Loretta and I are great fans of the British caricaturists of the 1780s-1820s, including James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank, and many others. When their prints are mocking fashionable pretensions, politicians, or the royal family, the "joke" is still apparent, even after two hundred years. But then there are some prints that are real head-scratchers to modern eyes.
This one by James Gillray falls into that category. What exactly is going on here? (As always, click on the image to enlarge it.) The ladies appear to be dressing the soldiers in strange, buff-colored costumes, and displaying a certain lascivious eagerness in the process, too. While bare-breasted women are often found in 18thc. satirical prints, here Gillray offers a bit of titillating male nudity. Like most men of the time, the soldiers wear no under-drawers, but simply tuck their long shirt-tails between their legs. These ladies would clearly have gotten an eyeful, and this being Gillray, we should believe their rosy cheeks are due more to excitement than embarrassment.
The title offers some hints: "FLANNEL ARMOUR; FEMALE PATRIOTISM, or Modern Heroes accoutred for the Wars," as does the satirical dedication "To the benevolent Ladies of Great Britain, who have so liberally supported the new system of Military Clothing."
A bit of research explains the rest of the history behind the print. France had declared war on Great Britain on February 1, 1793, launching a generation of warfare between the two countries that would not end until 1815. But when this print was published on November 18, 1793 (weird coincidence, I know!), no one knew that. Instead Britain was filled with patriotic fervor, and the usual certainty that this war would be swiftly and easily won.
As the soldiers drilled and the military began its preparations, British ladies also wanted to show their patriotism and make their own contribution to the war effort. (The lady in the front is already wearing a stylish red habit, sash, and plumed hat that imitates a soldier's uniform.) Wives, mothers, and sweethearts worried that the soldiers would suffer from the cold in the coming winter, and eagerly responded by stitching undergarments of warm winter flannel for the troops. The pointed flannel caps shown here must have been liners for the tall bearskin uniform caps of the time - see one hanging on the wall along with a red uniform coat.
The "flannel campaign" was lauded by politicians and newspapers, but found no favor at all with the soldiers. Companies that were presented with the flannel underclothes refused them outright. Not only did they not want to wear what they perceived as foolish and unnecessary garments, but they also wanted no part of the ladies' "charity", and apparently were quite blunt about it, too.
So the soldiers marched off without under-drawers, and the ladies were offended by their ingratitude, with both leaving caricaturists like Gillray with plenty of inspiration.
Above: Flannel Armour; Female Patriotism, by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, November 18, 1793. Walpole Library, Yale University.
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.