Behind the Uniform, Part III

Poster advertising the 18th Century Costume BallIt has been a few weeks since my last update, and I regret that very much. Classes have tied up my free time for the large part (I attend Acadia University in Wolfville), which leaves little opportunity for recreational writing! Progress on the Man the Capstan projects, however, has proceeded undeterred.

Two of our projects are finalized—Passage to India, a lady’s gown which Johanna has been working on (read about it here, and here!) and the Royal Marine’s uniform. There is still so much to add regarding the Marine’s uniform, but we’re going to save that for another update until we have a few more pictures. Johanna and Steve recently bought a digital SLR (the Canon Rebel XSI, I believe), and it is rocking—we’ll have plenty of opportunities to take some really phenomenal shots, and we’ll be sure to get some rapid updates here with some brand new photos.

Johanna and Steve also recently procured two tickets for an event in Halifax, which falls under the year-long Democracy 250 celebration. It was two-hundred and fifty years ago that democracy was first practiced in Halifax, and one of the many events to commemorate this is an authentic 18th Century Costume Ball. Well, how convenient for us that we started these “costumes” a few months ago! Johanna put in some extra time to get the Marine’s uniform ready to go, as well as some significant final touches on the Passage to India. As of right now, they should be finishing their meal and getting ready to dance (the event was tonight). Expect pictures in the next few days!

This post, however, was intended to bring to a close the Behind the Uniform series, touching on the few remaining accessories necessary to bring a Royal Navy uniform to life. I believe that in the conclusion of my last post I mentioned the sword, hat and boots. Let’s start there!

Replica of Lord Nelson's sword, reputed to have been used at TrafalgarAs it turns out, these three items (along with the lace) would account for some of the most expensive purchases here at Man the Capstan. The sword was the most difficult—there are hundreds of options to choose from, and frankly, nearly all of them are way out of budget. We quickly determined that a functional sword was unnecessary (we figured that the chance the need may arise for cold, naval steel, would be decidedly low, albeit incredibly cool). There are many online shops you can order weapons from—axes, mauls, maces, swords, daggers, bows, muskets and event flintlock pistols. Functional, full-tang, replica, etcetera—it was all available, and usually far overpriced. Pictured right is a replica of Lord Nelson’s sword obtained from Military Heritage, in the 1827 pattern (issue replica), reputed to have been worn at Trafalgar. Check out this, and more, at!

The temptation to buy the 1805 replica of Lord Nelson’s sword (with accompanying sword knot) did present itself, but wisdom and the almighty budget prevailed.

Our sword, not as glamorous, certainly, but adequete!Eventually, we found something (pictured left). We bought an excellent officer’s sabre (in gold), that cost (with shipping from California, blargh) about $80.00. It was worth it, however—it was the cheapest, and finest-quality sword for the price we could find. Alongside the sword, we ordered an authentic R.N. sword knot, the same variety that’s used in the present-day Royal Navy.

The sword comes with scabbard rings as well, so when a sword-belt is purchased, she’ll hang comfortably from the hip with hangers, as it should.

We still need to buy two more swords for the Marine and the other R.N. uniform (the Marine is using my gold one tonight for the Ball), but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.Naval cocked hat, c. 1748, taken from

Now, the hat presented a real problem. For months, ever since the project started, we scoured the Internet looking for appropriate hats. The problem here is twofold. First, choosing the right hat was difficult, depending on the time period. Cocked hats were losing popularity towards the end of the 18th century (see attached picture of an older cocked hat, taken from Older admirals and distinguished Captains often held to the old style they were accustomed to. Younger naval officers, however, took quickly to the new fashion that had been appearing in London, in response to a trend that was taking quick hold across the channel in France. The chapeau de bras was a cocked hat of sorts, worn in the fore-and-aft fashion, that could be folded and tucked neatly beneath the arm when not in use. At the turn of the 19th century, the chapeau bras saw widespread use in the Royal Navy. The Hornblower series illustrates this transition nicely, in fact (and I’m not sure if it was accidental or not). Our intrepid hero, Horatio, wears a cocked hat (the older style) in the beginning of the series. Episode 5, on the deck of the HMS Renown, Hornblower has taken to the chapeau bras, and wears it alongside his fellow lieutenants. The insane Captain Sawyer—an old friend of Nelson, and a distinguished naval officer of many years—still wears the older cocked hat.

Velvet-felt chapeau de bras, from the Sutlers Stores — this is a beautiful hat, and the Sutlers have some incredible productEventually, we opted for the chapeau bras. It looked cool, and it fit into our time period more accurately (we’re figuring around ~1805 or so).

