AskJules: Naval headgear
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Ken Smith was curious about naval headgear in Kydd’s day:
‘I was thinking about marines in the fighting tops. What kind of hat did they wear? Did it get in the way of fighting? Was it just decorative or did it serve a purpose? How about officers: tricornes, bicornes, fore and aft, side to side. Did they have a choice or was everything “uniform”?’
‘Thanks for the question, Ken. The Georgian Navy was colourful and individualistic in its headwear.
Both sailors and officers had different ‘levels’ of attire at sea – sensible working rig, and clothing more suited to a formal occasion or going ashore. For officers this division was broadly ‘undress’ uniform and full ‘dress’ uniform. As well as being an indication of rank/rate, headwear kept the elements at bay – both sun and rain. Many chapeaux were coated with a water-proofing.
It surprises many that Jack Tar actually didn’t have an official uniform before 1857. His typical outfit in Kydd’s day was ankle-length white “trousers” and a short blue jacket. Shirts were often a colourful red check, and it was a euphemism for punishment by the lash to be said to have been given a ‘red-checked shirt at the gangway’. Many sailors wore a kerchief at the neck. This could be knotted around the head in battle to keep sweat from running into the eyes. A cocked hat would be useless up in the rigging as it would be easily blown away – a sailor often chose a hat with a small brim made of leather or straw with a ‘chin stay’ to keep it in place, or a woollen or fur “monmouth” cap.
Officers’ uniforms were prescribed by the admiralty at various times – 1795, 1812 etc. but these were really only guidelines and there was a range of sartorial flair shown, especially amongst officers with private means. Bicornes were the most fashionable headgear by 1800, really the well-known tricorne with its front retracted and therefore worn crossways. By 1805 flatter bicornes were the more popular, worn “fore and aft”, although more conservative officers wore them in the old style.
In general, the uniforms of the marines followed those of the army, with a lag of a few years. In the late eighteenth century marines wore the standard light infantry hat with a large plume over the top. By the early years of the nineteenth century when honoured with the title ‘Royal Marines’ headgear was a hat (made of glazed leather) without a feather, cocked up to one side by two tapes.
The full marine uniform was worn for guard duty aboard ship and for landing parties. No doubt in the height of action jackets were removed and hats set aside or knocked off. This would have been even more the case in the fighting tops, where a cap could be blown off.
Marine officers wore cocked hats; three-cornered in the eighteenth century, two-cornered in the nineteenth century.’
- And speaking of headwear, there’s a Navy blue Kydd Cap up for grabs – what is the name of the stunning Turkish award Nelson wore on his cocked hat? Deadline for entries: December 20. First correct entry drawn wins. Please include your postal address. Answer below or email email@example.com
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Boatswain: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; Battle of Trafalgar: By Denis Dighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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