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Unbuttoning uniforms

by Sharon Peoples, 6 March 2017

Portrait of Captain James Cook RN, 1782 by John Webber
Portrait of Captain James Cook RN, 1782 by John Webber

As an artist, finding the perfect Canberra winter jacket can be no mean feat. Back in the 1990s, a fellow artist turned up to our studio complex wearing a pair of dashing navy pants with thick red stripes down the side of the legs: marching pants. She mentioned that one of the second hand goods stores had a rack of high quality military uniforms for sale. I raced off to see what could be found. 

Hanging there was a wool jacket with bands of gold braid around the lower arm and gold metallic buttons. It slipped on easily. The tailored structure of the naval jacket was surprising, and it fitted well enough. It was a bargain at $25.

Sharon Peoples in her coat (after Captain Cook)

It was not just the physical fit that appealed – the jacket also aligned with my identity at the time. Military uniforms signify order, conformity and discipline; however, this was not the resonance I was after. It was more of a tenuous connection. My father joined the navy in 1927 when he was fifteen, and stood at just five foot one. He was discharged in a very poor state of health in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. Archival records show he had grown to five foot four post-enlistment. He would never have worn such a jacket in his long naval career; he only made it to an able seaman rating.

As an embroiderer, the gold braid lured me. The lower band was very wide with a narrower upper braid curving into a circle on the outer arm. I thought about removing the braid and buttons, but then it would just be a dark blue jacket. On close examination there were small holes on the shoulders where other insignia had been removed. A label was sewn onto the inner lining: ‘Quality clothes by Swedex Sydney’.
Dressing for an exhibition opening that night in front of the mirror at home, I negotiated with my reflection: I needed to strike a balance between dressing appropriately and fitting in, as well as looking and feeling like an artist. Dressing is the moment when social expectations and personal preference come together; it’s a reconciling of sorts. The wearing can be a fleeting moment – an hour or so mingling at an exhibition opening – or for an entire career. For those who dress in military uniforms every day, there is little of the ‘wardrobe moment’; that is, the internal dilemmas and anguish evoked when the wardrobe door is opened. For them, the decisions about what to wear have already been made. There in my bedroom, at that moment, I was able to make a choice.

When bound to wear a military uniform there is no exclamation of having nothing to wear. When civilians experience this, it generally means there is absolutely nothing in the wardrobe that matches the specific identity sought for the occasion at hand. Our identities shift over time and place. Dress is a key expression of those multiple identities we all have.

Dressing can be seen as a game: demonstrating agility with clothing a body, fitting in with peers, or even standing out – as well as acknowledging those on the sidelines. According to writer Gregory Stone, letting the spectators know ‘what game they are watching’ as we pass by is important. Anthropologist Karen Tranberg uses the term ‘clothing competence’ for the way people expertly bricolage their bodies when dressing up in their various identities.

For those who wear uniforms, particularly military uniforms, decisions on dress evaporate. Military uniforms can signal national wealth and taste, esprit de corps, cultural notions of gender, tribal loyalty, physical strength and stylistic notions of expression. The list might also include neatness, entertainment, conformity and sexual attraction. Depending on the cultural and political associations with the uniforms, membership of the military may also be seen as supporting particular political ideologies or regimes. Cultural theorist Jennifer Craik reminds us that the role of uniforms has also been deliberately appropriated in a range of transgressive and subversive contexts, such as pornography, prostitution, sado-masochism, transvestism, cross-dressing, vaudeville, mardi gras, singing in choirs and performing ‘strippergrams’. Intriguingly, the uniform can take the form of a fetishised cultural artefact embodying erotic impulses and moral rectitude.

A military uniform is not just the imposition of dress, but the acquisition and long term implications of what anthropologist Marcel Mauss calls ‘techniques of the body’. These techniques are necessary to function successfully within the military, whether the subject is male or female. The constant and repetitive training becomes ‘second nature’, and is carried over, or at least traces remain within the body. The stance and gait of soldiers are indicators of such traces. Correspondingly, in an artistic context, capturing the ‘second nature’ of the sitter contributes to the success of a portrait.  
The uniform comes with certain codified behaviours. The salute, the click of the heels and the automatic verbal responses all reflect the machinery of power entering the body. These techniques of the body can last beyond the career dressed in uniform, and continue to be absorbed into one’s civilian identity. The combination of uniform outward appearance with specific, culturally contingent body movements is an archetypal symbol of military culture.

Wandering through the galleries of the National Portrait Gallery, there are a number of portraits of people in uniforms, many of them military. Audiences arrive at the Gallery with some understanding of what military uniforms signify. For those outside the military, the subtleties of uniform and decoration cannot always be easily interpreted. However, the concept of military dress as a metaphor for the state and authority is understood. The clothing, brass buttons, badges and rank markings of the institution do not represent the individual. The wearer of the military uniform is always on show, whether in actuality or through images. The bearing, pose and action of these people are the subject, just as much as the fetishised objects, such as metal insignia and clothing. In the contemporary world, dressing in a military uniform for a portrait, a moment in time, an identity in time, presents interesting challenges: the individual interior world versus the institution.

It is illuminating to consider the uniforms portrayed in the Portrait Gallery’s Robert Oatley Gallery, which is grounded in the theme of encounter between Australia’s Indigenous people and Europeans, and the establishment of the Australian colonies. There are numerous portraits of men in uniforms – dress that played a key role in the colony, and, at times, acted as an organisational device. With no built environment, dress acted as a management tool. Essentially, in the early days of the colony, it was a military establishment. The various uniforms of convicts and the Royal Marines delineated who held power.

