Democracy 250, 18th Century Costume Ball

A Lovely Event

On October 2, 1758, the first Grand Assembly in this country met in a small wooden building in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This was to be the birth of parliamentary democracy in Canada. There were twenty-two men chosen to represent people from all over Nova Scotia. Although they were all white, protestant, male, and land owners, the democratic process nevertheless grew from that point on, with Nova Scotia leading the way. Read more here.

We had a marvelous time!

Nova Scotia is marking this very important historic date with a year long celebration of events called “Democracy 250”. You can view the schedule of events here. There are all kinds of things going on, one of which we have been privileged to attend.

On Thursday evening an 18th century costume ball was held at the World Trade and Convention centre in Halifax, in their grand ballroom. Although I don’t have the exact numbers I would say that almost 400 people attended the glittering $125.00 per person event. Well worth the money my husband and I agree. Most of the attendees threw themselves happily into the flavour of the evening, the majority arriving in a beautiful array of wonderful and authentic costuming and uniforms.

The Passage to India was well received

The hour long reception prior to dinner, gave all a chance to chat and admire the dress of their compatriots. The beverages flowed freely and the appetizers were delicious. These were served by the most conscientious of white gloved staff until the piper called us all to dinner. The decor was lovely, the tables elegant and dressed with pristine white table coverings and silver center pieces. The food, which consisted of a five  or six course meal, was very period and yummy and included a delicious harvest squash soup, roast pork, blueberry dessert and finished off with a glass of Port. Although I’ve not often sampled Port, my husband rather likes it, and it did seem a fitting way to end the meal.

"An Officer and a Gentleman"

The King ( George II at the time) was toasted liberally throughout dinner and the conversation was lively and vigorous. The music was provided by the Nova Scotia Symphony which performed in 18th century style. This added a terrific ambiance to the evening. A re-enactment group gave a lovely demonstration of 18th century dance, and the lesson after-wards was greeted with much enthusiasm by the guests, the dance floor being filled to capacity.

We stayed until the Symphony packed up and went home. Although the evening ended early, (it was a Thursday night), I can’t say when I’ve enjoyed myself more. Our compliments go to the organizers, whose skill and attention to detail really made this an awesome evening.

It was our first time out in our costumes and even though we felt we were quite prepared, there were some challenges to overcome. Some of these were getting a five hoop skirt into a modern day car, using an escalator or a ladies room in such a big dress, and keeping track of the large fore and aft hat. These were taken in good stride and indeed, added a sense of hilarity to the occasion. All in all, I would say we managed quite well and are ready to have another go at it anytime!

“To the King!”

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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 MilitaryHeritage.com!

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 NMM.ac.uk

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 NMM.ac.uk). 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). Amazon.com 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 “amazon.com 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!