The Question of Trousers: Mariners and Empire in the Crafting of Democratic Male Dress in Britain, c. 1600–1800

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 10:00 AM
Columbia Hall 1 (Washington Hilton)
Beverly J. Lemire, University of Alberta
By the early 1800s the apparel of respectable men was transformed from previous generations. The wearing of trousers, in contrast to breeches and hose, marked the metaphorical demise of the ancien régime, a visible and discursive rejection of a long established hierarchical system. David Kuchta traces the rise of the three-piece suit (and its attendant trousers) with the century-long political jousting for pre-eminence between England’s gentry and reforming middle classes. He cites the sober plainness of middle-ranked men as emblematic of their probity and claims to national political standing (1996, 2002). These contests were real. Yet this reformation in apparel involved more than middling men and seminal forces of change extended far beyond the bounds of Britain.  

This paper considers the role of mariners in collective sartorial contests, as well as the influence of tropical imperial settings in recasting norms of male dress. Over two centuries, deep-sea, long distance mariners grew exponentially in numbers. Their unique connection to ‘new luxuries’ in Asia and other tropical locales earned them a singular status. These unruly plebeian men dressed distinctively, rolling in and out of ports in tens of thousands by the 1700s. Their leisure, shore-going clothes defined a group actively subverting hierarchies of dress, creating something new. Their trousered figures became emblematic of a new manly style. From the 1740s onwards, print artists and ceramic artisans drew and modeled seamen, creating innumerable published prints, and countless ceramic accessories - mariners’ rhetorical authority became an undeniable force. Seafarers habitually wore trousers, adopted at sea by officers and in the tropics by genteel men. Functionality gained social and political cachet and the imperial experience of generations reformed the contested meaning of men in trousers.

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