French Revolution

The outbreak of the French Revolution forced hundreds of fashion workers out of business or out of the country. Some left voluntarily, following their aristocratic clients; others feared that they would be persecuted if they remained in France. With her ties to queen and court, Bertin had every reason to fear for her life as well as her livelihood. While the aristocracy saw Bertin as an upstart and an interloper, to the revolutionaries she was no better than an aristocrat herself. Royalists and Republicans alike blamed Bertin for encouraging Marie Antoinette's excesses, which she continued to do right up until the queen's imprisonment.

Bertin fled Paris in 1792 and spent the next three years in such émigré havens as Brussels, Frankfurt, and London, where she continued to dress fashionable foreigners and French exiles. Unlike her royal muse, Bertin managed to survive the French Revolution unscathed. Although she was twice put on the government's émigré list, she managed to prove that she had left France on legitimate business both times. The émigré list was the official record of people who had emigrated, thus forfeiting their property and, in some cases, their lives. Effectively, Bertin was declared a fugitive.

By the time Bertin returned to Paris, she was out of danger but also out of fashion. Bertin could still count a few English, Russian, and Spanish aristocrats among her clients, but hardly any Frenchwomen. Indeed, many of her French clients had perished on the scaffold, leaving their bills unpaid. The Revolution cut Bertin's career short at the height of her power, and she never recovered financially or emotionally. She died at her country retreat in Épinay-sur-Seine just a few months too soon to see restoration of the monarchy in 1814. Even after her death Bertin remained a potent and provocative symbol of the elegance and excess of the ancien régime.

See also Court Dress; Fashion Designer.

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