Introducing ‘Fishy Fashion’! (a maritime public history manifesto)

Consider the dress of a sailor over 200 years ago


Anonymous, ‘The Disconsolate Sailor’, c. 1780-90s, [National Maritime Museum, UK, PAF4290] [see original here]

Late 18th century maritime history is a remarkable subject whose legacy is still felt today. And yet its human dimension, the experience of common seamen, is often harder to access. While academic research struggles to reach a wider audience for lack of circulation or charisma, popular media actively misleads public imagination by pandering to inaccurate stereotypes of ‘pirates’, Hollywood formula and literal fantasy.

Yet real seamen *really* lived in a very real world wherein great naval squadrons decided imperial fortunes, merchant-men linked kingdoms  through worldwide oceanic trade, and deep-sea fisheries fed millions. Each of these was each dependent on men whose labor amidst the salt spray and wind appears astonishing to modern eyes. These men made historic change at sea possible. So how best can we tell their stories?


detail of, Nicolas-Marie Ozanne (artist, 1728-1811) and Yves-Marie Le Gouaz (engraver, 1742-1816), ‘Combat du Vengeur’, 1800, [Bibliothque Nationale de France, ark:/12148/btv1b84122598] [see original here]

I would present this blog as a wide survey of  c. 1750-1800  ‘sailor fashion’, presenting my ongoing research into the distinct occupational clothing that European (and especially French and British) sailors used to both work effectively and affirm their professional identity in wider society

Why focus on the late 18th century?

The period from 1750 to 1800 is recognizably modern, marked by technological change, intellectual sea-change, demographic boom, and imperial expansion. This period is also relatively recent, yet still beyond the pale of living memory, meaning for audiences it occupies a recognizable yet uncontroversial position in popular culture.

Why sailors?

Sailors were a distinct contemporary subculture with their own unique way of living, behaving, and dressing. Their flamboyancy and romance attracted interest from authors and artists, meaning we have a relatively strong visual and archival record which allows productive research. Sailors also played a key role in the  imperial rivalry between France and Britain, a decades-long economic and military contest which defined 18th century European politics and ultimately shaped world history.


Conrad Lotter (publisher), ‘Tableau de tous les pavillons qu l’on arbore sur les vaisseaux dans les quatre parties du monde’, 1781 [Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection] [see original]

Why clothing?

Everyone wears it! Clothing is both a fascinating measure of social values and practice, but also a fun, *human* way to teach history. By looking at the clothing sailors wore historically, we can also draw analogies with modern dress, and learn a great deal about their lingering influence on fashion today.


What will I be doing in coming weeks?

-living history outreach volunteering with the Scottish Fisheries Museum [website here]] on the dress and work of Georgian period fishermen in coastal Fife’s ‘East Neuk’

-preparing, sourcing materials, and rehearsing a play “Are you a pirate?!”; (or, my adventures as an 18th century sailor)“, to be performed in late semester 2 via the St Andrews University theater group ‘Mermaids’ [see Mermaids here]

-dramatic talk at Museum of the University of St Andrews on November 17th (5:30 pm) [see Facebook event here]

-ongoing archival research… (stay tuned for postings on what I’ve found recently!)


But also, what questions would you like addressed, what topics would you like to read about?! Comment here, on Facebook (Adam HL), or email me as appropriate ( – I’d love your input on this subject that I’m truly passionate about!


*NB: The use of the gendered pronoun ‘seamen/men’ is intentional here; while womens’ onshore work in all manner of maritime work was critical (for instance, fishwives’ central roles in rural fishing communities), they were almost never actively employed on military or civilian ships at sea (with a few remarkable exceptions of cross-dressing). While this author lacks the expertise or time to comment on female nautical fashion, ideally other contributors may help to address this short-coming in the future…

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