The Victorian Gentleman’s Wardrobe, costume as an exhibition of masculinity

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Today Count d’Orsay walked in. I had not seen him for four or five years, Last time he was as gay in his colours as a humming-bird… Today, in compliment to his five more years, he was all in black and brown … Well! That man understood his trade; if it be that of a dandy, nobody can deny that he is a perfect master of it, that he dresses himself with consummate skill! Poor d’Orsay! He was born to have been something better than even the king of dandies.

Jane Welsh Carlyle, Letters and Memorials

The shifting role of men in Victorian society.

The growing industrial landscape of 19th Century Britain heralded new attitudes towards the roles of men and women in their domestic and public lives. The ‘Separate Spheres’ Ideology arose from the creation of the modern workplace and signified a rift between husbands at work and their wives at home.

Concepts of gender, which were arguably more flexible in previous centuries, now became rigid.

One cause of this was the decline of cottage industry, environs where men and women spent the most part of the working week together. Now, women were disallowed from work, relegated to a role of altruistic domestic companion and the social mesh of the male and female world steadily disintegrated.

Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood 1863 by George Elgar Hicks 1824-1914Meanwhile, as the sole breadwinners for the family, working men, saw significantly less involvement in the raising of children and management of their household, consequently finding themselves becoming isolated from their own families.

At the beginning of the Victorian period, the concept of masculinity was recognized as Christian maturity; the success of a man’s family and his mental resolve. While at its close, masculinity was assessed by physical virtue; the success of a man’s career and his ambition.

The expectation of all men in Victorian Britain was full commitment to their working lives, meaning fashionable clothing would become a direct response to the culture of man’s responsibilities at work –

  • The cut of men’s clothing in the 19th century becomes increasingly practical. The introduction of darts revolutionised tailoring in the late 1820s, permitting men’s clothing to ease the restriction of a skin-tight fit without forgoing fashionable silhouettes.
  • The colour palette of male dress was diminished to a limited selection of dark hues; demonstrative colours were socially unacceptable.
  • Articles of clothing became rationalised to further promote conformity. Men’s daywear and eveningwear became homogeonised; coats and jackets became indistinguishable garments; and the traditional cuts of pantaloons and trowsers were hybridised to form modern dress trousers.

In conclusion, masculinity was conveyed through men’s clothing as a statement of the wearer’s purpose in life: to go to work, progress in his vocation, and provide for his family. As women inhabited the domestic sphere, and the femininity of their dress took on qualities of the home; men inhabited the external world, yielding control of their own individuality to achieve conformity in the public sphere.

From Flanders Fields: Costume of Remembrance

The ceremony of Remembrance Weekend in the United Kingdom is, to many, an important tradition to recall those who placed their country before themselves. It’s characterised by the collective wearing of paper poppies; the act is observed by millions every year, irrespective of personal military connections and raises thousands for Armed Forces charities.

From a Costumier’s perspective however, the British Legion Poppies (and their international counterparts) venture beyond charitable intentions, and convey much more about social attitudes and the individual character of its wearers.

The poppy’s association with conflict is rooted in it’s nature to grow well in disturbed soil. Earth that’s torn and turned by artillery often proves unfavourable for much else to grow in, but for poppy flowers, blossoming amidst the carnage, these ideal conditions make them a common sight on battlefields.

While not nearly as emotive as those that were produced by writers and poets of the First World War, the comparisons drawn between Flanders poppies and battle had certainly existed for many centuries. In the final years of the Napoleonic Wars, with much fighting situated over uncultivated fields of Northern France, many witnesses rather coldly remarked on the unexpected emergence of red poppies where dead soldiers lay unburied.

The adoption of the poppy as the symbol for the British Legion, in 1921, is attributed to the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. The poem is a lament for lost comrades and was one of the first written works to employ the imagery of poppy fields as a way to remember fallen soldiers. The charity arose in response to the high number of wounded ex-servicemen and their families who faced unemployment and poverty after the war; the first ‘Poppy Appeal’ would offer solutions to both; first by employing thousands of wounded soldiers to craft paper poppies, and secondly by donating the proceeds of the poppy sales to those reliant on the British Legion’s charity.

The original poppy was a delicate design of silk and beadwork with a felted stem, created as a stylish patriotic fascinator by Moina Michael, an American woman inspired by McCrae’s poem.

High demand and short supply of poppies in Scotland prompted the creation of the ‘Lady Haig Poppy Factory’ in 1926, by the wife of British Field Marshall for the Western Front, Earl Douglas Haig. Unlike the poppies made in England, the design of Scottish Poppies has gone widely unchanged in their 91 years of use.

Bleuet de France (the cornflower) is the French counterpart to the poppy. Formulated in the same year as the British Legion, and for much of the same reasons, the Bleuet is worn for the remembrance of French soldiers as the poppy is worn for British.

In French culture, the cornflower is a popular symbol of innocence – evoking thoughts of the young, unmarried men called to war. The name is also a reference to the vivid blue uniforms worn by fresh recruits, contrasting the washed-out and mud-stained uniforms of veterans.

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You can support the Poppy Appeal by donating to the British Legion

Leeds Royal Armouries, Form & Function on the Battlefield

Of the rich collection of historical arms and armour displayed at the Leeds Royal Armouries museum, an aspect of the subject which may often be overlooked is the simple (or not so simple) clothing that was worn to battle.

