During the Rococo period in France (1740-1790 BCE), ribbons were very popular among the wealthy as they tried to strengthen their ties to the noble class. Fancy ribbons woven of silk and other expensive fibers were especially suitable for decorating clothing, and were used with abandon by those who could afford them. The ribbon’s elegant frivolity reflected the graceful playfulness of the Rococo movement. Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s famous painting, ‘The Swing’ shows a woman of this period with ribbons decorating her hat, shoes, the edges of her sleeves and hem, and the bodice of her gown. She even has ribbons at her neck! It is a good example of how ribbon was used to decorate clothing of the French aristocracy. At that time a woman could change her dress up to seven times a day and each outfit required coordinating shoes and hair appointments, which were often embellished with ribbons. Ribbons were also popular with the men who wore huge rosettes made of ribbon on their coats, hats and shoes.
Ribbons played their small part in the economic unbalance that led to the French Revolution. Although the common people were in desperate need, wealthy men and women adorned themselves with as many expensive ribbons as they could get their hands on. Then the citizens of France had their turn. During the revolution, ribbons were used to identify who was supporting the common citizenry and who was supporting the aristocracy. Cockades of red, white and blue ribbons were adopted as the symbol of support for change. Perhaps we could consider these cockades to be the ancestors of modern ‘awareness’ ribbons. During the revolution, it was unsafe to be seen in public without a cockade to show support for change. The demand for ribbons remained strong since all of the citizens of France were using ribbons for their own purposes.
At this time ribbons were woven as a cottage industry in France, England and Switzerland. A family could rent a loom and materials from a ribbon manufacturer and sell them back the finished ribbons. It was a slow process and this made ribbons very expensive. In 1801 a revolution occurred when Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a new type of loom. Jacquard looms wove cloth in intricate patterns using an automated punchcard system that lifted each thread individually. This punchcard system is credited as being the idea behind modern computers. The Jacquard loom totally changed the weaving industry and had a similar effect on the ribbon market. Jacquard looms produced multicolored fabrics with intricate weaves almost as quickly as they could weave plain fabrics. Within 15 years ribbon manufacturers had adapted Jacquard technology to allow multiple multi-colored ribbons to be woven at once. This loom shown is weaving sixteen souvenir picture ribbons at the same time. Ribbons were now cheaper and easier to obtain and soon became common items in the wardrobes and homes of ordinary citizens. Weaving ribbons one at a time was now obsolete.