The Sword

“Objects possessed many of the same surface qualities as the richly clothed bodies of their users.”  – Mimi Hellman

The sword, in the eighteenth century, garnered attention as a must-have accessory of the elite. A crest of honor and glory, the sword symbolized a deep-set connection to the crown and the shared responsibility of the monarch and the nobles to defend the nation. However, by the late eighteenth century, the function of the sword had devolved from a weapon used on the battlefield to a mere decorative piece of a man’s attire. It soon came to represent a symbol of his status and masculinity.

Figure 1. (1765) Fencing in the eighteenth century

The inextricability of a sword from a courtier’s costume was a concept that developed in the Middle Ages; despite its primary role as a weapon, the sword was worn by knights and the elite alike, during both war and peace. Not only did this convention display its bearer’s loyalty to the monarchy, but it also created a notable rift between the social classes, since this privilege was restricted to the  noblesse d’épée, or the nobility of the sword. Off the battlefield, the nobles used their swords in duels, which could often be deadly.  With time, the sword became the instrument of a popular pastime of the eighteenth century—fencing. Fencing, unlike sparring in battle, provided a more enjoyable and more accessible form of dueling. Notably, the foils, épées, and sabers of fencing resemble the slimmer, simpler decorative version of the court sword (Figure 1).  In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the sword became a popular decorative article of clothing, functioning as the masculine equivalent of the woman’s fan or parasol. As the practicality of the sword diminished, its appearance underwent a drastic transition. A denser blade was more appropriate for war, whereas a lighter sword, such as a rapier or a small sword, was more convenient to display at court.

Figure 2. Sketch of a man's profile

Changing fashion trends influenced sword etiquette. In 1765, the fronts of coats were cut wider for a clearer view of the waistcoat, exposing the hilt of the sword. According to Alicia M. Annas, “Long before Napoleon, it was  the practice for a man to place one hand (usually the right) lightly into the bosom of his waistcoat, which was left unbuttoned, except for three buttons at the waist. The other hand was placed under the side flap of the waistcoat above the sword hilt.” This is evident in Figures 1 and 2, where the sword can be seen directly underneath the coat flap, near the bottom of his waistcoat. Combined with the contrived elegance, the sword contributes to the air of duty and glory appropriate to that of the elite. However, the sword can prove cumbersome in terms of movement—with the point of the sword jutting outwards, the wearer must always be cautious of his proximity to others.

Figure 3. (1789) Depiction of preparation in the grande toilette.

While the sword divides the elite from the lower ranks, it also divides the nobility itself. Embellishments on the sword, such as gilding, silk embroideries, and even precious gemstones, suggest more power and wealth. For example, the highly embellished sword evident in Moreau le Jeune’s print La Grande Toilette (Figure 3) belongs to the man surrounded by servants. Though the sword sits alone on the cushioned chair to his left, one can surmise from his affluent and superior aura that it can only belong to him. However, the man paying his respects on the right carries a much simpler sword, one without any fancy trimmings or jewels.

And with the growing preoccupation with beauty in the eighteenth century, it was hard to overlook the “feminization” of French noblemen. Men with wealth devoted both their time and resources to their toilettes—where they preoccupied themselves with copious amounts of rings, bracelets, and necklaces.  The sword, on the other hand, served as a constant reminder of their duty to the crown. Thus, such badges of honor counteracted some of this newfound femininity.



Annas, Alicia M. An Elegant Art. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1983. Print.

“Arms and Armor – Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dirk H. Breiding. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–Web. 1 Nov. 2012.

Paniers baleines, et jabots: La Mode au XVIII siècle. Musee du Costume et de la Dentelle. n.p., n.d. Print.

Paris Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. Print.

Takeda, Sharon Sadako, and Kaye Durland Spilker. Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail 1700-1915. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, n.d. Print.


“Fencing.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Library, 2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2012;cc=did;rgn=main;view=text;idno=did2222.0001.446

“French Traditional Costumes for Men.” eHow. n.p., n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2012

Moreau le Jeune, Jean-Michel. La grande toilette. 1789. Smith College Museum of Art. Northampton, MA.

Seul-Gi  Son

1 Response to The Sword

  1. sbandurski says:

    Your wall legend was intriguing to read, and the pictures you chose highlight your story well. I am left wondering, however, if women would ever have dared to carry a sword? It is a symbol of masculinity, but certainly rebellious women (like Marie Antoinette in a riding coat) would have contradicted social norms.

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