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Tuesday 27 November 2012

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. (Part 2)

Previously: Master & Commander, Part 1.

The characters in Master & Commander have a lot to say about the division between Navy and non-Navy sailors, whether it's out loud in dialogue or implicitly through their costuming. The final battle of the movie hinges upon the HMS Surprise being mistaken for a whaling ship, a ruse which is helped along by the recent addition of some former whalers to the crew. The idea of a Navy ship being neat and organised is so ingrained that their "disguise" is merely to seem messier and less competent than usual, and for the officers to wear brown oilcoats over their uniforms. For the everyday crewmembers, the task of upholding the image of the British Empire is to keep the ship running as cleanly and smoothly as possible; for the officers, it's to maintain an appearance of upstanding British aristocracy even in the middle of a storm.
The finest example of the British Seafaring Gentleman archetype in Master & Commander is, surprisingly, not Captain Aubrey. In fact it's one of the midshipman, Peter Calamy. Calamy is the most well-respected of the midshipmen -- experienced enough to be a good leader, but still young enough to be idealistic. With his short hair, sideburns and long trousers he definitely falls into the category of the proto-Victorian gentlemen, and unlike the younger midshipmen he's relatively clean and kempt. By contrast, Aubrey looks a lot more 18th century and careworn, and has clearly relaxed with age. Most of his clothes are old and worn, and in private he regularly strips down to stained shirtsleeves and knee-breeches. 

Aubrey's second in command, Tom Pullings, falls somewhere between Aubrey and Calamy. Pullings is an established officer in his own right, meaning that M&C isn't really "his" film and far more screentime goes to the aging hero (Aubrey) and the various coming-of-age stories of the midshipmen. In style he generally takes after his role-model Aubrey, with long hair and relatively traditional dress, but I'd say he's neater and more put-together -- which may partly be down to his role onboard ship. Since Aubrey's method of leadership is rather paternal and flexible, Pullings has to be more by-the-book in order to balance things out. The most interesting thing about Pullings' costuming is his bicorn hat, which he wears "fore-and-aft" in contrast to Aubrey's "athwartships" style. Athwartships was the style favoured by the older generation, modelled off Nelson's style, and this type of variation within the uniform is a clear sign of how much Naval uniforms were influenced by changing fashions.
I find it interesting, the way men's fashions and the value of personal style are so evident in this movie. Most of the officers take pride in their appearance even if only out of societal pressure, but it's a type of vanity that doesn't really have a modern equivalent -- particularly among men. These are 19th-century men who are influenced by 19th-century dandyism, even if they aren't dandies themselves. Being clean and well-turned-out was associated with things that don't necessarily have anything to do with fashion these days: patriotism, manliness, aristocracy, and competence. It's often the case that a character will be mocked for seeming too prissy or obsessed with their appearance (for example, the pastel-coloured Naval officers and East India Trading Company men in Pirates of the Caribbean), but I feel like the attitudes expressed in Master & Commander are far truer to life than that. These men aren't trying to impress women (because there aren't any), they aren't really trying to impress each other (because there's no privacy onboard ship, so everyone sees each other at their worst), and they certainly aren't keeping up with a strict uniform code as in the modern military. They're just living up to a set of standards that don't exist in modern society.
While the crew of the Surprise are somewhat ragtag and the officers are governed by the twin masters of 19th century fashion and the Naval uniform code, Paul Bettany's Dr Maturin is very obviously a civilian -- and very obviously unconcerned with Naval ideals of masculinity and Britishness. I'm not overly familiar with the original Aubrey/Maturin novels, but I do know that Maturin is the character who changed most between the books and the film. Although in M&C he's still an Irishman, his history as a spy and a laudanum addict is erased, as are his extreme levels of scruffiiness when compared to the other Gentlemen onboard the Surprise. Instead his lack of seamanship is emphasised, both in terms of his total lack of interest in sailing and in his many philosophical differences with dyed-in-the-wool Navy men like Aubrey.
The relationship between Aubrey and Maturin is the focal point of the film, with the unusually forward-thinking Maturin providing the audience with an outsider's view of Navy life. As a scientist and a rationalist, Maturin is a kind of Spock figure to Aubrey's Captain Kirk, since much of Aubrey's skill as a captain comes down to instinct and experience. Because he's the ship's doctor and the captain's closest friend, Maturin gets a lot of leeway when it comes to eccentricity, but he still wouldn't get away with the way he acts unless he also had the respect of the crew. The main reason he's allowed to dress and behave the way he does is because he's the only real civilian onboard, and therefore doesn't have to fit in with the crew or with the strict upper-class guidelines of the officers.
While he isn't as unkempt as his print counterpart, Paul Bettany's Maturin still bears very few signs of a 19th century gentleman's interest in fashion. He has no time for masculine posturing, and when it comes to his appearance he's something of an eccentric-intellectual stereotype -- all shabby waistcoats and old coats. Probably as a concession to the movie's 21st-century audience, Maturin's periwig has been traded in for a distinctly modern (well, Victorian) hairstyle. His most unusual outfit is the one he wears while exploring the Galapagos islands: a patterned banyan robe, a straw hat, and lace-up leather spats. It's an interesting combination: old-fashioned knee-breeches like Aubrey, coupled with the distinctly casual and unpatriotic addition of an Indian-style overcoat that has little in common with the more formal Naval fashions of the day.