Secondly, finding an affordable chapeau bras was turning out to be an impossible task. Most sutlery and reenactment sites were charging over $200.00 in some cases (and in others, far far more), and that was far beyond the Capstan budget. Granted, these hats are beautiful hats (the pictured let comes from the Sutlers Stores, a gorgeous selection of hats, belts, and other accessories). I contacted a number of milliners, and while they were exceedingly helpful, and directed me to lovely choices, all of those hats were very expensive. As much as I’d love to have a fully trimmed, velvet-felted hat, it just wasn’t feasible. We began to lose hope in finding a decent chapeau bras (and we even were looking to see if we could make our own, a scary thought) until we found Hatcrafters.

Our wool-felt chapeau bras, in the midst of being trimmed — notice our tailor's choice of clamps?These guys were awesome. Within sixty seconds of finding their site, I had navigated to the catalogue and found the hat we needed. Right there, in front of us. The chapeau bras, wool-felt hat, in black. And the best part? It was $80.00! Shipping would bring that up, naturally, but the goal we set was a hat for under $100, and we found it. We immediately ordered two, in the right size, and when they arrived they were perfect. Well-lined, with a quality leather sweatband, with nary a defect. There were a few wrinkles in the shape of the hat, but a bit of steam above a kettle fixed that pretty quick. The third hat just arrived a few days ago, and right now we’re all set as far as hats are concerned. The Marine had has been fully trimmed, with silver gilt wire and a black cockade. In fact, Steve (our Marine) should be wearing it tonight at the Ball (I can’t wait for the pictures). Pictured right is our Marine’s hat in construction!

Captain Aubrey and his black "Hessians"The last problem presented would be footwear. This is one of those “blurry” lines in the whole debacle. Taking a look at older uniforms (and particularly in paintings and portraits), officers often wore different footwear, depending on a number of conditions such as style, the occasion, and personal taste. Taking a look at pop culture and mainstream media, for a moment, the intrepid Captain Jack Aubrey of Master and Commander wears white breeches with black leather Hessian boots. It makes for quite the swashbuckling appearance (especially with the white ruffled shirt). Hornblower takes to a number of styles, from long navy breeches with buckled shoes, to white breeches, stockings and shoes. Some officers use black boots with navy breeches as well. You can see an example of Aubrey’s black ‘hessian’ boots, with the white breeches.

Personally, I liked the look of the longer navy breeches (down to the ankle); the former blog posts show that’s the direction we took. With this style, you can’t have stockings, though you could wear buckled shoes. Instead, I opted for black leather boots. I like Aubrey’s look, and wanted to try to incorporate that into the uniform.

The problem? Leather is expensive. There are polyurethane alternatives, but honestly this takes us back to the “costume” debate; you can spot plastic and polyurethane miles away, and we want to avoid that. The trick was finding a decent pair of boots that looked good, and were a decent price.

Pleaser's Maverick knee-high leather bootsThe Internet, once again, proved invaluable. A few listings on eBay were tempting. We avoided them all mainly due to size concerns. Large calves run in the family, and as honest as many eBayers tend to be, we cannot afford to order boots that won’t fit, and must be sent back (or resold). has a marketplace, and on it we found a listing for a pair of boots manufactured by a company called Pleaser (they do a large assortment of footwear), called the Maverick. (I wonder if this link will still work, if not a quick google search of “ maverick boot knee” should return some results).

For about $100.00 (with tax and shipping), we had a great pair of boots that not only fit great, but look great. The cuff can be turned down, as shown, or unfolded for a taller boot. I like the flexibility of the pig leather, and the authentic look. We may have to look at getting some extra soles added for extra walking. I have a feeling the rubber will just not cut it. You can see the boot to the right.

There are a number of other accessories the uniform will feature, small things sucha a pocket-watch with a gold anchor fob, looking glass, boatswain whistle, etcetera—for the most part, however, the first Royal Navy costume is complete. We are still waiting on about ten metres of bias and stand trim for the front lapels (which is why we’ve avoided posting more pictures here, like an artist hesitant to show an unfinished painting). We’re hoping that the lace will arrive soon, and we can finish this project. October 31st is coming up fast, and come Halloween the Capstan Crew will be out in force for a night out.

I noticed a steady increase in traffic these past few weeks; I encourage any interested parties to leave a comment, or pose a question! Stay tuned, we’ve many more updates coming!


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.

15 thoughts on “Behind the Uniform, Part III

  1. Cathy says:

    The accessories you chose look great (especially the boots!) and it’s fantastic that you were able to find them for such nice prices. I can’t wait to see the whole outfit!

  2. Dave says:

    We were pretty happy about the boots. They, along with the hat, were difficult to find. I still think we were pretty lucky to find that chapeau de bras—they are just not easy to get.

    Once we get that 10 metres of trim, we’ll lace the coat and get it up here! Can’t wait; it has amounted to months of waiting.

  3. Great website! Every Patrick O’Brien fan will also love the new book, “Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York,” by Thomas M. Truxes. Just released and sure to be a best seller. Here’s the link,

  4. burl wood says:

    This is great website
    I’ll tell all my friends about it.

  5. WP Themes says:

    Amiable brief and this post helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you as your information.

