Dress For Success

In researching my latest hero, a Sharpe-based soldier, I’ve been delving into Scott Hughes Myerly‘s British Military Spectacle. I highly recommend the book; every page has some essential, interesting nugget of information, even if you’re not writing a battle-scarred hero, as I am.

In reading it, I’ve been alternately horrified and impressed at how the British Army used dress to control its soldiers.

As Janet pointed out yesterday, many British soldiers were boys or men who had no choice (“Prison/deportation or the Army?” is just as obvious as Eddie Izzard‘s “Cake or death?”) or were coerced to join.

To keep their soldiers–some of whom were blackguards, to say the least–in line, their superior officers demanded perfection in appearance. Keeping the men busy cleaning their kits kept them away from alcohol, which was one of the Army’s biggest problems (Sharpe mentions this frequently, always trying to destroy whatever alcohol is within his men’s vicinity). Myerly says, “The ideal of perfection was central to the art of nineteenth-century military management, especially in connection with martial display.”

Myerly then goes on to say that “Officers were sometimes obsessed with presenting a correct and pleasing appearance, which often resulted in the total neglect of other significant considerations, even if these were vital to the army’s success.”

Wow. To prove the point, Myerly discusses the headgear required, sometimes two feet high, made of material that was ridiculously hot in the summer, got drenched in the rain, and blew off whenever there was a strong wind.

On one dress occasion in 1829, Wellington, in full military regalia, was blown off his horse by a gust of wind. In 1842, Queen Victoria demanded that a 73 year-old Wellington wear all the proper military gear, which made him trip and fall.

The stocks soldiers wore around the neck had to fit tightly, and were sometimes made too tight so as to make the blood go into the soldier’s face and make him look hale and hearty, even if he hadn’t been eating properly.

Soldiers had to wear uniforms sometimes designed by people who had no idea what a battlefield was like (King George IV, I’m looking at you). The uniforms were impractical, binding, difficult to maintain and expensive. But they looked good, and that was all that mattered.

As Billy Crystal‘s Fernando Lamas character says, “It is better to look good than to feel good.”

It’s clear, from history, that this kind of restrictive insistence on proper attire worked to keep the Army intact and submissive. Of course it chafes at our notions of freedoms as well.

How about you? Have you ever had to wear a uniform? Follow a dress code? Did it make you feel more official? Did you hate it? Did you like not having to worry about choosing what to wear?


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21 Responses to Dress For Success

  1. When my high school marching band got new uniforms my senior year, we looked quite Napoleonic, though at the time I had no idea. I just knew they looked better than the old vaguely cowboyish polyester monstrosities we’d worn before, and I swear we played better in our spiffy new clothes, which looked exactly like this: http://drumcorpswiki.com/The_Cadets

    I wouldn’t have wanted to wear them all day, though, and I’m sure our modern mock-ups were far more comfortable and less restrictive than anything soldiers wore 200 years ago.

    They do look good, though! I could watch the Sharpe movies all day, those Marine commercials with them drilling in their dress blues never fail to draw my eye, and back when I was in college and my brother was an instructor at West Point, I always loved any excuse to admire the cadets in their dress grays…

  2. Megan, I wore a school uniform for twelve years, and frankly I’m glad that I did. When I read about kids wanting the latest Gucci this or Juicy Couture that, I’m happy that every day when I woke up, all I had to was put on a gray skirt, white blouse, navy jacket and black pumps. There’s a comfort in a uniform, and since I soon foreswore the tacky polyester skirt, quite stylish particularly with the school crest on my blazer.

    I also wore a uniform when I was in the girl scouts, and thought I was pretty cool wearing that too when everyone else was in their school uniform.

    Sorry to hear that the military uniforms in the 19th century were so uncomfortable, but damn they looked good. I do like a man in uniform, I must admit. There’s something so sexy about it.

