Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How Impractical were Eighteenth-Century Soldiers' Uniforms?

Were eighteenth-century uniforms laughably impractical?

Dear Reader,

 When discussing the aesthetics of the eighteenth century, people often comment on the garish nature of military clothing. On the surface, it may seem that the wars of the eighteenth century were "wars in lace," and the period was "a decorative interval."[1] Uniforms are often used as a piece of evidence to assert that eighteenth-century warfare was inefficient, formalized, and foppish. According to some historians: "In general, an ancien regime [eighteenth-century] army was a slow and unwieldy mass of disgruntled and terrorized soldiers led by untrained and unimaginative officers."[2]  Were these conflicts "wars in lace," with all of the baggage that term implies?

Once again, as I write this post, I am greatly indebted to other historians and researchers who have examined this subject. Individuals such as Mark Canady, Henry Cooke, Daniel Hohrath, Neal Hurst, Phillip Katcher, Tomasz Karpinksi, Matt Keagle, William Koker, Tim Logue, Joseph Malit, Steve Rayner,  Hew Strachan, and Rob Welch, have spent much of their time researching and reconstructing eighteenth-century military garments. Though I have researched uniforms in a cursory way, I will never understand eighteenth-century military clothing in the painstaking way these individuals have.

So, how ostentatious and formal was eighteenth-century military clothing? Did soldiers truly fight bewigged in scarlet splendor?   Did uniforms hamper the ability of European soldiers to effectively wage war? Did brightly colored uniforms make men targets? Did these uniforms restrict the range of motion enjoyed by the soldiers? Was the available clothing bad for soldier's health, freezing or overheating them? Finally, did armies adapt their clothing to local needs and conditions?

The blue faced-red coats of the Continentals were inspired by European fashion
It is often said, particularly by Americans, that the bright red uniforms of the British regular infantry made them easy targets, to be individually picked out by American riflemen. Although this may true in very specific cases, by and large, the American War of Independence was not fought by drab colored riflemen. Rather, it was a war fought by men wearing brightly colored coats with (aim-able) smoothbore weapons. While the British were wearing their trademark red, the American medley of colors in the early war was increasingly replaced by blue uniforms or white/grey hunting shirts after 1780. Very few of the American uniforms were intentionally designed to camouflage the individual wearer.

Soldier's carried small field guides in order to identify
enemy units based on uniform details
Why would this be the case? Generals favored highly visible and identifiable uniforms because they allowed troops to be recognized, controlled, and moved. Units wore brightly colored coats, and different colored lapels and turnbacks (coat tails or skirts) allowed for officers and men to distinguish between different units of the same army.  Soldiers and officers effectively utilized their clothing and equipment in order to fight as efficiently as possible. Ironically enough, it is only after the Seven Years' War that some European armies became so infatuated with their perception of the external trappings of the Prussian army. Thus, in the late eighteenth century, produced some officers who argued for formality without function. They would have been rather out of place in the Europe of 1757, or the North America of 1777.

Come on, guys
What about the powdered wigs, you ask?? Can we truly respect any army that fought in powdered wigs? Although hair powder was very popular, and worn by soldiers, by the middle of the eighteenth-century, soldiers preferred to wair their own hair, not wigs.[3] This preference can be seen in the writings of Thomas Hughes of the 53rd Regiment, in September of 1778:
"I am recovering very fast and make no doubt shall be perfectly well... the only disagreeable consequence attending his sickness is the loss of my hair, which comes out by hand-fulls. I hope it will not all fall out-- what a horrid old-fashioned figure shall I make in a wig. I shall be taken for the resurrection of one of Queen Anne's soldiers."[4]
In addition to wearing their own hair, British soldiers in North American cut their hair short a number of times in the eighteenth-century, notably in the mid-French and Indian War, and early American War of Independence. If soldiers wore their own hair, were their brightly colored uniforms restrictive?

A German Jaeger in the American War
Clothing in various eighteenth-century militaries was undoubtedly more restrictive of movement than military clothing after the mid-nineteenth century. Having worn replica British and Germanic clothing of this era, as well as British and German military clothing from the 1980s-1990s, there is definitely a difference in range of motion. The improvement in the design, construction, material, and increase in efficiency is indeed noticeable.  With all that said, I would argue that the clothing of eighteenth-century soldiers did not greatly hamper their efficiency in combat. Though still an intensely physical experience, eighteenth-century combat was on average less physically demanding than combat today. In an example of this logic, Christopher Duffy asserts that loads in the eighteenth-century averaged about 60 pounds, while modern soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan carry around 120+ pounds.[5]  Despite this, eighteenth-century warfare could still be incredibly physically demanding, as the 12 mile run of the 45th Grenadiers from Philadelphia to Germantown shows us. Likewise, Prinz Henri and his army marched almost 100 miles during three days in August of 1760.

