Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, Reviews  |  July 6, 2015

The Costume Society Waterloo Study Day

On Saturday 9th May the Costume Society held their Waterloo Study Day at The Old Theatre, Bath. The event, celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, focused on the dress worn at the time, with many attendees’ donning full period costume. The event consisted of two lectures and a demonstration by the Crinoline Group. The first talk, ‘A Brilliant Affair, Dress and Fashion at the Waterloo Ball’, was by Rosemary Harden; Manager and Curator at the Bath Fashion Museum; and the second talk, 'Uniformly Splendid: Dress and Death on the Field of Waterloo', was by Nigel Arch; Vice Chairman of the Costume Society, and former Director of Kensington Palace. 

Rosemary Harden examined the fashions worn at Charlotte Lennox, the Duchess of Richmond's Waterloo Ball, which was held in Brussels on June 15th 1815. The Waterloo Ball, Harden explained, is widely regarded as the most famous ball in all of history; anyone who was anyone was there to be seen. 

Rosemary explained that the Ball’s fame and cultural importance is, perhaps, predominantly present for its timely proximity to the Battle of Quatre Bras that occurred the next morning, and also the Battle of Waterloo, which occurred three days later. It was at the Waterloo Ball that the Duke of Wellington, received news of Napoleon’s invasion, many men had to leave the ball and go straight to battle:

“[…]While some of the officers hurried away, others remained at the ball, and actually had not time to change their clothes, but fought in evening costume.”(Lady Georgiana, a guest at the Waterloo Ball)

Harden moved the discussion towards what was worn to the event, she explained, many depictions of the Waterloo Ball were painted years afterwards, therefore, the fashions were incorrect to 1815. One of the best places to get an idea of 1815 fashion is from fashion plates, Harden described how fashion plates are similar to Vogue magazine, although, she added, while plates and Vogue suggest trends, it is often aspirational fashion, and not worn by many people. Harden found her answer in the archives of Bath Fashion Museum, which holds approximately 54 dresses from the era:

'Through cross referencing several sources I was able to gain an accurate understanding of the fashion at the time. I found the trends were; plain, light coloured fabrics, with a slight sheen, styles of dress had puff sleeves and were worn with long gloves with a loose top.’ 

After a short break, Nigel Arch began his lecture on the army uniform worn by the soldiers during the battle of Waterloo. Nigel explained how, at the time, the uniform was incredibly grand and fashionable, though, highly uncomfortable; polar to contemporary British military uniform. For example, the soldiers had to carry all their equipment around with them in badly designed rucksacks, resulting in many men dying of pulmonary disease from the straps tightness across their chests.

The British army were nicknamed ‘Tommy Lobsters’ with reference to their red uniforms, and while the red cloth was very traditional, the red dye used would run as soon as it got wet, and would shrink in the rain, adding to the impracticality of the uniform. Red being chosen for the military uniform may also sound impractical, however, the colour choice was actually quite clever and tactical:

‘If you wanted to move your troops around the field you'd want to be able to see them, additionally, if you got separated from your troops you could move towards your side.’

After lunch, for the final part of the study day, visitors watched two Bath residents, a.k.a Miss Kitty and Captain Swain, get dressed up in full 1805 outfits courtesy of the Crinoline Group. Starting from undergarments, the pair were dressed upwards, each time a new layer was added, a demonstration of how it would have been put on was given, the final outfits were both historical replicas of original regency models from the nearby Salisbury Museum.

Overall, the Costume Society Waterloo Study Day was not only a fitting homage to the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, but also an incredibly educational day, and it was really exciting to see all the impressive outfits worn by visitors to the event.

Olexandra Solomka, Costume Society Ambassador 2015

  • Costume Society Study Day Visitors, Costume Society Twitter
  • British Military Uniform, BritishEmpire.co.uk

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