Loretta and I are always marveling over how often the internet leads us to "discover" images that are entirely new to us. This portrait of Captain Gilbert Heathcote, RN, by William Owen is the latest example; the roguish-looking captain appeared this week on Twitter - thank you, @BM_AG! - and I knew at once he deserved a blog-post. (For obvious reasons, he's also been included with the other handsome gentlemen in our Pinterest board of Hot Heroic Inspiration.)
Much is made of the dramatic change in women's fashions around the end of the 18th c, when full skirts, lavish silks, and narrow bodices and sleeves were replaced by high waistlines and lighter fabrics. The change in men's clothing was equally dramatic. For over a century, flaring long coats and waistcoats had given men an almost A-line silhouette, but the late 18th and early 19th c marked a shift towards broader shoulders and a trimmer waist and hips.
Of course the physical shapes of the men themselves didn't change, any more than the new style was totally the creation of Beau Brummell. Rather it was one more evolution of fashion, a gradual transformation over the years that began in the 1780s, and was likely the work of a great many tailors rather than a single gentleman. Still, the new styles must have been shocking to older folk who could remember the older fashions, and conveniently forgot the excesses of the fops and macaronis of an earlier generation.
Which brings us to Captain Heathcote. He wasn't a fop, or a beau, either. He was a career officer in the Royal Navy, a lieutenant by the age of twenty, a commander three years later, and a captain by twenty-five. This portrait was painted some time after that, with the captain proudly wearing his glinting epaulets, gold-laced uniform, and tasseled sword. In this era, the Navy established uniform guidelines for officers, but did not provide them. Instead each officer bespoke his own uniform, with the quality of the fabric, buttons, and braid matching the officer's taste and budget. Despite his time at sea, Captain Heathcote was clearly aware of London fashion, and not only does his uniform coat displays the new narrowed waist and broader shoulders, but he's also adopted the latest cropped hairstyle, fluffed on top and brushed forward.
But what's most noticeable in this portrait is the front of the captain's breeches. The hem of his cutaway coat serves as a frame for his cream-colored breeches, sleekly fitting and high-waisted and leaving very little to the imagination. The artist has accentuated the breeches, too, almost as if he's settled a spotlight on them. There's no doubt of Captain Heathcote's manliness – or that 19th c fashion has embraced a boldly blatant new notion of masculine dress.
Above: Portrait of Captain Gilbert Heathcote RN (1779-1831), by William Owen. Copyright Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.