Amy Miller. Dressed to Kill: British Naval Uniform, Masculinity and Contemporary Fashions, 1748-1857, 2nd ed. National Maritime Museum Greenwich, 2021. Paperback, £30.00. Originally published in 2007.
by Meaghan Walker
Amy Miller’s second edition of Dressed to Kill is one of the most authoritative books on the early establishment of naval uniform dress currently in publication and this new edition is welcome as the original 2007 print was notoriously difficult to find for sale. The book traces the development of naval dress from the creation of the uniform for officers beginning in the 1740s to the regulation of a uniform for ratings in 1857. Miller shows how uniform dress was not a class of clothing apart for either officers or seamen, tracing how fashion influenced naval dress and the maritime world at the same time inspired fashion. Throughout, Miller relates how uniform dress reflected an ideal of masculinity as representative by the naval officer, while also being malleable enough to react to change over time as the navy transitioned from the fighting age of sail to the steamship fleet of Pax Britannica.
The book is divided into three sections, beginning with the book’s text, also split into three chapters. Miller clearly sees the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as a significant focal point, with the first chapter discussing the creation and development of the uniform up to 1794, followed by a chapter exclusively discusses the conflict until the uniform regulation orders of 1812, and then concluding with a final chapter that picks up in that year and continues to 1857.
Miller begins with the concerns and demands that led to the establishment of the uniform, namely that naval officers wanted to combine the fashion of their everyday dress with the social and martial distinction that uniforms gave in both social and military situations. Naval officers were obviously annoyed that army officers and foreign (French) naval officers had access to this cachet to their exclusion. However, codifying dress also brought them into a broader and long-established discourse about men’s relationship to clothing and fashion. “Were they men of action or men of fashion?” (p. 51) Miller posits. Did they preen uselessly when they discussed such accoutrements as epaulettes and gilt thread or did lack of proper dress reveal a concurrent lack of leadership and self-respect?
Moving into the French Wars, chapter 2 considers the increased mobilization and importance of the navy and its subsequent visibility to the British public and its impact on the nation’s self-image. During this period, clothing became even more politically charged than usual and naval dress did not escape these associations. British civilians dressed in themed clothing to celebrate important British victories, such as wearing fabric printed with crocodiles after the Battle of the Nile. Despite the militarism of the period, fashionability stayed at the forefront of decisions about uniforms, with tight sleeves and breeches in undress reflecting the influence of macaroni style and with dress uniforms still following the dictates of court dress. However, in this context naval officers were able to dodge accusations of being obsessed with fashion by producing results at sea.
The final chapter establishes the navy’s post-war malaise as it demobilized and reformed itself to fit the needs of a globally powerful British Empire that was without rival at sea. This is Miller’s strongest chapter and convincingly shows the anxiety of naval personnel and British subjects in the post-war period as reflected in dress. Without the threat of war, the preoccupation with uniform regulations rekindled suppressed worries about the unsuitability of dandified men to defend Britain. The concern had evolved, however, to incorporate new ideas about Christian morality, steam technology, changing naval prerogatives (like exploring the Arctic), and the reduction in the size and visibility of navy. Indeed, the memory of uniformed naval paupers and amputees on the streets of British cities and towns would have made a stark impression on the British psyche. This chapter of the book also most comprehensively discusses the clothing of naval sailors, with Miller considering the transition from slops to the rating uniform of 1857.
The final two sections of Dressed to Kill document the catalogue and the patterns. Miller organizes both in chronological order, showing the uniforms, clothing, accessories, and other accoutrements at the National Maritime Museum [NMM]. The catalogue uses photographs, including many close shots that show fabric texture, stitching, commercial logos, and other details. In addition, she captions these images with detailed descriptions. These images complement the already generous offerings that accompany the text, along with paintings, sketches, cartoons, and photographs. The patterns, meanwhile, are simple sketches of the clothes and give a good idea of their seams and other details that might be more difficult to see in an image. While not actual patterns, the sketches give an idea of the construction of the clothes for those interested in reproduction.
Miller’s Dressed to Kill is as close to a tour of the uniform collection at the NMM without actually visiting. Containing both a variety of images and sketches of the objects with a cultural consideration of their place in history, the second edition of this significant book makes scholarship about the clothing of the British Royal Navy more accessible.