Red Phrygian or ‘liberty’ caps were long associated with the theme of liberty in European and colonial cultures. They were used as icons during the American Revolution and worn during the French Revolution in the late 1700s and came to symbolise allegiance to the republican cause. Along with the red, white and blue cockade, pinned to these and other hats, they became a lasting symbol of revolutionary France.
Phrygian caps, soft conical hats with the top curled forward, originated in Phrygia (now part of modern Turkey). In ancient Rome freed slaves wore a similar style of hat, called the pileus, to indicate their liberty. In Europe, it was later assumed that the pileus and the Phrygian cap were one and the same. When the people of Brittany rose against the taxation policies of Louis XIV in 1675, the rebels declared their support by wearing red (sometimes blue) Phrygian caps. The uprising was suppressed, but the cap remained as a folk memory of liberty. It appeared frequently in British and colonial American art and iconography, and was used on seals and prints as visual symbolism during the American Revolution.
When revolution broke out in France in 1789 the liberty cap was seized on again. With the country gripped by the Reign of Terror in 1793, what was by now a symbol of allegiance to the revolution was adopted by anyone, including aristocrats, who wished to avoid the guillotine. The market women, who had led their own successful protest against the establishment in 1789, famously sat by the guillotine and knitted liberty caps between beheadings.
The red, white and blue cockade also served as a revolutionary symbol in France. It was worn by thousands of ordinary people – often pinned to a liberty cap. Napoleon wore one of these cockades pinned to his bicorn hat at the Battle of Waterloo, as an emblem of his ‘man of the people’ persona.
The French Tricolore flag we know today was created during the French Revolution, adapted from these cockades. Marianne, the national symbol of the French republic is still often depicted wearing a Phrygian ‘liberty’ cap.
Did you know..?
The comic characters The Smurfs all wear white liberty caps, except for their leader, Papa Smurf, whose cap is red.
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.