In historical romance, most of us authors love swathing our heroines in silks and satins. We pore over vintage prints from La Belle Assemblee, studying sleeve shapes, sashes, bodices and furbelows. We peer at the tiny details like buttons and ribbons, sarcenet and lace, gold-threaded embroidery and delicate seed pearls. Then, of course, there are bonnets, reticles and pelisses . . .
The details add wonderful color and texture to our characters. Which got me to thinking about our heroes. They tend to be more understated—biscuit-colored breeches, navy superfine coats, snowy white cravats, dark Hessians, polished to a mirror shine . . . Unless, they are military men.
For a just-finished manuscript, I was looking at the Sir Thomas Lawrence paintings of Wellington and Charles Stewart, and taking careful note of the glorious finery of the fancy dress officers. Gold braid, epaulettes, crested buttons, starburst medals and intricate patches fashioned out of precious metals and gems—some of the regalia puts the most elaborate ballgowns to blush. Which got me to thinking about uniforms, and a bit of research turned up the sort of obscure and fun facts that always tickle my fancy.
Firmin and Sons, established in 1665 by Thomas Firmin, (its mention in records of the Company of Girdlers survived the Great Fire of London in 1666.) has been an integral element of British military uniforms since its inception. In the early 1700s, the company was supplying their wares to the Royal family, and received the first Royal warrant for buttons from King George III in 1796—by which time it had become the leading maker of buttons, badges and medals for military and court uniforms.
Nelson sailed into the Battle of Trafalgar wearing a Firmin-tailored coat and the company’s finery on his breast. (He refused to wear a plain coat and it’s speculated that the sharpshooters aimed at him because of all the glitter.) Firmin accouterments also saw action at such epic clashes as the Battle of the Nile and Waterloo. The American military also looked to the London company for a touch of flash—both the Union and Confederate forces sported their buttons during the Civil War.
The grand tradition continues to this day. In 2006, the venerable company joined forces with Kashket and Partners, a legendary maker of full uniforms, to form the Kashket Group. Together they manufacture some of the most prestigious military and state ceremonial regalia in the world. The Queen’s birthday celebration showcases many of their creations—the Household cavalry troops the colors wearing their handmade cuirasses, horse furniture, saddles and shabraques.
It was the Kashket Group who was chosen to design and fabricate 2000 special uniforms for the Royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Strict secrecy shrouded the preparations. As was his Princely prerogative, William has some custom requests for his clothing—he was worried that the bright TV lights in Westminster Abbey might be so hot that he would pass out during the ceremony, so Russell Kashket created a special uniform made of high tech heat-absorbing material. (Prince Harry’s ensemble featured a hidden velco pocket in his fancy cuff so he wouldn’t lose the wedding ring when waving to the crowd as he entered the church.)
More than 350 of the Kashket staff in north London crafted the outfits, which also included the gold state coats of the drum majors, the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment dress, and the uniforms for all five Footguards regiments.
So that’s my recent discovery of a historical tidbit. I love learning esoteric information like this, just for the fun of it. What about you? And does a man in military plumage make your heart flutter? (I can see why all the young girls in Pride and Prejudice were all thrilled that the regiment was stationed nearby!)