Friday, 20 March 2015




Fashion is not just a means of personal expression. It is also a tool for guiding public thought and remembrance, and in the hands of the state can be a powerful means of building useful national narratives around highly traumatic events. Let us then briefly look at three instances where the use and display of military dress influenced the narratives of battles, even after the battles themselves had taken place.

1. Sir Isaac Brock's scarlet coat at the Battle of Queenston Heights, Canada

The towering Brock's Monument at Queenston Heights is a testament to early Canada's veneration of one of the great heroes of the War of 1812: Major General Sir Isaac Brock. His coat, with an intact bullet hole, is at the War Museum.
Colour photograph of a red military jacket, a rifle, and a hat.
Sir Isaac Brock's coat on display at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
Photo credit: Lone Primate on flickr.
His death--he was shot in the chest by an American sharpshooter as he led a charge up Queenston Heights--was a terrible loss for the Canadian and British forces. But the figure of Brock, resplendent in his attention-getting scarlet coat and the various accoutrements of his officer's uniform, lived on as part of a Canadian narrative of heroic sacrifice and resistance to American invasion. It is understandable then, to display a relic of Brock's heroic final act at a national museum.

And yet, it is also an uncomfortable display. Brock did not decide his own uniform, and yet, he fought and died for that same uniform. The iconic red coats of the imperial British army, with scarlet reserved at this time for officers like Brock, was a means of branding, and of gaining a psychological advantage over the opposing force. It is a highly attractive uniform, fashionable both in its appearance and for what it stands for: alliance to the British Empire, heroism and resistance to invasion.

It is also hard to miss on a battlefield. The imposed uniform, the glorification of a resultant death, and the continued use of the remaining jacket to stand in for the same values of the imposed uniform create a fascinating cycle of narrative-building.

2. Archduke Franz Ferdinand's blue jacket at Sarajevo

Archduke Franz Ferdinand's jacket is displayed at the Museum of Military History, Vienna, for much the same reasons as Brock's jacket is on display at the War Museum. The blood stain spread across the chest of the jacket embodies the violent changes in world geopolitics resulting from Ferdinand's assassination; it bridges the 'before' and 'after' in our understanding of the start of WWI.

Colour photograph of a blue military uniform, with a stain on the chest.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand's jacket on display at the Museum of Military History, Vienna.
Photo credit: AP/Ronald Zak.
If the bullet hole in Brock's jacket is unsettling, then the prominent stains on Ferdinand's jacket are downright macabre.

Ferdinand was a victim of both human will and mysterious circumstance; an assassination attempt had been mangled throughout the day, and his eventual assassin, Gavrilo Princip, had, in fact, given up on killing the archduke. A series of bizarre coincidences later--a changed route for the archduke's car, Princip's decision to stop for a sandwich--and suddenly Ferdinand appeared right before his assassin, who took his opportunity to fire on the car. Interestingly, many sources offer a harsh aside, that it was Ferdinand's vanity that hastened his death, and subsequently, the onset of war.

You see, Ferdinand had reportedly been sewn in to his jacket, in order for it to look more streamlined. Unable to strip the archduke of his clothes in order to see the wound, those who tried to help him were apparently forced to waste time cutting the jacket off of him.

As with Brock, the jacket was not the cause of the man's death, but its display is tangled up in notions of narrative-building and representation; the (possibly untrue!) story of the coat has become caught up with the representation of the archduke, and by extension, the history of Europe.

3. Red wool coats at the Battle of Ridgeway, Canada

In the fifty-odd years between 1812 and 1866, red coats did not disappear for anyone involved in the British army.  

Illustrated print, showing a battle, with soldiers in green on the left and soldiers in red on the right.
Fenians on the left in green, the 13th Battalion and the Queen's Own Rifles in red on the right.
Image credit: The Sage, Sons & Co. Lith. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1946-35-1).

Unfortunately, the Battle of Ridgeway was in June. Sent out to battle without canteens for water, and wearing wool greatcoats on top of their red jackets, the soldiers were nearly overcome with heat. They eventually took to carrying the coats over their arms, before leaving them in piles when they neared a battle site.

It is not so much the wearing of wool in the summer or the wearing of the red coats that I want to focus on--obviously, as in 1812, the Canadians were highly visible on the battlefield--but the depiction of the two sides in highly publicized, highly inaccurate illustrations of the battle. The redcoats, in their usual bright splendour, face off against green-coated, Irish-American Fenians. In reality, the Fenians largely wore repurposed uniforms from the American Civil War, in greys and blues that easily blended in with the landscape. The display of such images build a narrative around the battle and the combatants, as if the Fenians engaged in using clothing to define their cause and character in a manner similar to the British. The display of the ubiquitous redcoats influences what is displayed around it--and thus the narrative grip of fashion can entirely muddle reality.

Sources Consulted: 

Barnes, Major R.M. 1972. A History of the Regiments & Uniforms of the British Army. London: Sphere Books Ltd.

Houze, Rebecca. 2015. Textiles, Fashion, and Design Reforms in Austria-Hungary Before the First World War: Principles of Dress. The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700-1950. Burlinton, V.T.: Ashgate Publishing Company. 

Marsh, James H. 2013. "Isaac Brock: Fallen Hero." The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Vronsky, Peter. 2012. Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle that Made Canada: The History of Canada. Penguin Global. 


  1. Very interesting post! I’ve always been intrigued by the small details in military dress that express rank and identity, such as the colouring of the feathered plume in the shako headpiece.

    On a related note, there is a fascinating story about Major General Brock that suggests that on the day that he was killed he was in fact wearing a gentleman’s hat and not his military headpiece. In not wearing the headwear of a Major General it is said that the American forces were unaware that the man killed in the battle was in fact Brock until much later. According to the story, the reason that Brock was wearing an incorrect wardrobe accessory was that the official headpiece had been specially ordered to fit Brock’s large figure and had yet to arrive.

    In keeping with your post, this story if correct, does express the remarkable impact that fashion can have in battle.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. (Apologies for the double post, Blogger did not like the link I included in my prior comment!)

    Thank you for this great post, Anya. The story of Brock's death has garnered a near-mythological status in Canadian history, but I appreciate your thoughtful discussion of what it means to display the clothing he died in, bullet hole and all.

    I wonder if you were perhaps inspired by a current exhibition at Fort York? Called "Outfitted for War," it features four uniforms of Torontonians involved in WWI. If you haven't already visited, I highly recommend it!

  4. poor issac brock

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