Behind the Uniform, Part I

The silver epaulettes and crowns of the MarinesWe’ve had a surge of activity recently, and there are a few reasons for that!

It seems that the Capstan Crew gets excited whenever new materials or accessories arrive, and that’s quite understandable. Over the past few weeks quite a few new additions have been delivered for the Royal Marine Uniform. As a result, a lot of research, reading, sewing and planning has been done on that particular reproduction. You’ve read about, and have seen a few sneak peeks at that particular project (you’ll note the picture our talented seamstress posted featuring our sewn redcoat, as well as the updated profile picture on the Crew page).

I’ll abstain from going into detail on the Marine coat, as that is not my place. Suffice to say, as more work is done on the uniform, you’ll see quite a few pictures and editorials. Much fun to be had!

A terrible example of your typical Napoleonic-era costume.For now, however, I’d like to write about the first reproduction the Capstan Crew focused on, namely the Royal Navy Captain’s uniform. It was the first step our tailor has taken as far as uniform reproduction is concerned, and a lot of work precipitated any actual labour. One does not simply pick up a needle and thread and start sewing.

I cannot convey accurately how difficult it is to develop a “costume” like this. I put costume in quotations because I really hate using that term to describe what we’re doing here—these reproductions have gone far beyond that. It would be an honest insult to Johanna’s handiwork to call them costumes. They are uniforms. I digress, however; these uniforms are difficult to develop, and I’ll go into detail as to why. Pictured right is a terrible example of your typical Napoleonic-era costume.

First off, when one is searching for a Napoleonic Era costume or uniform on the Internet, or at a costume shop, they would be hard pressed to find one—uniforms of this era demanded a certain style and accuracy, a practice many costumers seem to shy from. Most costumes from this era tend to favour the late 17th or early 18th century, before naval uniform regulations came into effect—this naturally allowed a fair bit of leeway in custom creations. This era, of course, is far before the chaos of the Napoleonic period, and even before the tumultuous French Revolution. The uniform of the Royal Navy was quite varied and dependent on the income of the officer at this time, and it was only until the 1750s when it became truly regulated.

Beautiful gold-tone buttons and trimEven with such regulations in place, our contemporary definition of a uniform was quite different from a British officer’s! When we envision a solider in his uniform, one might understandably assume that his compatriot’s uniform will look identical to his own, and this would be true. With the terrible convenience of mass produced cloth goods and manufactured clothing, it’s incredibly easy to churn out a thousand uniforms that are nigh indistinguishable from one another. In the 18th century, however, there weren’t any mass produced uniforms. Each officer went to his own tailor, or a recommended tailor, where the finished production was dependent on the tailor’s skill and the income of the officer. Even with regulations in effect, a rich Captain could afford real gold buttons and silver buckles, while a poorer Captain may have to suffer with brass buttons and pinch-back buckles.

So you can imagine the difficulty we had in deciding what type of uniform to create. They were all different! There wasn’t a step-by-step process we could take in developing something that demanded accuracy. To deviate from the uniform’s intended appearance would be a grave mistake—these reproductions are not swashbuckling outfits or thrown-together seafarer costumes. They represent a proud history of servicemen, and to capture such a dignified history demanded a certain attention to detail.

Russel Crowe as the heroic Jack Aubrey, R.N.Eventually we ended up relying heavily on a number of sources. It was easy to use the crutch of Hollywood and popular mainstream media—blockbuster hits like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (the protagonist, Russel Crowe as Jack Aubrey, is pictured right) and the Horatio Hornblower made-for-T.V. series. While these uniforms are excellent, and in many cases quite accurate, we ended up using a more academic source. Early on in the project I stumbled across the National Maritime Museum website, a wonderful institution located in Greenwich, England. We used the NMM site for two reasons. For one, it was a bonafide source. This is as close to the horse’s mouth we could get. Two, it had some pretty spectacular high-resolution shots. When you’re working from generic patterns, and you have to improvise in order to capture a certain look, you can’t use shoddy low-resolution gifs on Google. You need quality, and NMM provided.

R.N. Captain's CoatI welcome you to browse through the NMM’s uniform collection. The Capstan Crew used this particular uniform for the coat, as it seemed to encompass the rough time period we were looking for, and it looked cool. Our seamstress worked diligently to capture the rough appearance of the above coat, and the result turned out to be spectacular. With some careful improvisation to some generic costume patterns she procured, a fairly accurate reproduction of that ca. 1810 coat was cut. It has since been sewn, lined and trimmed. The cut of a coat, however, is only part and parcel of the larger picture. The necessary accoutrements is what truly makes the uniform worth working on (it also turned out to be the most expensive part of the ordeal).

The next installment of Behind the Uniform will focus more on the raw materials and accessories used. We’ll try to be as detailed as possible, but feel free to ask any questions! We’re more than happy to field them.

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About Dave

I am a twenty-two year old university student living in Nova Scotia, Canada. I am an avid naval history enthusiast, particularly the Regency/Napoleonic eras. I have a particular interest in the British Royal Navy and other Britannic military orders.

11 thoughts on “Behind the Uniform, Part I

  1. M.S. says:

    I would love to know where one can find he sword belt buckle worn by Aubrey (Crowe) in master and commander.

  2. Norrington says:

    Where did you purchase your hats from?

    • Johanna says:

      Hatcrafters, a great company in PA. Check out this page of their online catalogue: http://hatcrafters.com/page5.htm

      If you want to order you’ll have to place a call. They’ve recently updated their pricing, if I’m not mistaken. We ordered No. 252.

      • Norrington says:

        Thank you. I ordered the “Incroyable” hat from them, but wasn’t too pleased with the product. Perhaps I will order the one you did and see if I get better results.

        Is your group listed on Facebook??

  3. Ed. Pellew says:

    your coat looks great. where did you get those epaulettes? I’d really love to know!

  4. huskylover says:

    I enjoy reading this blog, I usually learn something interesting facts.
    Emily R. from Husky Tips

  5. M says:

    No gentleman would be caught dead without a watch in fob pocket or waistcoat. What’s the solution?

  6. LadyD says:

    This is a really interesting post (just stumbled on your blog looking for inspiration for a planned naval uniform inspired regency Spencer). I was worried about using ‘cheap’ buttons…but maybe I’ll pretend I was a poor captains relative. 😉

  7. LR Berg says:

    This looks pretty interesting. RN Navy uniforms ranged between good and superb.

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