by Steve Gottschling

You may recall my last post where I discussed the peculiar dress of the East India Company, one of the most infamous mixers of capitalism and violence before the world gave us United Airlines. I shared accounts of soldiers like Garnet Wolseley and WSR Hodson as they marched across the Indian subcontinent beneath heavy woollen uniforms to fulfill some far-off authority’s idea of national pride.

It was a portrait of stoicism, but more importantly it posed a counterpoint to my own hyper-meticulous dressing style for spring’s wobbly toddler stages. I can forgive myself a little more easily for choosing too warm a jacket when my mind is littered with images of redcoats fainting gracefully.

But my portrayal of Company troops as wool-wrapped martyrs, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t entirely accurate. As is expected for an operation that spanned a whole subcontinent, where dress regulations are easier announced than enforced, the British troops couldn’t quite transplant their national uniform to another climate without one or two garments changing along the way.

Captain FB Doveton, who fought in Burma in the 1820s, puts it nicely in the Asiatic Journal:

“When troops are on active service in the East, great license is permitted in the way of costume; in fact, the Regulations could not very well be enforced where there are no army tailors to supply deficiencies. On such a barbarous and distant service as that in question, it may well be imagined we were soon a most motley group…”

“My own corps ran riot very much in this particular, our colonel not being over[sic] strict as to dress. Many wore trowsers[sic] made of a coarse blue calico used for lining tents (this was my favorite material); others wore white, and some tartan; in fact, every one suited his own taste, and all the colours of the rainbow were son seen in the ranks.”

Part of the reason for this trouser diversity was the garment’s combustibility. Trousers were among the first garments to give way to the rigors of plunder, but an imminently trouserless soldier could choose among local sources for a cheap and lightweight replacement. Your torso would still bake beneath your flannel jacket, of course, but at least everything below the belt could breathe.

Things were hardly more uniform atop soldiers’ heads. Garnet Wolseley, whom I introduced in the last post, wrapped thin blue puggaree around his forage cap for added protection. And Doveton describes his regiment having “a great diversity of taste as to head-dress, some wearing the high oil-skin shako, others foraging caps of various shapes.”

And the shako! Some soldiers hated it. “It had a peak before and one behind, whence the felt crown rose to the altitude of six or eight inches, stretching out at the summit in a style that I might have thought picturesque if I had not found it confoundedly top-heavy,” wrote one soldier in the Asiatic Journal. Many soldiers simply lost their shakos, wearing instead cloth-wraps soaked in water. No wonder the lighter-weight forage cap was frequently the preferred choice.

Perhaps the most relatable regiment of the lot, however, were the First Bengali Fusiliers, who gained the name “The Dirty Shirts” from, as Charles John Griffiths writes, “their habit of fighting in their shirts with sleeves turned up, without jacket or coat, and their nether extremities clad in soiled blue dungaree trousers.” Scores of other regiments kept their jackets on and left battle with no nickname at all.

So fret not, all you who worry about rising temperatures forcing you to shed your outerwear and whatever sense of identity comes with it. Your chance at legendary status is not lost.

Picture: The 1st Bengal Fusiliers Marching Down from Dugshai, by George F. Atkinson, 1857