Monday, August 27, 2012

One Fine & Fashionable Captain

Monday, August 27, 2012
Isabella/Susan reporting:

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.

10 comments:

Ana said...

He's offering his hips to us O_o .

Uniforms Australia said...

Very nice.

Darlene Marshall said...

Gracious, the lighting and *koff* brushstrokes in that painting certainly draw the eye!

Thanks for sharing, you've brightened my rainy Monday.

Bev said...

I immediately thought of Michael Phelps when I saw this portrait. :-)

ellaquinnauthor said...

Very nice. Thanks.

Regan said...

One thing I've noticed about many British men then and now is that they are slim not only through the hips but through the shoulders. (The current Prince William seems an exception owing to the Spencer line running through his blood.) Even in the uniform the man pictured seems slim in his shoulders. It is such a contrast to American men who are often broad shouldered.

Kestrel said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed your Pinterest board ladies! Just what this writer needed for extra inspiration...
It seems that most men of the 18th and 19th century were rather narrow through the shoulders, Americans being no exception. I recently visited the Atlanta History Museum, which has one of the largest Civil War collections, and could not help but notice how LITTLE the uniforms were. My husband has great, broad shoulders and would have likely busted the seams of his coat! Even I would have had trouble fitting into them, let alone needing freedom of movement to handle a weapon and such.
However, you've got to appreciate how they make up for it by emphasizing the cut of the breeches!

KWillow said...

SO! This is what Georgette Heyer meant when she described her heros as having "muscular thighs". I often wondered.

jaceybedford said...

And you've just made me realise why my female privateer captain won't be wearing modern men's fashions in 1800, but will instead be wearing a sadly old fashioned frock coat to cover the front of her breeches.

Mary Jean Adams said...

I just love the come hither look on his face too!

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