Behind the Uniform, Addendum

Behind the Uniform, AddendumFirst off, I just want to quickly add that Shara is home from the hospital. Mom, dad and son are all healthy and happy (though certainly tired). Johanna is there right now, rendering some assistance, but all is well and we’re very excited!

It has been some time since we’ve updated everyone on the status of the uniforms, in classic Behind the Uniform fashion. I had intended on finishing this “series” with Part III, but have since realized I have neglected a fair bit of information, specifically as it relates to the second Royal Navy uniform, and the Royal Marine’s uniform. This blog, then, is intended to bring these up to speed on that front, and to chronicle the key differences, inspirations and details behind these selected uniforms. If you haven’t read the first three parts, you can play some catch up here, here and here.

I’ll begin with the second Royal Navy uniform, as it deviates in style from the first iteration significantly. One might already notice in photos we’ve published that they do appear different—perhaps the easiest variation to pick out would be the style of pants. The first uniform uses dark navy pants, while the second makes use of white, knee-length breeches. You can see the difference quite clear in our first video blog. I’ll take a moment to reference back to Behind the Uniform, Part I:

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.

The above illustrates the difficulty Man the Capstan has had in designing these various uniforms. Before regulation came into effect in the 18th century, every uniform was different from another in some manner. Even after Royal Navy uniforms became regulated by the Admiralty, there were some deviations they could not account for. At this juncture we could not depend upon the rigidity of uniform policy, and had to find the correct, or the favoured style to emulate. This is where personal taste came into play.

Hornblower, BushMyself, I am more partial to the uniform of the early 19th century, a style that came about during the height of the Napoleonic Wars. C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series, and its A&E made-for-T.V. version, is a perfect example of this slow transition. The stoic Captain Edward Pellew is commonly found in white knee-length breeches, stockings and a cocked hat. As time progresses, however, and fashions change (the blue pants come into being, the naval chapeau de bras sees its introduction, etcetera), Pellew and his contemporaries (Captain Sawyer, from the Renown episodes) are rigid in their favouring of white breeches, while younger officers take to the blue. The first naval uniform, then, is far more similar to the uniforms worn by younger officers in the early 19th century. It’s worth pointing out, however, that white stockings and breeches were still worn, but perhaps in a more formal environment.

Tim (our Captain Edward Martin), however, has taken to the breeches and buckled-shoes style, and had his uniform fashioned in such a manner. To complete the look, and perhaps to add a bit of flare to the normally rigid, formal look of stockings and shoes, he had his shirt ruffled and acquired a jabot. It gives the second uniform a certain roguish, swashbuckling appearance. A great contrast with the first uniform. You can see a great shot showing the three pant-styles of each uniform, taken at the Blomidon Inn.

Pants of the Military Uniforms

These two uniforms also deviate from one another as far as the coat is concerned. The first coat is laced with 1″ bias-and-stand gold trim, while the second uniform uses 1/2″ bias-and-stand gold trim. The difference can sometimes be hard to spot, as both coats are trimmed in the exact same manner. The reason for this was not a question of taste, but rather one of convenience; our supplier of military trim was out of 1″, and October 31st was quickly looming ahead, and we wanted to debut the uniforms on that date (you can read about it here). Rather than wait, we ordered the 1/2″, which suited just fine. In fact, there are instances where such lace was used, and there was no set system for how wide the gold trim had to be.

Major CotardNow, though the Marine uniform was the last design to be decided on, or planned for, it was the first uniform completed. Technically speaking, it’s the only uniform really complete. We’re still waiting on lace for both of the navy uniforms, while the Marine is 100% complete. The design and layout of the Marine coat was far more difficult to nail down, and we referenced quite a few sources, including historical references (the NMM), artistic renditions (old paintings and portraits of serving Marines) and Hollywood. The Marines had some differences in their uniforms as well, just as the Navy did, and it was proving to be a challenge to decide how to arrange it. Eventually, just as with the others, we settled on personal taste. Steve, our Marine, chose a design worn by Major Côtard (Greg Wise) in Loyalty, the second-last episode of the Hornblower series. It seemed perfect, as Steve had already decided on the rank of Major. The pants are the same material as the first Royal Navy pants (the navy blue)—the coat is fashioned with scarlet gabardine. The buttons are an interesting story, actually. They were originally purchased for the RN coats, and are solid brass with an anchor stamped on them. When we found the King George RN buttons, they were quickly discarded. Finding RM buttons, in silver (the tone we wanted) is hard! So, with some silver plating Johanna had procured, we plated the brass buttons and they came out a brilliant silver. They matched the uniform perfectly.

Military Heritage Trim Metallic, SilverThe trim of the Marine coat is very different from the RN coats. First off, it is silver (that much is obvious, I trust). It is a wire lace, however, which is significantly different from the bias-and-stand variety we’re using for the navy uniforms. While roaming for appropriate lace, we decided to check with Military Heritage first (our lace supplier), and stumbled upon this silver metallic wire trim, the same used by many Government agencies, and also typically very expensive. It was on sale (I assume they had limited quantities, or had to buy a lot to complete an order, and had leftover), and we picked up 10 metres to trim the Marine coat. The final result was spectacular—it had an aura of quality and authenticity that’s difficult to replicate.

Save those differences noted above, there are smaller variations as well—all of the swords of the uniforms are different, and there are some accessories that one uniform will have, but another won’t. Guns, sashes, pocket-watches, hip-flasks, etcetera. They are all wonderfully different and unique, each of them an individual creation that has grown and will continue to grow as we acquire more accessories for them. We really have discovered that half the battle is sewing these uniforms—the other half, and the more challenging portion, is decorating them with the flash and pomp that is expected of imperial Great Britain.

That’s about it for the uniform variations. There may or may not be another Behind the Uniform post—it depends how construction proceeds! Hopefully the bias-and-stand trim we’ve ordered from Military Heritage arrives soon, and we can finish the RN coats.

Before I go, I’ll give you folks a peek at an album cover I’ve been working on for our Capstan CD, titled Man the Capstan: Sea Shanties and Folk Music. I most assuredly will use an old painting of some sort. Before I do, I need to make certain it’s in the public domain. I must say, though, I’m quite attached to this one, showing the bold H.M.S. Victory breaking the French line at Trafalgar. Let us know what you think!

Preliminary Album Cover

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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!

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.