In this gallery, it is hard to miss John Webber’s Portrait of Captain James Cook RN (1782). On one of my visits, Cook was flanked by Thomas Phillips’ Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks (c. 1814) on the left, and John Webber’s William Bligh (c.1776) on the right. All three are portrayed wearing military jackets with white vests, undershirts and pants. Cook looks slightly uncomfortable in this particular portrait – perhaps not looking or feeling ‘like himself’. Capturing his second nature may have been difficult posthumously. While researchers such as Michelle Hetherington and David Cordingly have used uniforms to date portraits, very few scholars have reflected on what the social experience of dressing in military uniforms can add to one’s sense of identity.

Generally, the uniform dress for officers of the eighteenth century reveals a system where the competition for promotion through merit was heavily oiled by connections and the patronage of British society at home. The slow and steady pace of Cook’s career reflects the lack of close familial ties to the military from which many amongst the upper classes benefited. Captain Hugh Palliser (who was captain of The Eagle, the first ship Cook sailed on) assisted Cook’s advancement greatly. However, for men rising from the lower classes such as Cook, the regulations concerning promotion in the navy were strictly adhered to; he was to remain as Captain Cook.

Webber’s portrait of Cook depicts the sailor with the narrow ‘aristocratic’ shoulders of convention, which does not quite ring true for me. Cook’s education was constant, but he was required to labour on ships. He was proficient enough in mathematics to enter the commercial world of a grocer and haberdasher at Ayton. In 1746, Cook was apprenticed (quite late, at eighteen) to work in the coal shipping trade. The work was hard and physically intense for men of the lower classes, with unscrupulous means often employed to amass a vast labour force from this demographic to run the ships. (This was not Cook’s experience, fortunately.) In 1755, nine years after beginning his seafaring career, Cook entered the Royal Navy, where he continued studying elementary astronomy and geometry while labouring on deck. He was also keen to learn the use of the most popular navigation instruments of the day. Introduced to the theory and practice of surveying on his first trip to Canada, by his second voyage he was a surveyor. He was still a warrant officer at forty years of age, and still wore no uniform.

General Cosgrove, Dili, East Timor 1999, 2006 by Rick Amor

In contrast, and closer to the present, Rick Amor’s portrait of General Sir Peter Cosgrove in East Timor in 1999 shows the soldier in combat-wear: rather than portraying his subject in formal ‘dress’ uniform, Amor shows Cosgrove walking through the streets of Dili in a uniform with camouflage markings. Here, the artist depicts Cosgrove both as an individual and as part of a group of combatants. In one sense, this reflects the institution of the military through its people, rather than the individual valorisation conveyed by an individual with medals. In addition, the ‘second nature’ of the institution is shown in the bodies of the subjects: the carriage of their bodies reflects years of training.

Melissa Beowulf’s Nancy Wake - The White Mouse (2001) relies on a different type of camouflage. There are very few female military portraits. Wake was a member of the Resistance in France during the Second World War, and no doubt eschewed military-cultivated ‘second nature’. Her success relied on her ability to camouflage herself within French society. Military espionage novels and films have depicted incorrect cultural body language as a feature that can betray operatives to the enemy. Although Wake’s medals are the military signifier, it is her body dressed in civilian clothing, and, in particular, her hands and face that give strength of character to the portrait, rather than the uniform of an institution.

Nancy Wake - The White Mouse, 2001 by Melissa Beowulf

Another projection of identity can be found in Nora Heyson’s 1950 portrait of Dr Robert Black. Heyson was a war artist and depicted her sitter (later to become her husband) in an air force flying jacket rather than in garb conveying his status as a world authority on malaria. Often those in the air force are portrayed with a certain detachment, nonchalance or what fashion theorist Gabriele Mentges terms ‘coolness’ – it is a relaxed manner belying the danger of flying or the violence that warfare necessitates. Indeed, this is a specific image cultured within air forces around the world. The style of military uniform is a combination of specific techniques of the body, sometimes incorporating intangible qualities such as coolness. This dress was used as a recruiting device and was attractive to many men.

Robert H. Black MD, c. 1950 by Nora Heysen

Ideas about military uniforms have changed markedly since they were gradually introduced for officers in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, the attendance of uniformed men was considered to enhance the atmosphere and entertainment at a social event. Today, many people would be somewhat anxious if a contingent of people dressed in military uniforms turned up, for example at a theatre or gallery opening that had little to do with a military theme.

When I bought my naval jacket I had little idea of the subtleties embedded in the garment, or the possibility of ‘reading’ the nuances of uniforms. On three different occasions when wearing the jacket I was approached by people with the same narrative – a suggestion that the garment could only have belonged to one of three Rear Admirals, depending on where the jacket was made. It was not until I used the jacket as an exercise for students to research the provenance of objects that one clever pupil (who was an archivist/librarian) looked inside one of the inner pockets. She discovered a handwritten label with a service number; she then jumped online and found that the jacket belonged to Rear Admiral Owen John ‘Oscar’ Hughes, who passed away in 2014.

The only jacket I remember my father wearing was a soft tan tweed jacket. What would he have thought of me wearing such a glorious jacket, unbuttoned with jeans? How different it is to be caught up in a moment of dress, in Oscar Hughes’ jacket at an exhibition opening, than to being portrayed in a uniform on the walls of a museum.