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Radical Translations

In Antiquity this conical headgear was worn by the inhabitants of Anatolia, including the Trojans and the Phrygians (who gave it its name). During Roman times the pileus, a more rounded hat, was worn by former slaves who had been freed.

Paris of Troy wearing a Phrygian cap.jpg
Paris of Troy wearing a Phrygian cap Public domain

During the French revolution the Phrygian cap came to symbolise newfound liberty based on laws and constitutions. Although the Phrygian cap had never really featured in the traditional attire of the French people, Parisian artisans and workers living in the Faubourg Saint-Antoin used to wear bonnets (caps) which had a similar shape. These caps first appeared as a visible badge of commitment to the revolution during the Festival of the Federation on July 14 1790 (the National Feast to commemorate the fall of the Bastille).

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, The Genius of France between Liberty and Death, Wikimedia Commons

From 1792 onwards, the red woollen cap was worn in support of the revolutionary government. Such bonnets de la liberté (liberty cap) became ubiquitous in the prints, paintings, and cartoons of the period, both at home and abroad. British cartoons lampooning the French revolution often depicted famished or otherwise suitably wretched French men and women wearing the liberty cap to indicate the degradation and anarchy wreaked by the French Revolution. In Italy, reactionary cartoonists used the liberty cap to portray the greedy revolutionary armies who had destabilized the system of Old-regime states.

the zenith of French glory.jpg
The zenith of French glory British Museum

The political message of the liberty cap did not fade away. Today the liberty cap stands in numerous coat of arms of democratic institution, like the U.S. Senate, as well as in many coats of arms of democratic states like the Republic of Haiti (below on the right) or the Republic of Colombia (below on the centre).