Interspersed with swords, muskets and suits of armour, the collection holds many beautifully preserved garments, spanning five centuries of military history – they reflect the social climate of their time through their influence by, and influence upon peacetime fashions.

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Among the English Civil War (1642-1651) exhibit is a Parliamentarian buff coat,  attributed to Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes (1608-1669). Compared to other ‘rank-and-file’ coats in the museum’s display, the officer’s coat is of considerably greater quality – not necessarily in the quality of materials used, but moreso in the complexity of construction and the ease of comfort it affords the wearer.

A key feature of the officer’s buff coat is its cutoff sleeves and inset cuffs. The arm is cut very wide from the scye to the forearm and vented along the inside seam at the elbow; a second sleeve-piece is inserted, extending from the the elbow and tapering close to the wrist – buttoned with at least five small ball-buttons along the outside seam. When compared to typical coats of the period; with wide, closed sleeves of a simple two-piece construction; one can appreciate the trade-off here between mobility and protection. The unusual construction of Fiennes’ coat therefore signifies an investment in functionality above form, at a time when Upper Ranks were generally more concerned with finery than practicality.

In contrast, military uniforms of the early 18th century had mostly foregone notions of clothing as protection – as musketry and line-infantry tactics surpassed the use of sword and pike, armies accepted the obsolescence of unwieldy armour. In response to the smoke, noise and confusion of modern warfare, uniforms became rationalised and gaudy. This coat, attributed to the Battle of Blenheim (1704), is an example of the bright colouration of uniform coats that dominated 18th and 19th century military fashion. The War of Spanish Succession (1702-1714) and the Great Northern War (1700-1721) introduced a new school of military thought, based on the psychological effects of fighting men. Uniformity implies discipline; and discipline implies battle prowess.

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The museum’s Waterloo exhibit features a life-size diorama of a French cuirassier surrendering to a Private soldier of the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot in the final moments of the battle. In truth, soldiers would be instructed to leave their knapsacks in camp or on a baggage train when preparing to go to battle, so a Private at Waterloo likely wouldn’t have been burdened by their heavy ‘Marching Order’ during the fighting of the day. Still, the inclusion of a knapsack and rolled greatcoat in the diorama helps illustrate the reality that soldiers of all ranks carried their lives on their backs.

In today’s world, it would seem nigh suicidal to march on the battlefield in such brightly coloured clothing, but in centuries past, battle was a spectacle of performance and the uniform of battle was nothing less than a costume for its performers. The ‘actors’ in great conflicts all had a role to play, as the ‘audience’ too are occasioned to know their host.

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Year Zero

The 3rd of November 2017 marks my first anniversary as both a historical reenactor and a student of costume. For myself, that period is marked by many personal achievements and experiences that I could not have imagined possible just twelve months ago.

The long-story-made-short goes thus:

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‘Carolean Coat’ Autumn 2016

Halloween 2016 saw me making my first real costume garment, a coat of navy blue Melton wool lined in yellow Linen. Based on a typical Swedish uniform of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), the project was my first experience in researching the cut of a garment, tailoring to measurements, making pockets and lining, and discriminating historically accurate materials. It wasn’t perfect, but it was work I felt truly proud of, and it left me with an irresistible urge to go on and make more costumes.

My best friend had joined a local reenactment society the previous Winter, a Napoleonic-period rifle battalion. And while I was admittedly dubious of the pursuit; knowing nothing about Napoleonics in the slightest; I was drawn by his stories of the group’s camaraderie and the excitement of living like a soldier. I was eager to enlist, and did so as soon as I could commit the time and money the hobby demanded.

Through the Winter months of 2016, I joined the group on several training days at their ‘headquarters’, Middleton Hall in Warwickshire. The first investment, as all new recruits are advised, is a pair of ‘brogan’ or ‘blucher’ boots as historically accurate footwear is a must. Following that, the next uniform to acquire was a ‘regimental suit’ of green rifleman’s jacket and blue pantaloons. The former was supplied by the group’s founder and in-house tailor, Steve. The latter was at that time unobtainable, for no supplier for the unit’s unique blue pantaloons could be found.

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’60th (Rifles) Jacket’ at the RGJ Mueseum

At my friend’s suggestion, Steve kindly offered to teach me everything he knew of Georgian period-tailoring and set me to work making a trial pair of pantaloons for myself; I completed the first pair shortly after the New Year and presented them to Steve in Winchester, following a research trip to the Royal Greenjackets Museum, to handle a surviving Napoleonic Rifle Officer’s jacket. Witnessing such an important garment so close and tangible ignited my passion for recreating historical costume, and in being approved as my group’s supplier of regimental pantaloons, I was now granted an opportunity to enter into that profession.

No sooner had I finished my first work for the 5/60th, I was asked if I’d undertake a commission for three pairs of Rifle Volunteer’s regimental trowsers for performers at Alnwick Castle. As well as being agreeable income, the commission furnished me with a considerable surplus of Bottle Green broadcloth, so naturally, I desired my next project to be the construction of my own regimental jacket.

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In actual fact, it took over six months between starting my own jacket and finally completing it – with a constant stream of commissions coming through, I quickly learned that personal projects will more often fall to the wayside to make time for the paying work. I mustn’t grumble, as I’m doing what I love – and whether it’s myself or a customer, I find few feelings so rewarding as seeing a well-made garment being worn and enjoyed by it’s wearer.