Cavalry Commander as Dandy

By Film Noir Buff

At a crucial time in a pivotal battle in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, The Duke of Wellington sent an order to the commander of the Household Brigade of Cavalry (Britain’s finest Heavy Cavalry) to intervene against the French. Oddly, the courier returned with the order refused. Thinking it must be a misunderstanding, Wellington himself rode to the front of the Household cavalry’s ordered ranks and diplomatically explained to the Household Brigade’s commander the urgency of the situation and that it required immediate action. Again the brigade’s young commander only recently arrived from London and resplendent in immaculately tailored wool, heavy gold braiding and rich leather boots politely refused the order without so much as a sniffle. Losing patience, the Duke put his foot down and in a rare flash of temper insisted the Household Brigade join the battle at once. Whereupon the officer resigned his commission on the spot and while trotting away across the front of his troopers turned a horsehair crested helmet over his shoulder and precociously reminded the Duke that only the King could appoint a new commander. Scandalized, Wellington could do nothing but stare at the aristocratic whelp trotting off to drink sherry with his friends while the whiz and hiss of battle reverberated behind him.

Through centuries of horse soldiering a pattern emerges of cavalry commanders who are also exquisitely stylish and display the pluck of the dandy. We examine the question why is it that so many independently minded cavalry commanders in European history have also been natty dressers.

Part of the answer is as unravel-able as the complex double helix of history. However, we need to place some logical parameters on the elements we are concerned with, namely why the cavalry often developed a penchant for dressing incredibly well. Therefore our only concern today is why the cavalry specifically became a branch of service noted for its flamboyant and resplendent leaders. Our story begins in Spain.

In 711 AD, Spain unexpectedly saw its greatest Visigoth kingdom collapse to the Moorish invasion at the Transductine Promontories. The remaining European kingdoms of Spain found themselves separated from each other eventually resembling besieged islands adrift in their own land amongst hostile and often better organized (and better dressed) Moorish kingdoms. By the 10th century, it would be fair to say that the Christian Spanish kingdoms had been in a constant state of warfare for over two hundred years.

Generations of Spanish nobles spent their whole lives on campaign and were constantly on the march. For these nobles, “courtly” life revolved around the camp. Consequently, they spent a great deal more on their clothes than the knights of other lands. Their expensive clothes gave them much needed status (earliest instance of street credit?) both when meeting fellow traveling entourages and when resting amongst populations who would not recognize them as they would local knights.

Additionally, the Spanish were able to copy or buy exquisite clothes from the ultra sophisticated kingdoms of the Umayyads and then the Grenadines generations before other Europeans picked them up in the middle-east on crusade. It is safe to say that the Spanish knight wore the Savile row suit of his day. The intermingling of Spaniard and Moor served to create even more sumptuous clothes from the blend of the two cultures. This tradition continued through the Renaissance when Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were united in a series of alliances.

One of the vassal states of the Holy Roman Empire was the Duchy of Burgundy, now a province of modern France. Ruled over by a succession of Dukes, one Charles the Bold (1433-77) stood out in an age of opulence as preoccupied with getting dressed. Here was a man who combined both beauty of arms and clothing. He spent an enormous amount of money on his clothing and encouraged both his knights and his army of mercenaries to outdo each other in their finery. Part of the reason for this was exposure to the international sophistication of the Spanish and Hapsburg courts both of which had access to the best materials and craftsmanship that the known world had to offer. However, part of it was simply that Charles the Bold was a dandy.

In spite of his military incompetence, Charles’ fastidiousness was precise enough that he and his court set the trend both for gorgeous clothes and beautiful sets of armor for their own time. This was true both on and off of the battlefield. After their time, their tastes continued to influence the entire Renaissance in Western Europe. Unfortunately for Charles, his talent with clothes did not help him on the battlefield and he suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the legendary Swiss pikemen

Ironically in his final defeat, Charles was killed during the Swiss pursuit by ordinary pikemen who, in spite of his fine clothes, did not recognize his rank. Perhaps it was because so many of his ordinary soldiers were likewise well turned out that Charles too may have looked like an ordinary soldier to the pursuing Swiss. On a general level, the enviable attire of Charles’ army did not pass unnoticed, even by the thrifty Swiss who marveled at the quality of the fallen Burgundians’ clothes. The Swiss proceeded to strip the corpses for their fine raiment. However, and to their initial chagrin, the larger Swiss bodies found they could not fit into the clothes of the vanquished.

