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Elegance or Comfort: Breeches and Trousers in the British Army, 1803-1815
by Robert Henderson

29th Regiment of Foot in 1812.  Gaiters buttoned over Breeches
 as per Regimental Standing Orders (see footnote 10) (Anne SK Brown Collection)


Knee Breeches

            At the opening of the Napoleonic Wars, part of the formal dress of the British infantrymen[1] included a pair of white woollen breeches with tall black wool gaiters that ended just below the knee and covered the shoe.[2]  The idea of the gaiters was “to prevent the dirt and gravel from getting into the shoes, thereby galling the soldier’s feet upon a march”.[3]  These gaiters had a back seam that was adjusted by the regimental tailor to achieve the tightest fit.  They were sometimes lined with linen in around the shoe area,[4] and had a tongue piece that covered the shoe so the laces could not be seen.[5]    The gaiter had a black calf skin strap that went under the shoe to keep the gaiter in place.  Original officer and civilian examples do have a button or buckle adjustment for the strap but there is no evidence indicating soldier’s gaiters had this feature.[6]  The number of small metal gaiter buttons varied with the height of the soldier and ranged from ten to fifteen.

             By the 19th century each pair of breeches was unlined except in the waistband, had a fall or drop front opening, and a small pocket in the waistband.[7]  Sergeant’s breeches were made of better materials than the other ranks and cost twice as much to manufacture.[8]   As fashion changed and waistlines rose, the fall front moved up onto the torso to such a degree that the soldier could no longer just open his fall to urinate.   Instead his breeches had to be dropped and his long linen or flannel shirt lifted.   Initially each pair of breeches finished below the knees with five regimental pewter buttons on each side.  While the waistlines rose, the breeches knee closure lengthened in the opposite direction to end mid-calf.   

The above image shows the evolution of the breeches in the Royal Navy between 1795 and 1805.  This is what was happening in the Army as well.  (originals in the National Marine Museum)

From 1784 to just after 1803, a button was mounted in the rear of each leg to help hold up the gaiters and stop gapping between the gaiters and the breeches.[9]  Likely because of lengthening of the breeches caused the gaiters to overlap them significantly, the rear button was dispensed with by 1810.   After this the tall wool gaiters were then buttoned over the bottom of the breeches to cover most of the buttons and knee band, leaving only one or two buttons exposed.[10]    The shear tightness of the gaiter to the breeches likely served to hold the black gaiter in place.  Unfortunately it was reported that the tightness also caused sores on the calf and around the knee of the soldier.[11]  The pains of military elegance.

             In order to keep the breeches white, a whitish solution called pipeclay was sponged onto them (similar to modern-day shoe whitener).  When the pipeclay dried,  powder was left mixed amongst the wool fibres of the cloth.   If a soldier slapped his leg, a cloud of powder would ensue.[12]   Soldiers sometimes would colour their breeches while [13]wearing them.  This was frowned upon by military officials and orders were often issued that decreed that any soldier caught in wet clothes was to be confined and “punished with the utmost severity”.[14]   The exact reason behind this harsh order is not known but it may be linked to a possible health concern from wearing wet clothes or that the pipeclay dried out and damaged the soldier’s skin.  A ball of pipeclay was instead to be used for touching up marks on the breeches while wearing them.


             To preserve the life of the dress breeches on the march, each soldier began to supply himself with a pair of white hemp linen overalls starting in 1791[15] however it appears this was at the discretion of the Commanding officer.   As the term 'overalls' implies, they were trousers worn over the breeches and gaiters.  While that was the official reason for the trousers, they were being worn separately as far back as the early 1790s.  For example, the 5th Regiment of Foot in 1793 dressed in linen trousers and short gaiters throughout the summer months in North America .[16]   The wearing of linen trousers instead of breeches in the tropical heat of the West Indies had already been regulation by the early 1800s[17] and it is presumed the convenience of trousers spread throughout the army.  When the army returned from campaigning in Holland in 1799, various regiments were noted as wearing “trousers of all sorts, and fashions.”[18]  Under the hot Egyptian sun in 1801, the 61st Regiment also wore linen trousers however they proved to cause a strange problem when they were marching into one fortified palace:  “ Lice and fleas appear to be excellent guardians of the palace; and strangers are beset by both insects in right good earnest.  Our white pantaloons attracted their attention, and we were but little more than over the drawbridge, when our inexpressibles were literally covered with them.”[19]  