  6. Robert Swanson says:

    May have given you wrong email yesterday – note correct above. Seldom use it which also explains errors such as repeat information – sorry. Concerning boots vs breeches and stockings for Officers. Formal dress and duties ashore always called for breeches and stockings at this time, but boots favoured by many for battle and working dress on board.
    Story of a junior Officer asking Nelson’s advice on which to wear so as to be properly dressed for a battle was told, “I recommend breeches and stockings. They’re much easier for the surgeon to cut through when your leg gets shattered by a ball!”
    Even after gold-laced trousers were adopted in about 1830 for all usual occasions breeches and stockings were still de rigeur at Court with the Queen present until about the Crimean War.

  7. Iain MacPhail says:

    Ah, what fun! I came to your site after Googling ‘chapeau bras’. I hadn’t noticed that the second word has another meaning, so the trip was a tad slower than it might…

    Anyway, the group we dance with includes dances of the Regency period, and what with the present fascination with everything Jane Austin, we get quite a few gigs. This has led to more emphasis on convincing appearance in costume, and I thought that a folding chapeau bras might be a hoot. The huge crescent brim is obvious, but what happens inside? I figured it might be akin to a glengarry (?) or an RAF or USAF forage cap??? I’ve got e few clues, but it’s going to be a matter of experimenting with paper, card and sticky tape.


  8. Iain MacPhail says:

    About the boots. The ones youv’e shown look great, and I’m a bit envious about the leather. For my Regency top boots I started with a pair of black vinyl high riding boots from the local saddler, to which I added a tan leather turn-down. The boots were quite cheap, and the end result has met with approval, even in the re-creaters camp! The same boots could be even easier to cut down into hessians (I mean the ones with the curved top and tassle in the front).

  9. TC says:

    Can you advise me on which website you actually ended up buying that sword from, as well as your sword belt?

    Also, if one wanted to carry a flint-lock pistol, whereabouts in your clothing would you tuck it?

    • Dave says:

      Hello “TC”! Thank you for your comments.

      We bought it from an eBay store that, much to my chagrin, I can no longer fine. There are a “lot” of shops and stores on eBay though that advertise the same sort of weapon, for the same relative price. The disadvantage to online shopping, of course, is that an item like a sword is so large that shipping tends to be more expensive than the sword itself.

      If you can buy local, you’ll save money! Not always possible, I know. : ) We bought the replacement sword from a gentleman on eBay as well. It is your best bet, really. Querying for “Officer’s Sabre” or “Dress Sword” and the like, and arranging by price, should yield the appropriate results.

      As far the flintlock pistol, the most accurate answer is “anywhere you can”! The most common place was tucked into your waistband or sword belt. Some sailors even carried slings that could carry as many as six pistols at once!

      • TC says:

        Thank you very much! I just found a lovely us navy dress sabre from ww1 that is far too cheap (I think someone cleaned out his grandfather’s basement and has no idea what it’s worth.) Your blog has been extremely helpful to me so far, not to mention very interesting in it’s own right! My experience is largely Tudor, so this is branching out significantly. I’m making an Admiral Jane Roland, but as a historical costumer from other periods, I feel the need to make a clothing-quality (or film quality, if you will) piece. The thing I’m singularly most excited about is how I found a pair of “superhero” costume boots that totally have the silhouette of Hessians, so with some tassel and braid and effort… My next question is, what chemical solutions do you recommend for polishing? This original WWI sword is definitely going to need some very gentle love.

      • Dave says:

        I must admit I’m excited to hear about your costume choice! I’m a huge fan of the Temeraire series. I’d be very interested in seeing your final product when you’re comfortable with sharing it!

        I took a look at some of your creations and you are incredibly talented; the sort of detail you put into your work is exactly what we’re so obsessed with here at Man the Capstan. It is the difference between a “costume” and a work of creative expression. Fantastic stuff, and it makes me doubly curious to see how Roland’s bottle-green uniform turns out!

        I wish I was a more experienced conservator so I could advise you better. As a history major I’ve been exposed to some of that, but honestly I am no expert and I really wouldn’t feel comfortable offering advice on something as precious as a WW1 dress sword. What I will say is that it all depends on the quality of the sword; if it was well cared for and is in good condition, then it will be a lot easier to clean her up.

        If there is brass on the blade you should feel comfortable in using brasso or some other similar polish to give her back that shine. Be careful if the sabre has a leather scabbard; you really don’t want to get brasso on that, especially if it’s old and cracked.

        As far as the scabbard and/or blade is concerned, I’d exercise caution and perhaps search for some more technical advice on Google; if there is a war or military museum nearby, you could always call them up and solicit some advice from them as well. I have found they are always keen to help in that respect.

        Good luck, and please share!

  10. Sergio Morariu says:

    Where did you find the sabre with the black handle?

  11. Dee Golles says:

    I loved this site as I was looking for the Master and Commander captain look fora pirate wedding I am attending. I know its a little later than Pirates, but like the look and probably no one will know, right?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s