Reply To: Hats in the Royal Navy

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#20567
Peter Leech
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I have personally done some amount of research into period uniforms with the intention of reproducing things for re-enactment.

Headgear is rarely mentioned in the text of the uniform regulations and where it is, it’s only mentioned in terms of “gold laced hat” or “plain hat”. (ie: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/13785/page/587)

It appears to have become received knowledge that they were therefore completely non regulation. Having perhaps spent a little too long staring at the minutia of period portraits i’m not entirely convinced by this; I have yet to see a portrait from 1748-1787 wearing anything but a tricorn where a hat is worn or in the portrait sitting somewhere, and then from 1774 everybody without known exception is wearing a bicorne. I find it hard to beleive that this is just due to a change of fashion given that you can see 3 distinctly different cuts of the 1795 uniform; some people outright flaunt the quality of their uniforms in their portraits, some people are not really in compliance with the uniform regulations as they couldn’t afford to comply with them etc and everything in between, but I do not recall ever seeing someone with the “wrong” hat in a portrait.

Notices published in the Gazette do refer to pattern suits being available for viewing, and I would speculate (and this is pure speculation) that the pattern suits may have included a hat, and this was just common knowledge at the time that nobody bothered writing down. Certainly the 1825 booklet specifies the headgear and the sizes thereof exactingly. (https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/128436.html)

To be fair the other argument would probably be that a felt hat does not last well when exposed to water, and a ship is perhaps not the driest enviroment so it could well be that people simply bought a new hat frequently and the hatters shops didn’t sell old fashions. At this point to be fair it’s probably impossible to determine conclusively.

If the choice of cocked hat wasn’t speficied in the uniform regulations (or was just loosely specified as being a cocked hat) then the Port & Starboard Bicorne vs the Fore & Aft Bicorne could be the appearance of the “Chappeau de Bra” style hat, which was a fashionable hat style at the time. Older officers might not have wanted to have much to do with modern fashion, and especially not one with a French sounding name. (possibly even a French fashion imported after the peace of ameins as the date is about right?)

The “Chappeau de Bra” style hat has the benefit when not in use of folding flat and sitting under your arm if you don’t want to wear it, which is fantastically practical compared to the traditional port & starboard type which is to say the least not easily or comfortably carried if not being worn. (The port & starboard bicorne is also a pain to store or transport compared to one which conveniently sits flat)

Because of this any sane young man is going to buy a Chappeau, and any older man who already has a port & starboard version is probably going to keep it.

The NMM has their collections mostly viewable online and are an incredible resource for viewing from home. The biggest issue there is that an incredible number of things are not correctly classified so searching for a particular date will often include things it shouldn’t, and exclude things that it should. Here’s a few links to get you started:-

For & Aft Chappeau de Bra bicorne undress for 1795:-
https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/74480.html
Port & Starboard Bicorne undress for 1795:-
https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/71252.html
Port & Starboard Full Dress for 1825:-
https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/71307.html

Non regulation bargemans hat circa 1795:-
https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/71260.html