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The Vivandières: women in the army

How the Vivandières' uniforms reflected their role

colour illustration showing a soldier standing and a cantinière on horseback
par
Marta Franceschini (s'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) (European Fashion Heritage Association)

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, being a diversified and complex community, the army is – and was – made up by representatives of both genders, working together and sharing spaces, time and, interestingly, style.

black and white sketch of a woman who holds basket and a tray

The Vivandières – or cantinières – were originally associated with French regiments, but they were present in many different countries as a fundamental part of the army. As important members of their regiment, they had several tasks: carrying food and drinks to soldiers on the battlefield, as well as acting as nurses and supporters of the troops.

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.

colour illustration of  a woman in French military uniform adapted to female dress, she holds a drinks barrel) over her shoulder

The uniforms of the Vivandières 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.

colour postcard with an illustration of vivandières speaking with soldiers

At the end of the 19th 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 remained strongly present in popular culture, theatre, opera and advertising.