Katie Sawyer, a Trainee Curator at Bodmin Keep: Cornwall’s Army Museum, has developed an online exhibition, Frontiers of Fashion: How military uniform influences civilian fashion. Here she chooses three key objects from the exhibition
Fashion and military uniform seem like opposing forces, but throughout history they have constantly borrowed ideas and styles from each other. There is also a constant conflict between practicality and glamour in military uniforms. Military uniforms at their best should have elements of both.
If you are fighting in muddy, cold, or desert conditions, you need uniforms that work for your environment. Wellington boots were invented by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, as a boot for soldiers in the British cavalry. Their upper legs were vulnerable to musket fire (the main weapon at the time), and a thick leather boot would provide some protection.
However there was a strong element of fashion in these boots, as Wellesley wanted them to be smart enough to wear in the evenings to parties. Wellington was far ahead of the ‘day to night’ trend and, after his victories over Napoleon, they became incredibly trendy for the upper classes of the Regency period, who wanted to copy the Great Duke.
Later in World War One, the wellington was re-purposed as the rubber boot we know today, in order to protect soldiers’ feet from the wet and muddy conditions of the trenches. Disease was common, including trench foot, when wet feet would swell and get gangrene, sometimes leading to amputation.
Another item from World War One is the trench coat, named because it was worn by British officers in the trenches. It was originally created by Burberry in 1901 as a lightweight breathable raincoat for outdoor activities such as fishing and shooting.
The War Office commissioned around 500,000 Burberry overcoats during World War One and the trench coat became a catch all term, as other companies such as Aquascatum and Gerrish Ames & Simpkins of London also began making them during the war.
The coat was very practical for officers, much lighter in weight than the usual wool greatcoat, with shoulder epaulettes to display rank, large pockets to store maps and cleverly placed vents to reduce odour.
However, it was also undeniably trendy, as only officers could wear one. Officers continued to wear them after the war, and soon civilians wanted to wear them, and the trench coat was even used again in World War Two.
Its use by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 Hollywood film ‘Casablanca’ really cemented the trench coat as a fashionable and desirable item. Even today, trench coats continually reappear on the catwalk in new colours and fabrics, but still using the same original style elements.
The red coat
British red coats from 17th-19th centuries were certainly seen as glamorous, especially by civilians. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet states:
“I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well–and, indeed, so I do still at my heart”.
Many people think red a completely impractical colour for the battlefield – and it would be for modern warfare. However, before the invention of accurate weapons, battles mostly involved two forces marching at each other and firing as many bullets as possible until one side retreated. Camouflage was not that useful, whereas a uniform that would create pride and intimidate the enemy was.
As warfare changed, and with more accurate and longer range weapons such as the Lee-Enfield rifle and machine gun, staying out of sight became much more important. The British Army switched to neutral colours like khaki that would blend into the landscape.
Impracticality in Napoleonic Wars
Glamorous uniforms can be very attractive to soldiers, sometimes even encouraging recruits to join up. But if they are only glamorous, they can actively prevent soldiers from fighting effectively. King George IV was known for designing flamboyant and complicated uniforms for his soldiers.
These were often so tight fitting that they prevented movement and seemed like they would split at any moment. One example of this is the leather stock worn in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). A piece of leather worn around the neck to keep the head up, the stock was uncomfortable and unpopular with soldiers. Fabric stocks were very fashionable for civilians at the time, but were not practical on a battlefield.
Many modern clothing items seem to have lost their associations with military style, but throughout history, fashion and uniform have influenced each other, and continue to visually impact what we see on the catwalk.
Explore these connections in the The ‘Frontiers of Fashion’ exhibition online at bodminkeep.org/museum-history/exhibitions/frontiers-of-fashion/ along with a uniform design competition and activity booklet.
Bodmin Keep: Cornwall's Army Museum
Discover Bodmin Keep: Cornwall’s Army Museum A place where families remember and discover together Housed in the magnificent Victorian army barracks of Bodmin Keep, Cornwall’s Army Museum provides a fascinating insight into 300 years of international conflict and military history. Displays cover Waterloo, World War 1 and World War 2,…