Back in January of this year, I was kindly invited to the Royal Green Jackets Museum in Winchester to handle a coat in their collection that bore particular interest to the 60th Rifles reenactment group –
The coat in question is archived under the simple name of ’60th Regiment Officer’s Coat’, but the true nature of the garment is not nearly so conformist.
To the cherished few who find themselves with time on their hands to worry about such trivial matters as ‘who owned a coat 200 years ago?’, many theories are circulating:
One of the most prevalent theories is that this coat is belonged to a well-to-do regimental surgeon. Being such a rarity in the army, professional surgeons were sometimes exempt from the stringent ‘Cloathing Regulations’. Silver braid, as seen here, seems to be a popular embellishment among surgeons. Furthermore, the crossing braid on the coat tails evokes the appearance of Court Dress uniform but with the absence of white turnbacks, this style differs to contemporary depictions of the officially regulated Court Dress uniform for Officers of the Rifle companies; suggesting an unofficially-commissioned uniform coat, styled chiefly on customer’s preference.
Another theory is that the coat itself was made prior to the conception of the 60th Rifles in 1797, as something of a missing link between the 5/60th and their precursors, the similarly green-jacketed and scarlet-faced Hompesch Hussars. The official 60th regiment buttons could have been swapped-in after the new battalion was raised. Conversely, the coat could have been made up for a militia or volunteer regiment and likewise had the buttons swapped-in. As evidence to contest these theories, the hussar-style triple row of buttons are ‘pegged’ into the coat (a fashionable method of making non-functional buttons sit flush with the cloth) and there is no sign that the lining of the coat was cut or opened to feed the row of button rings onto a retaining lace. Speaking from experience, it is next-to-impossible to peg buttons with the lining sewn in and I fail to see the practical merits of attempting to swap-in the buttons without first removing the lining.
Were I to have a horse in this race figuratively, I’d place a horse in this race literally, and suggest the coat was made as a ladies’ riding habit for an officer’s wife of sweetheart. At a glance, it’s much too small for the averaged size man of today – even allowing for the smaller sizes of people in past centuries, this would be a tight fit on most every man of military age. The measurement across the chest was taken at approximately 33″ and the distance between the collarbone and waistline implies the intended wearer could not have been that much taller than 5 feet. Therefore, I am lead to believe the coat was a woman’s jacket, ordered by an officer of the 60th (Rifles), a detail that accounts for the use of official military buttons which would have been unobtainable to civilians. With the assumption that this coat was constructed quite early in the 5/60th’s operation, the sloping turnbacks would have been rather unfashionable for officer’s day-wear but highly fashionable for morning coats and riding jackets.
A most notable example of this practice is in the much publicised portrait of Lady Worsley who became a driving force for military fashions in women’s dress with her riding habits, adapted from the uniform of her husband; Colonel of the Hampshire Militia; Sir Richard Worsley.
I was informed by the curator, Rob Yuill, that prior to its donation to the RGJ Museum the coat had lived many years displayed in a glass cabinet at the old Peninsular Barracks – likely in an officer’s Mess or private office. Interestingly, you can see from the discolouration of the Bottle Green Superfine cloth, exactly how the coat was displayed in its former home, with sleeves crossed over each other across the chest. Admittedly, the ageing of the cloth is evident under scrutiny, however for the colours of the dyestuff to be as vivid as they are after two centuries is impressive, the bold scarlet facings and feathering especially showed no outward signs of fading when the outer cloth is compared to its internal facings.
While it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever learn the true purpose of the coat, as an artefact of Georgian tailoring, it is invaluable. Handling the coat in person felt profoundly intimate; it went beyond the experience of seeing museum exhibits behind their glass panes and enabled a higher level of understanding and appreciation of the anonymous craftsman’s skills.
My thanks go to Steven Davies for inviting me on his research trip, and Rob Yuill for the rich knowledge he shared.