Click here for more Movie Costumes I Have Loved.


  1. But the banyan was at-home wear for gentlemen since the middle of the 18th century! In modern terms, he'd be wearing a hoodie while the officers were in business suits.

  2. that early?? for some reason i thought it was more victorian? i should go and change that, then!

  3. Oh, you absolutely should give the Patrick O'Brian novels a try. In addition to being enjoyable historical fiction, they are meticulously researched and it shows. Details of language, dress and attitude really make his stories seem like well observed non-fiction. The books are short (maybe 150 pages each?) and take place across the world, and across Aubrey's (and Maturin's) long careers.

  4. Extremely interesting!! Thank you for this!

  5. In case you're interested, on the heels of this, I give you my thesis blog: I'm recreating four 1813 naval uniforms from a battle off the coast of MA

  6. If not before. Wikipedia has this wonderful picture of an ageing Isaac Newton in a banyan, from circa 1710:
    (I love that pic because it makes me see Isaac Newton as the Original Pimp.)

    Also: I can't believe I never thought about the obvious similarities between Master & Commander and Star Trek before you linked them here. Not very surprising, given how much Trek owes to classic naval stories (The Wrath of Khan in particular), but still... oh yeah.

  7. My favorite movie getting the Hello Tailor treatment, what a treat! Fantastic insights, thank you for writing this!

    I'm seconding/thirding the recommendation for the books. For one thing, the generational differences you pointed out in the costuming are very evident in the books, with Aubrey as a representative of the older, rougher Navy and the younger officers representing a more modern, gentlemen-only officer corps. Definitely worth reading!

  8. I absolutely love this movie and it was so very fun to read about the costumes and what the different clothing 'meant' in terms of the movie. I read one or two of the books in this series, though i preferred the Horatio Hornblower books. I'm going to give this series another try, though! (Omg, i haven't been here in ages, there is SO MUCH NEW STUFF to read!!!)

  9. Surprise Sailor5 April 2014 at 15:58

    As others have said, you should read this wonderful series. A lot of the depth in the characters is missing in the (otherwise excellent) film. One note about the hats though. It's not that one chose to wear his fore and after and the other athwartships; they're actually two completely different types of hats. Post captains wore tricorns, like Aubrey does in the film, as part of their uniforms. Lieutenants wore bicorns fore-and-aft as part of their uniform, not by choice. In 1805, the year of the film, every lieutenant in the Royal Navy would have worn a bicorn fore-and-aft. You'll notice that Mr Mowett, the 2nd lieutenant, wears a uniform identical to Pullins', including the hat.

    1. Not to dispute you, but I'm sure there's a mention in one of the books that talks about Aubrey's adherence to the traditional "athwart ships" vs. the younger officers adopting the "new fashion" of "fore and aft".
      Aubrey's hat is definitely a bicorn, although of a style meant to be worn "athwart". It's definitely not a tricorn.
      O'Brian definitely does make it seem more like a generational style issue, and not a standard uniform thing.

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