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The Vivandières: female protagonists of a men’s world

When we think about the army, what usually comes to mind are images of male soldiers dressed in uniforms, indicating their country, their political affiliation or ideological beliefs. However, the army is a community and, as a diversified and complex community, it is – and was – made up by representatives of both genders, who work together and share spaces, time and, interestingly, style.

Hand-coloured lithograph depicting a soldier and, on horseback, a cantinière of the French Army, Fortune after a drawing by Hippolyte Lalaisse, ca. 1855, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum CC BY SA

Vivandières – or cantinières – were originally associated with French regiments, but they were present in many different countries as fundamental part of the army. They had several tasks, not only carrying food and drinks to soldiers on the battlefield, but also acting as nurses and supporters of the troops. They were accounted as important members of their regiment, as underlined by historian Thomas Cardoza, who has researched extensively on the topic. Their importance within the environment of the regiment is in some way proved by their ‘official’ appearance – their uniform – which made them more than mere camp-followers, not only participating in the every-day activities of the army, but living the experience as protagonists.

Hand-coloured lithograph of a vivandière of the French Army, ca. 1850-70, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum CC BY SA

Vivandières’ uniforms were modelled after those of the regiment they served; this tells a lot about how they considered their role, as ‘soldiers’ belonging to the army, whose identity was constructed not only through their occupation, but also through their attire. Their outfit was usually composed by a jacket and a blouse, which could be tight or loose- fitting depending on the regiments they belonged to; trousers could also be either straight legged or full and wide legged, gathered at the ankle or below the knee; a knee-length skirt was usually over the trousers. As for the accessories, they had great importance in completing the look: the most iconic accessory is for sure the brandy barrel, called tonnelet, which was a unifying element in defining the cantinières across different regiments. Vivandières also used to wear hats, either ‘kepis’ or brimmed. Their uniform fulfils two main aspects required to army clothing – and uniforms more generally: it serves as ‘sign’, defining the identity of vivandières as members of a precise regiment, and it is also practical, allowing them the possibility to move and ride more freely than they would do wearing ‘civilian’ female clothing.

Hand-coloured lithograph of a vivandière of the French Army, ca. 1850-70, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum CC BY SA

At the end of nineteenth century cantinières were forced by regulations to replace their attires with plain grey dresses and metal identification plaques. Despite their popularity, they were banned in 1906 by the French War Ministry. Vivandières’ image anyway remained strongly present in popular culture, theatre, opera and advertising. The Victoria & Albert museum holds a collection of coloured lithographs depicting vivandières in different attires; Browse the Europeana Fashion portal to discover more about this – too often forgotten – feminine presence in what is usually considered ‘a men’s world’.

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