup in the 18th century, and we may have made our connection.

A pierrot in the Journal de la Mode et du Gout, February 1790

Perhaps the French are having a laugh at themselves, but there could be something else at work here. The pierrot jacket became popular in the late 18th century – 1780s in to the 90s – just before and then during the French Revolution. Just as the Revolutionaries had specific clothing to indicate their political associations, those who opposed the revolution also had their own look – for women, the “costume catholique,” which consisted of a pierrot jacket, white linen skirt, red and black shawl, black bonnet, and a white feather, each symbols of the ancien regime. (3) The name “pierrot” may have come from the Revolutionaries, meant to be an insult.

It is difficult to pin down exactly where the fashion term “pierrot” came from, especially as an English speaker, but perhaps these thoughts have given some insight. What do you think?

(1) Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierrot
(2) Source: http://www.allaboutclowns.com/pierrot.html
(3) source: The Lure of Perfection: Fashion and Ballet, 1780-1830 by Judith Chazin-Bennahum)
http://www.venetianmasksshop.com/history.htm
http://www.allaboutclowns.com/history.html
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/448641/Pedrolino

15 Comments

  1. Lovely article! The references to “pierrot” are few and far between here in America, but there is one in the Pennsylvania Packet, c 1789.

  2. Aren’t they gorgeous! I love them and my favourite modern jackets always have a bit of the Pierrot about them. Chien Couchant means “sleeping dog” which is even cuter really, imagining a dog curled up asleep on the wearer’s head ๐Ÿ™‚
    I’ve always associated the Pierrot jacket with commedia dell’arte but in my head I am envisaging the connection because it reminds me of a renaissance doublet. Short, fitting, zone fronted, firm sleeved and with a peplum. But it seems that Pierrot has always worn loose fitting clothes from what I can tell and it is Harlequin and Scaramouche who wear the more fitted styles. So perhaps there is a connection, or perhaps it is about sparrows after all! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Mrs C, thank you for clearing up the “sleeping dog” bit. The hunting dog didn’t make sense – it was translating in Google to “setter.” Sleeping dog is so much cuter ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Me again, I also wondered where this came from? “When alone, โ€œpierrotโ€ may mean sparrow, but in a sentence, the meaning changes to โ€œclown.โ€ ”
    In french, pierrot means sparrow, and in usage it can mean clown – just like in English a “magpie” is a bird but we sometimes use it to describe a collector of shiny things (and we don’t know ANYONE like that do we! hehehe) as well as little pete as you say. So the use of the term in descriptions of a gown can just as easily mean “A sparrow back” which is kind of like a ‘pigeon front” ๐Ÿ™‚ Cute eh!

    • I was thinking that too – again, had to rely on Google Translate, but I was sure you real French speakers would know the nuances ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I always thought that “reticule” was from the latin for net, that is a small mesh bag.
    The OED suggests a pun with ridicule though.

  5. Great post! How interesting. I never thought about where the name came from. I do love the jackets though!

  6. Me again! The first french caption reads,”Pretty lady in morning dress, a lapelled pierrot [jacket] with square (or faceted) steel buttons, the skirt of plain muslin, pleated flounce of the same.” the rest of the caption refers to her stick made from vine cane. Although, the term baigneuse refers to bathing or swimming, it must mean something else in context, but I cannot find any references to it in 18th C french context, but I will keep looking.
    The second french caption reads, “Dancing girl wearing a pierrot jacket with a striped skirt trimmed with gauze; her hair dressed with a straw hat decorated with feathers, ribbons and flowers” (Jeez with all that, it’s a wonder she could dance at all!)
    So in both cases, the term Pierrot is clearly referring to the garment, not a description of it ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Baigneuse is sometimes used to describe a way of dressing the hair, possibly for bathing originally, so perhaps it refers to that. Far out, french is far more fun when the subject is fashion, and not transport engineering (I did a lot of translation management in my last job!!!)

    • I did wonder about the translation of “pierrot a revers” in the main article – that the fashion writer was talking about revers/lapels makes more sense to me.

    • Ah, so at this point the “pierrot” is now referring strictly to the jacket, and has passed the original meaning of why it was named “pierrot” in the first place? That makes sense.

  7. I do love these jackets–having no real excuse to make a period one, I’m considering a modern incarnation for office wear. ๐Ÿ™‚

    The French and their animal/clothing ties–some of the pairings are quite funny, and they can go the other way, too–the French word for chipmunk is “suisse” which is in reference to the stripes on the Swiss Guards’ uniform! Apparently when the first explorers saw and named the New World ground squirrel, they were thinking clothes ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Seamstrix says

    The term ‘baigneuse’ refers to her ginormous cap and ‘marin’ is sailor so she has a ‘sailor style’ cap on. 8)

    • Aha! I thought it said matin not marin – very hard to read, and of course this is a huge red herring! Mornings vs sailors, completely different. ๐Ÿ™‚ So, not even morning dress. The plot thickens…

  9. I simply think that all the striped pierrot jackets are very lovely. I won’t try and make guesses at the name. French is not my thing.

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