Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion. The Uniforms and Dress of the British Army 1800-1815, Volume I
Helion & Company (2019)
Hardback, 420 pages, 21 colour plates, 47 black and white illustrations
Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion. The Uniforms and Dress of the British Army 1800-1815, Volume 2
Helion & Company (2020)
Hardback, 420 pages, 16 colour plates, 44 black and white illustrations
In 1975, the British historian Hew Strachan, published a book titled British Military Uniforms, 1768-96. The Dress of the British Army from Official Sources. This was an attempt to assemble all the official orders on the dress of the army between the important clothing warrants of 1768 and 1796 as extracted from official records and contemporary art. Strachan’s work quickly became a standard reference and, although he apparently ‘intended to produce similar volumes to continue the story’, he only published this one volume. There were many who ‘lamented’ the lack of a follow up volume, among them Ben Townsend who decided to take up the demanding task of continuing Strachan’s work. The result is Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion, which examines the dress of the British army from 1800 to-1815.
This is a difficult book to review because there is so much in it. Townsend’s object was to incorporate the considerable amount of new material available on the Internet into a study that would detail what the soldiers were required to wear, when and how, and then contrast that with specific images and other information that is dateable and well provenanced to show what soldiers actually wore, and how and why it was adapted, with a particular emphasis on fashion as much as utility. In this he has succeeded admirably. Townsend first outlines how uniform regulations are created and then discusses the Boards of General Officers, the main military bureaucratic instrument that devised them. Over the course of the two volumes he examines the regulations of 1799-1816. This would warrant the entrance price but that is only the beginning. Using a variety of sources, images, memoirs and, above all, regimental orders, he then demonstrates how uniform regulations were modified either as a result regimental peccadillos, civilian fashion or military fads from the continent; particularly the hussar and rifle/light infantry affectations.
Townsend describes these military ‘fashions’ or ‘fads’ in detail with excerpts from period memoirs and correspondence. And toward that end, it must be stressed that the author not only provides the official regulations, he includes rare and interesting memoirs that contain details on uniforms and the notes of previous researchers in the field of uniforms. Thus, there are either complete monographs or lengthy excerpts from such commentators as Alexander Cavalie Mercer, Rees Howell Gronow, David Roberts, John Luard and an anonymous but informative cavalry officer.
Townsend has also scoured period memoirs and correspondence for uniform details and finally, has amassed an impressive collection of images; the two volumes contain 37 colour plates and 91 black and white illustrations, almost all from the period. The work of artists such as Atkinson, Beechey, Dighton, Hamilton Smith, Loftie, Pyne and Rowlandson is on display as well as drawings of patterns and photographs of actual items of clothing.
Among the most interesting images are those of French artists who painted the British occupation army in Paris in 1815. They captured (and caricatured) the high point of British military ‘faddism’, the dress of the officers of the Peninsular army were what Townsend calls ‘Wellington’s Dandies’. Wellington never concerned himself with what his officers wore (although he disliked seeing them carry umbrellas in battle) and the result was that an amazing variety of dress flourished. The Peninsular officers disdained the regulation headgear for a round hat or a cocked hat severely cut down to the width of hand but adorned with the biggest feather available. Forage caps were in all shapes and colours, some resembling a pork pie hat, some a wedge cap, and some a scholar’s mortarboard but all often trimmed with velvet and festooned with tassels. Vests were brocade, usually embroidered and closed with gold or silver buttons. Overalls, strapped with leather along the inseams or cuffs, fastened on the out seams with large buttons and held under the instep with chains, were also popular. A favoured outer garment was a surtout (‘over all’), a bulky garment resembling a dressing gown, tailored from heavy material, decorated with braid and manufactured in a variety of colours. The ensemble was often completed by a Spanish ‘seegar’ in the officer’s mouth. The appearance of Wellington’s officer was so amazing, one quipped, that the only thing their outlandish dress lacked was ‘the Appendage of Bells’.
Sadly however, when regiments of Wellington’s army were sent to Canada in the summer of 1814, their officers’ appearance shocked Lieutenant-General George Prevost, the local commander. He immediately issued an order stating that, having “observed in the Dress of several officers of Corps and Detachments lately added to this army, from that of the Duke of Wellington, a fanciful variety inconsistent with the Rules of the Service” he wanted changes made. In the future, therefore, he would “only permit such derivation from the regulations … as may be justified by particular causes of Service, and climate, and even then uniformity is to be retained”. As one of the Peninsular veterans lamented, it was back to ‘the old red rag’.
The one criticism I have of this book concerns its lay-out as it is sometimes hard to identify the author’s text from lengthy quoted material. However, I do not think many will read this book cover to cover as it is intended to be a reference work, a role which it fulfills splendidly is my belief that Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion will become the standard reference on its subject and it belongs on or near the desk of any person with a professional interest in the British army of the Napoleonic period. Highly recommended.
Donald E. Graves