At this point, Swiss ingenuity came to the rescue. They came up with the novel solution of slashing open the arms, legs and even torso of the clothes to allow them to fit more freely. This “slashing’ exposed their solid underclothes which further underlined the richness of what the Burgundian’s had worn. Ultimately “slashing” became the prevalent style for both civilian and military clothes. However, as with so many fashions over time, what began as a practical solution became exaggerated and contributed to the rise of the cavalier style. The cavalier style is one where unbuckled, unbuttoned things which seem about to fall off give a sense of daring and sans souci to the wearer’s stance. And now we switch our stage to England where cavalierism would reach its zenith.

Prince Rupert (1619-82) encompassed the cavalier esthetic better than anyone else. He was the Bohemian nephew of the King of England, Charles I (Himself Scots descent.) Perfumed; bejeweled wearing what would eventually become “Musketeer” boots and a wide brimmed hat with plumes in it. Prince Rupert wore his hair in long perfumed, oiled ringlets. He was accompanied into battle by a full sized white poodle which was likewise groomed to the nines. As a result of Rupert’s dash and disregard for personal danger along with his extreme attention to personal grooming, the word Cavalier, which originally meant aristocratic horseman, is a term we use today for a style both uncaring and rakishly heroic. He gave rise and leadership to an entire movement of young, fashionably dressed and often aristocratic cavaliers, whose ethic was to live, drink and be merry…and of course wear expensive clothes.

Before the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Prince Rupert had served in the Thirty Years War then currently petering out on the continent. That war had put him in contact with the Hungarian free booting cavalry known today as Hussars. These wild, hard drinking cavalry made a deep impression on the Young Prince. In battle, because they were poor but stylish, Hussars would always breakthrough the enemy’s lines and head straight towards the baggage train. There they would loot the valuables and parade around in captured clothes. Indeed the Hussar lifestyle as originally imported by the cavaliers would increasingly define the outward appearance and behavior of the western dandy.

Today, amongst military enthusiasts, a Hussar conjures images of hard drinking and gambling cavalrymen resplendent in their expensively braided uniforms. The Anglicized version of the Hussar would eventually set the mode for the aristocratic gentleman across Europe, combining and ultimately sanctioning licentious behavior for men of quality who debauched while accoutered in the most refined clothes and accessories available. This lifestyle would reach its pinnacle during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

One of the most dashing cavalry commanders in an era of beau sabreurs was Joachim Murat (1767–1815), and the most flamboyant of all Napoleon’s marshals. Murat was both a gifted cavalry commander and a man consumed with ornamental uniforms if ever there was one. He spent a fortune on designing uniforms for himself, many of which made his peers roll their eyes. He was excused this flamboyance by his peers only because of his intensity and talent for command of cavalry in action. His military career’s highpoint was leading a “nick of time” massed cavalry charge atop a frozen lake halting a Russian breakthrough at the battle of Eylau in 1807.

Murat was later crowned King of Naples by Napoleon and proceeded to clothe his recently raised army in bold uniforms. Considering that many of the soldiers were impressed from the ranks of rough convicts it would be interesting to note they often sold items of their uniforms for drink.

During the famed retreat from Moscow, Murat was recorded by contemporaries as wearing custom made furs! Proof that even when one’s army is freezing to death, one can still maintain a stylish look. His vanity continued unabated by Napoleon’s (and his own) dwindling fortunes which saw him lose his Kingdom in Naples and a large part of his wardrobe. When Murat was finally sentenced to be executed by the restorationists for supporting Napoleon’s Hundred Days return from exile, he is remarked to have said to the firing squad “Spare my face, aim for my heart!”
The Napoleonic wars were concomitant with the rise of the modern day dandy. Civilian dandy imitated cavalryman and the reverse was also true. In most armies, officers in every Branch of the military service competed to be the best turned out and the most degage towards dangers in combat. However, the cavalry emerged as the most flamboyant and sans souci of all the branches of service.

Because Napoleon reinvented this declining branch of the military both as a deciding factor on the battlefield and as a means of reconnaissance it regained much of its previously fading elite status. An elite status the cavalry was self-aware of and sought to underline with unique uniforms. The last death defying massed charges of the French cavalry around British infantry squares at Waterloo (1815) would forever leave the impression that a commander of cavalry should combine the riding skills of a Hells Angel with impeccable parade ground uniforms. For decades after Waterloo, the Napoleonic wars remained the greatest conflict in memory for the aspiring cavalryman to model his behavior on. It had been an ideal time in which uniforms evolved both beautifully and functionally. Therefore, by the time of the American Civil War (1861-65), uniform styles were still heavily influenced by Napoleonic ones.