  3. I’ll take cake, please.

    I had to wear a school uniform long long ago in England, designed to make the fat look fatter and the skinny skinnier. We used to have skirt length checks because you couldn’t wear a skirt shorter than 18″. The skirts had pleats which had to be basted and pressed in at every washing, so they were not washed often. Altogether hideous.

    I’ve been lucky in having jobs with fairly easygoing dress codes, but I’ve always defined casual Fridays as the day on which you wear the clothes with the stains that won’t come out. Works for me!

  4. Lois says:

    Well, from 5th to 8th grade was your typical catholic school uniform, just either red, blue or green, depending on the school I went to (three in those four years – long story LOL). In high school we had a dress code, which could be summarized as simply not street clothes but nicer stuff. Had lots of sweaters. πŸ˜‰ Oh, and when I was a volunteer, I wore the typical candy-striper outfit.

    So, nope, nothing horrible or the like for me. . . fortunately! πŸ™‚


  5. Great post, Megan! They did LOOK good, even if they didn’t FEEL good, lol

    I also had a uniform in high school. I hated it at the time, since I wanted to Express Myself, but now I’m gratfeul for the preppy classic-ness of it. It saved me a from a few ’90s fashion disasters, I’m sure! I even have a gray blazer with black piping I bought last fall that reminds me of that uniform. πŸ™‚

  6. Erastes says:

    I’m fascinated by the second picture, is it contemporary to the time?

  7. My school had a uniform and a dressing code, and I loved it. No choosing what to wear. No comparisons between who had what and who didn’t. My daughter takes ballet and it’s the same. The reason they’re particular is to encourage a certain mindset. Kind of like pre-writing rituals. I’m looking forward to my daughter going to school this fall with a dress code.

  8. Thanks for sharing, guys! I never did have to wear a uniform, except to wear a white shirt while waitressing, which I convinced them could just be any color nice shirt. Rebel that I am.

    Erastes, I just googled “british soldier 1820” and that’s what I found. I forget what site it was on. So no, I’m no help.

  9. Elena Greene says:

    I have read that the uniforms were designed to make men look both taller and broader-shouldered (hence those crazy hats, the braid, etc…) It was supposed to make them look and feel more manly. So it’s not surprising many of think they looked hot. πŸ™‚

    As to uniforms, I hate the memory of them. Wore them in Catholic elementary and high school, also in a Lithuanian girl scout troop where I didn’t fit in well. 1st generation stuff. They were trying to be very American, my mother was raising me to be ultra-old country and I was caught awkwardly between the two extremes. But I’m not sure it’s the uniforms themselves or their associations that bother me.

    A side effect of this sartorial background was that once I was no longer a poor college student living in jeans and T-shirts, I didn’t know how to shop or dress myself. Nothing looked good on me and I didn’t know until now that it wasn’t my fault. It was just the 80’s!

    Now I enjoy shopping for myself and with my kids. I do worry that they will feel under pressure at some point to have the right labels, but for now they and their good friends seem happy just finding clothes they like in favorite colors and patterns.

    The whole cool/uncool thing is still going on but there seem to be more groups of kids who avoid the game entirely than when I was growing up.

  10. Santa says:

    I went to Catholic school until the 3rd grade. St. Ant’knee’s colors were burgundy and grey. A color combination I still favor to this day. Conversely, we were made to wear blue and white horizontally stripped gym suits in junior high school, a time when everyone wants attention drawn to their, em, upper body. Major yuk factor.

    BTW, Sue – where did you go to college?

  11. Diane Gaston says:

    I wore a school uniform for a few years in Catholic school. Like Janet, I don’t remember it being laundered often. Navy jumper and white blouse.

    But most of all I remember my father in uniform and, often living on military posts, all the men in uniform. You could tell at a glance who was an officer and who an enlisted man, and who was what rank. I still have my father’s dress uniform, which he had made when he was stationed in Japan in the 1950s. When he moved out of his house, we donated the uniform to the High School theatre department in which my son was active. A couple of days later my dad, commented, “Yep, those buttons were made of gold” (insert very long story of how he got the gold buttons here-I don’t remember it. I may have fallen asleep in the telling)
    Needless to say my son retrieved the uniform the next day. I have it , gold buttons and all!