            In 1807, a pair of loose coarse canvas trousers was finally authorized as a standard item of the soldier’s necessaries for all regiments, but were to be worn only on marches, at night and on fatigues.[20]  However by 1809 Horse Guards issued a Circular letter noting irregularity in dress with the adoption of linen trousers by a great number of infantry regiments and militia in Great Britain .  This implies that the use of trousers had expanded beyond their original intent.[21]  Other evidence supports the general substitution of breeches with trousers, particularly when a regiment or detachment was stationed away from headquarters.[22]  Some regiments like the Royal Scots, in Quebec in September 1812, actually paraded in linen pantaloons and half gaiters for their half yearly Inspection Report.[23] 

            The decline in the use of breeches was not surprising during this period. Trousers had started to become all the rage in civilian society and this spilt over into the military world of fashion.   In addition, military scholars as early as 1804 began to question the wisdom of the breeches and tall gaiters:

Breeches and leggings have been long a dress of soldiers; and, though breeches and leggings, when properly made, are a good and comfortable form of clothing in most conditions of service, they are, upon the whole, less suitable for all occasions than the pantaloon and [short or half] gaiter.  The pantaloon is… made easy in form,… has less chance of being irksome by its form than breeches,…. requires less time for adjustment in the act of dressing,[24]

This same scholar had a harsh opinion of the tall black gaiters, believing they constrained and over-heated the calves causing exhaustion and ulcer-like sores.[25]   

 In 1811 a Board of Officers charged with improving the clothing of the Army came to similar conclusions:  

From the reasons assigned by the different members of the Board in favour of Trousers and half Gaiters,  it appears to be the general opinion, that those Articles form a more convenient dress than the Breeches and long gaiters, from leaving the joint of the knee and the calf of the leg unconfined, and are therefore more suitable for marching – the long gaiter from buttoning tight over the calf of the leg being found by experience to produce sores… The advantages of this dress over the Breeches and long Gaiters seems indeed to be sufficiently proved, from the almost universal use thereof in Regiments upon Service…[26]

 The recommendation of the Board was that Regiments serving on Foreign Service[27] be provided with grey wool trousers and grey half gaiters.  Regiments serving at home would continue to wear breeches and black gaiters.  This order did not extend to the West Indies where the regiments had been wearing lighter weight blue woollen serge trousers since 1809.   

             The selection of the colour grey may have been influenced by the regiments stationed in North America .  Since the 1790s, regiments had worn grey “salt and pepper” trousers during the winter months and for fatigues and this now was expanded to the rest of the army serving aboard.[28]  The Board noted a number of advantages to using all grey instead of white and black:  “The grey half Gaiter is… preferable to the Black… the Material is more durable –the dye of the [black gaiters] being injurious to the Cloth – and the Trousers, when worn out as such, may serve to repair the Gaiters…. [grey] also obviates the use of pipe clay.”[29]

             An original tailor book shows a sample of dark “salt and pepper” or Oxford mixture dark grey being used in officer’s trousers in 1815.  Since an effort was made to match the men’s it is presumed to be the same colour.[30]   This same colour is used by other armies and is of the same hue.   It should be noted that the grey is lighter than the later 1830s Oxford mixture used in soldier’s trousers which is almost black. That said it is quite dark as compared to contemporary watercolours of the time, which show a light grey - illustrating the common problem with using watercolours to accurately colour-match..  

            There are many terms for trousers that were mentioned in the various regulations and orders and these terms offer insight into how the trousers were tailored.  References to “pantaloons” usually meant the  trousers were more form fitting.   “Overalls” or “gun-mouth” trousers indicated they were cut loose with the leg sewn straight and roomy.  In 1809, two years prior to the Board’s decision, an experiment was made with three Regiments serving in the Walcheren Expedition to see which design of grey trousers was best:

Colonel Wynch commanding the 4th[Regiment of Foot], Colonel Ross of the 20th, and Colonel Belson of the 28th, agreed to try grey trousers made in different ways.  The 4th had them made tight with black gaiters, the 20th, as overalls, with buttons down the sides, and the 28th loose, with half boots.  On our return, they were compared; those of the 4th were all torn at the legs, the buttons were off the overalls of the 20th, while those of the 28th were nearly as good as when we started. [31]

            When the grey trousers and short gaiters were being considered in 1811, one of the concerns was price.  With the breeches and tall gaiters, the public paid for the breeches through the regiment’s colonel and the soldier paid for the tall gaiters through stoppages in pay.[32]  However the trousers would cost more and the short gaiters less.  To solve this cost shortfall in the trousers an unusual compromise was ordered.  It decreed that the public would, in essence, pay for the trousers to just below the knee and then the soldier would pay for the rest.  The extra expense to the soldier was defrayed by the cheaper cost of the short gaiter.[33]  Only a Horse Guards bureaucrat could come up with such a bizarre solution as splitting the costs of a single garment.    Once a system of financing was established, the trousers and short gaiters were approved for the Army in September 1811.