James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart (1833-64), considered by many to be the most charismatic and talented of a host of talented rebel cavalry commanders was without doubt a dandy with flourish. He sported a silk lined wool cape and a cavalier style hat. Many of the southern gentry romanticized about being cavaliers of old from the English Civil war defending tradition and aristocracy against vulgar Northern pragmatism. Along with a black plume in his hat, Hessian boots were de rigeur. Stuart’s uniforms were costly and often harkened back to that cavalier age. In fact, he was commonly referred to as “The Last Cavalier”. Many of J.E.B. Stuart’s commanders followed suit. However it was J.E.B. Stuart who was always readily identifiable to his troops by his kit. He served as a morale booster and his presence on the battlefield strengthened a Southern army’s resolve during a fight.

On the Federal side, George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) was also a competent cavalry commander who paid attention to every detail of dress. However, his initial attention to nattiness with his uniforms morphed into some flamboyant choices after the Civil War. Many of his subordinates at the remote western outposts observed Custer’s “non-regulation” uniform choices in suspended disbelief. The Amerindians however frequently commented positively on “Yellow Hair’s” sense of individualism. In the end, the high profile might have contributed to his getting scalped.

Images of the American Civil War cavalry commander as an individual man of style lingered in the general American military mind as the proper, if unofficial, comportment for officers. Unfortunately, World War One was fought both too late and too statically to produce an American cavalry commander but some of those who fought in that war and became commanders in World War Two (WW2) continued the civil war tradition.

If we fast forward to WW2, we observe George S. Patton (1885-1945) as the culmination of centuries of well accoutered cavalrymen. Fond of wearing his own uniform designs, Patton was likewise precise about the official uniforms of the U.S. Army. He insisted those he commanded were always properly dressed.

Patton was a true American aristocrat but also cut from the same cloth as the Hussar from the Napoleonic era. He swore freely, and believed in heavy reconnaissance and raids. Like both Murat and J.E.B. Stuart before him, Patton was always at the front of his troops. His smart outfits served to define his personality and identify him to his men. Because of his rough, “hard hitting” persona, the clothes he wore are often overlooked but he was a fastidious man. Because he commanded tanks instead of horse soldiers we forget that he was very much a cavalry commander, perhaps the last of his kind.

Certainly popular culture imagines Patton in cavalry jodhpurs and silver helmet rather than in the hum drum fatigues that seemed to democratically swathe other U.S. Commanders. Ironically, popular culture might also imagine George C. Scott’s version from the film Patton (1969) to be the more authentic Patton. Whatever the popular culture’s image of Patton, he considered himself just an “old horse soldier”.

But the question remains, why did the cavalry commanders develop such a high degree of dandyism within their ranks? The answer may lie within the lifestyle itself. They lived with the possibility of death at any moment. Combine that possibility with the chivalric romanticism of the Spanish knight forever on the road. The combination might have increased a need to live superficially and for the moment. Constantly moving, you were what you wore. Living with death meant there was simply no reason to save your best for tomorrow.

But again, why did so very many of the best cavalry commanders exhibit the mannerisms of the dandy? Something about the sort of men attracted to the cavalry lifestyle and the dandy’s proclivities are forever interlinked. It embodied the chance to be seen but not touched, the chance to be elevated above others as a knight but have no obligatory court to serve at, and to dress for every day as if it is your last. If you understand this as a motivating factor, you will understand a part of what it is to be a dandy.

  1. — Evan    Nov 1, 16:43    #

    I enjoyed your essay. I was just recalling the character of Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in the film “Apocalypse Now.” Possibly based on a real Vietnam War “air cav” commander, Lt. Col. John B. Stockton. The portrayal certainly fits the definition proposed in your final paragraph.

    As a side note, I find it interesting to reflect that the modern “cavalry” is both airborne as well as ground mechanized yet seems to reflect the the traditional attitude and role of the cavalry ie. ‘send in the cavalry’ aka. air support. Another military dandy worth considering is the pilot.

  2. — FNB    Nov 11, 22:59    #

    You raise some good points. I cut out several characters because I did not want the article to be overly long. I didn’t think an exhaustive study would help the concept. However, I had not thought of the air cavalry and i really should have. Feel free to write and submit your take on all of this.

  3. — Michael J. Lotus    May 6, 18:47    #

    James Hope Grant was a noted soldier in Mid-Victorian England, perhaps unfairly forgotten now. He cut a dashing figure in his cavalry uniform:

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