  12. Yikes, Diane. I was laughing as I slapped a mental hand to the forehead over the gold buttons. Your dad’s sang froid is fabulous!

  13. Diane Gaston says:

    Your dad’s sang froid is fabulous!

    Um. He didn’t know we’d donated the uniform…..

  14. Cara King says:

    You must have looked spiffy, Susan! (I looked at the link. Very sharp.)

    I had a uniform in first grade — grey jumper over white blouse, which was cute.

    But then in junior high — misery. (In fact, *everything* about my junior high was misery — but that’s another story.)

    Ugly, ugly uniform. Gray “culottes” — which were so, so unflattering, and never looked like they were supposed to — and a white blouse.

    And the worst of it…the boys did NOT have to wear uniforms. They only had a dress code.

    I HATED that school so bad.

    Okay, sorry, didn’t mean to go crazy on you!


  15. “And the worst of it…the boys did NOT have to wear uniforms. They only had a dress code.”

    Oh, Cara, that is WAAAY unfair! I hated junior high, too (I think I’m breaking out in hives just thinking about it), but at least everyone had there to wear uniforms that were NOT culottes.

  16. Culottes made everyone look bad. And I had TWO PAIRS!

    So unfair about the boys not having unis, too–what the heck was up with that?

  17. I wore band uniforms and various uniforms for singing groups / choirs I was in. Some of the singing uniforms were quite lovely – elegant long dresses in burgundy and black.

    Wal-mart has a dress code now and it is a pain in the !@# for someone like me who works with icing, dough, etc all day. A navy shirt and khaki slacks are not easy to keep clean in a bakery. Not to mention the fact that I will never want to wear that combination again once my sentence in Wal-Mart Hell is over!

  18. Todd says:

    Never had to wear a uniform. My school did have a dress code, but the only significant thing I remember from it was a ban on wearing metal spikes. (That gives you some kind of an idea about the kids who went to my high school. πŸ™‚

    I do have some appreciation of tradition, though…I always participate in the Commencement every year, in full academic regalia. Impractical though it is in the heat of Southern California. πŸ™‚

    I suspect that out in the field it became a lot harder to enforce the kind of parade-ground look that 18th and 19th century armies prized–and a lot of officers were probably not fool enough to try.


  19. Fascinating post! I was struck with the stupidity of the hat on the officer in PBS’s Cranford which was set in the 1840s. They still hadn’t wised up.

    The only uniform I ever wore was my blue gym suit during 4 years of high school gym. Elastic around the thighs to make them look even fatter, a belt that hit me nowhere near my waist, buttons that wouldn’t stay buttoned. You don’t know how very much I hated gym.

  20. Elena Greene says:

    Okay, sorry, didn’t mean to go crazy on you!

    Well, that makes two of us, Cara! Those uniforms can evoke such strong memories.

    I suspect that out in the field it became a lot harder to enforce the kind of parade-ground look that 18th and 19th century armies prized–and a lot of officers were probably not fool enough to try.

    You are right as usual, Trusy Todd. I wrote a post about this very subject a while back.

    The only uniform I ever wore was my blue gym suit during 4 years of high school gym. Elastic around the thighs to make them look even fatter, a belt that hit me nowhere near my waist, buttons that wouldn’t stay buttoned. You don’t know how very much I hated gym.

    Oh, Maggie, I wore those too. (shudder)

  21. Todd says:

    Elena wrote:

    You are right as usual, Trusy Todd. I wrote a post about this very subject a while back.

    Don’t know how I missed that one! (Actually, I may have been traveling.) But if I agree with you, I pretty much have to be right, don’t I? πŸ™‚


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