• Heather Moll

I Just Wanted to Talk About Earrings!

I thought this blog post would be about cute earrings. I’d share more detail and pictures than I can in a #GeorgianJewelry tweet or FB post. Then before I know it, I’m dragging out my college textbooks on the French Revolution and finding out if my professors are still teaching because I have questions.

Let’s start with the pretty things: Poissarde earrings. This pair is from the V&A, c. 1810


Poissarde earrings were popular around 1795-1820. Poissarde means fish wife, and it refers to the style of earrings worn by the wives of fishermen selling the daily catch in Les Halles. They became associated with the all of the market women of Paris.

They’re easily recognizable by their S-shape cross over on the ear wires. They close from the back to the front, so you have to thread it through the back of the ear, which takes a little practice. They were made of lightweight gold that was either plain, stamped, or filigreed, and were later embellished with gemstones or enamel.


It's a sophisticated result that evolved from the polished mussel shells worn by fishwives years before as symbols of their trade. Although they were worn in England, poissarde earrings were the most popular in France, Germany, and Italy.


So, why did I need the French history books? Poissarde earrings’ popularity grew after the market women in Paris led riots early in the French Revolution. Let’s condense the background of a bankrupt monarchy, the demographic expansion and economic changes that led to bourgeois resentment against the special privileges of the nobility, decades of failed reform efforts, the Estates-General addressing the previously neglected Third Estate (commoners), and the representatives in the National Assembly pledging in the king’s tennis court not to allow themselves to be dissolved by Louis XVI until they wrote a new constitution.


That brings us up to the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and other restructuring in August that Louis XVI refused to endorse.

*Phew* Still with me? You just wanted to see some earrings and I’m getting into the collapse of the French monarchy and thousands dead at the guillotine! Here are a few more earrings from the Victoria and Albert Museum from around 1820 before we delve deeper.

Rising bread prices and discontent continued through August and September 1789. On October 1, the officers at Versailles had a lavish banquet for new troops where the patriotic tricolor cockade was allegedly trampled. The reports in the newspapers fueled the growing outrage about both high bread prices and the resentment towards a king and court that did not reside in Paris and seemed out of touch.


So, on the morning of October 5, a group of market women in Paris left the market and began to march, drawing more women from other markets and eventually thousands as they marched to the city hall to demand that the city government take action to protect the revolution and to secure the community’s food supply. They ransacked the building, got some cannon, were then joined by thousands of members of the National Guard (men), and walked 12 miles in the rain to Versailles to present their demands to the king late that night.

Tensions escalated in the early morning of October 6, and a subset of the crowd stormed into the palace through an unguarded door. There were violent skirmishes with palace guards, but the leader of the National Guard, the Marquis de Lafayette, managed to restore peace. The king and his family, along with the National Assembly, agreed to return to Paris, and the crowd marched them back, carrying the severed heads of some of the royal guards on pikes.


It was an emblematic march for the perpetrators of the revolution, but the October Days uprising also demonstrated that women—normally excluded from politics—could influence the course of events. It was the women who insisted on going to the National Assembly at Versailles, not the men of the National Guard. Ordinary working women were both willing and able to carry out an incredible insurrection.

Fishwives March to Versailles Oct 1789

Remember we got here from earrings? Why poissardes earrings were particularly popular in the 1790s and through the revolutionary republic becomes easier to answer when we look at the fashion trends in the years after the Revolution. Over the next few years, women were still involved in the revolutionary culture that pervaded through the Reign of Terror and Thermidor in 1794.


Bodily adornment was no longer a top-down aristocratic dictation based on wealth, and there was a transition from the oppressive silhouettes of previous years to the straight-lined, flowing gowns reminiscent of Grecian art. Both men and women cropped their hair, and the à la Titus hairstyle came to represent not only democratic antiquity but also a solidarity with the shorn heads of those about to face the guillotine. Why couldn't that same type of solidarity extend to the Paris fishwives's earrings?

Jeune fille en buste, 1794, Musée du Louvre

Women were a part of the early “liberal” years of the revolution, and also the revolutionary journées that followed. As styles reflected the tumultuous social and political climate, it’s possible that the notable symbol of the working class market women---who represented civic action and protest---became a popular piece of jewelry.


© 2020 by Heather Moll Author