Officers and soldiers were concerned with the functionality and durability of the garments fighting men wore. After the Seven Years' War, the Prussian Army completed the transition to woolen gaiters as a result of their functionality. General Schmettau reported:
"The Gaiters: They had formerly been made out of twill, but it is better that they be made out of cloth, experience has taught us that these are warmer and lay better, so that the soldier looks more orderly, therefore, they have been almost universally adopted. Although they cost twice as much as the others, they only need to be issued once a year, because they are much more durable than the others, and the company proprietors prefer to issue something that looks better."[6]

British troops buttoning their coats in cold weather

In addition, officers and soldiers often made common-sense decisions regarding clothing with regards to weather and terrain. Soldiers' buttoned their coats over while in cold or rainy weather, and regimental tailors were instructed to make sure this was possible.[7] The Russian and Swedish armies discarded their regimental coats in summer, fighting in sleeved waistcoats. Furthermore, during particularly hot summers, troops would remove yet more clothing. Pvt. Hoppe of Fusilier Regiment Alt-Kreytzen reported:
On August 20th, we set up camp at the town of Reppen, where we were allowed to take off our clothes.This we did, but our repose did not last long, since the enemy concentrated at Zorndorf, two hours beyond Kustrin on the other side of the Oder. So the order came in the night that we should break up quickly and put our gaiters into our haversacks.[8] 
The summer heat in 1758 caused numerous problems

If soldiers changed what garments they wore as a result of local conditions, it should not surprise us that they also modified the garments themselves. Again, the British Army adapted to local conditions in this way, cutting down hats and coats during the 1758 campaign in North America, and also merged local native legwear with the European gaiter. Gaitered Trowzers, or overalls, were largely born out of North American experience.

British Infantry wearing gaitered trowzers

Finally, it is indisputable that soldiers cared a great deal about their uniforms, even the minor details. Period treatises such as Cuthbertson make it clear that officers cared a great deal about the uniforms of their men. Uniform details often became wrapped up in matters of honor, and as a result, ordinary soldiers also cared about them a great deal. In 1787, when the second Battalion of the Royal Highland Regiment was to be designated the 73rd Regiment, the men complained that they would lose their royal facings (a deep blue color.) Norman Macleod reported:
"I embrace this opportunity of sending you a Return of it, and of giving you a full account of its present state...I shall now speak of the clothing. As the Reg’t we had the honour to have Royal Facings from the beginning and have done nothing to forfeit that honour, but on the contrary has been distinguished by brave behaviour, and severe sufferings, it hopes that tho separated from the Fourty Second, it will still be a Royal Highland Regt. It is not easy for me to express the anxiety felt on this account by the whole corps. The officers certainly fell is as a point of honour, and on a mischievous report being raised that the facings were to be changed, the men loudly expressed their grief and rage. I must therefore earnestly recommend this point to your most serious consideration."[9]
We should be careful not to conflate the honor and pride felt as a result uniform distinctions with an idea that eighteenth-century conflicts were somehow more garish, and less serious, than later wars. These "wars in lace" were deadly serious for the men who took part.  To some extent, the tactics and ideas of eighteenth-century soldiers should look antiquated, that is not surprising.  Let us see how our own military is judged two hundred years in the future.

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


[1] Alexander Martin, "The Last “War in Lace” or the First “Total War”?" Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 15 no. 2, 2014, pp. 293-301. Christopher Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 3.
[2] Andrew R. Wilson, "Master's of War: History's Great Strategic Thinkers" (lecture, The Great Courses, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island).
[] Soldiers would occasionally protest if not provided money for hair-powder. See Bill Potter, Redcoats on the Frontier, MA Thesis, Murray State University.
[4] Thomas Hughes, A Journal by Thomas Hughes, 41.
[5] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 168.;
[6] Fredrich Wilhelm von Schemttau, Einrichtung des Krieges-Wesens für die Preussische Infanterie zu Friedens-Zetien, 209. (Page number is from 2016 reprinting)
[7] Reglement für die Königl. Preussische Infanterie, 498. (Fawcitt, Regulations for the Prussian Infantry, 409.)
[8] Anon., Offizier-Lesebuch, Historisch-militärischen Inhalts, Mit Untermischten Interessanten Anekdoten, Von Einer Gesellschafts Militärischer Freunde (Berlin: C. Matzdorff's Buchhandlung, 1793), 180-1.
[9]MacLeod, Norman. “Letter From Col McLeod to the Col of the 73rd. 1787.” Dunvegan Castle: NRAS 2950, Section 4, #752.


  1. The Guards in late '76 and early '77 began to unofficially Bob their hair. They were ordered to retrieve the locks and tie them back on until their hair grew out.

  2. Some how my comment didn't identify me - Tim Osner

  3. It is of interest that during the FIW both sides made all kinds of practical field mods but after the war did keep them and went back to fashion.

  4. Thank you for the interesting, accompanying images and photos from so many sources, and for the well-researched and personal accounts.