Detail of a watercolour of a regiment occupying Paris, 1815.  In this work soldiers of the
 same regiment doing fatigues are wearing grey trousers while the Grenadier
 in the foreground is wearing linen trousers for going out to town.  Everything
in this watercolour is regulation right down to the Grenadier only wearing is bayonet belt to town.
(Anne SK Brown Collection)

            The introduction of the grey trousers did not end the use of white breeches and black gaiters.  Breeches continued to be part of the British Infantryman’s dress in Great Britain until 1823 when they were finally abandoned.[34]  Nor did the Grey Trousers end the use of white linen ones.  The 1812 clothing regulations authorized: “Regiments on Home Service will be permitted to wear Overalls of unbleached Linen, of British or Russian Manufacture, on Marches and on fatigue or night Duties, at the option of the Colonels or Commanding Officers…”[35]  While this order restricted linen trousers to home service, the commanding officers in other stations continued to take liberties.  For example, during the 1814 campaign on the Niagara Peninsula in Upper Canada against the Americans, one company of the 100th Regiment of Foot reported losing 34 pairs of linen trousers.[36]  So much for permitted only in Great Britain


I would like to thank both Keith Raynor and René Chartrand for their kind assistance in unlocking the secrets of these articles of dress in the British Army.  Dear friends, I am indebted to you.

[1] Soldiers serving “ Europe , North America , or New South Wales ” which included the UK .  Excepted where Highland and Rifle Corps.   War Office, A Collection of Orders, Regulations, and Instructions for the Army; on Matters of Finance and Points of Discipline Immediately Connected Therewith. ( London , 1807) pp. 436-437.

[2] PRO WO 26/39  pp.186-187, Clothing Regulations for Cavalry and Infantry, 1803.  White Breeches were first officially sanctioned for the infantry in 1768 and the Black wool gaiters were ordered to be worn in 1784.  The Breeches were provide by the Colonel of the Regiment (who was compensated for by the Public through a system of off-reckonings. The Colonel usually profited by this system).  The Gaiters were paid for through stoppage on the soldier’s pay.  The soldier was also expected to provide a second pair of breeches at his own expense.  Ibid. 

[3] Bennett Cuthbertson, A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry ( London , 1779) .

[4] Standing Orders of the 33rd Regiment [1813] make no reference to lining material for the tall gaiters but do make reference to lining material for the short gaiters. p.29

[5] “Tongue to come well down on the Shoe, and no string or Tying of the Shoe to be seen. “  Regimental Order.   P.J. Haythornthwaite, “Loyal Birmingham Volunteers, 1803” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. 61, p. 118.

[6] One regiment notes in tailor instructions the use of hook and eyes.  What these were for is uncertain.  Standing Orders of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, 1813  p. 29.

[7] Regulation Relative to the Clothing & Half-Mounting of the Infantry and to the Inspection of the Clothing of the Army in General ( London , 1800) p. 5.

[8] “Extract from an Estimate prepared by Mr. Pearse, Army Clothier of the Charges on the Clothing Fund, for a Regiment of Infantry at Home, for the year 1806.” 

[9] The July 21, 1784 order authorizing the gaiters states: “They are to come up over the breeches to the edge of the cap of the knee and to be rounded off so as to cover the knee band of the Breeches behind..”.  This sloping effect was abandoned and the gaiters were “cut perfectly straight”.  This meant a reduction of the height of the gaiter and references after 1803 mention the gaiter coming to the knee pan or hollow top of the chin or two inches below the knee cap.  Both an original pair of West Yorkshire Militia Officer gaiters c.1804 and an 1815 British Tailor Manual show tall gaiters being cut straight.   Cutting the gaiter straight made the back button presumably no longer necessary.   W.Y. Carman, “Infantry Clothing Regulations, 1802” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 19, no. 76.; Loyal Birmingham Volunteers 1803 Regimental Order; Royal Artillery General Order, 24 January 1810 reproduced in R.J. MacDonald, The History of the Dress of the Royal Regiment of Artillery (Bristol, 1899), p. 34.

[10] “…two buttons of the breeches knee only to appear above the top of the gaiter” The Standing Orders of His Majesty’s 29th or Wochestershire Regiment of Foot ( London , 1812) p.8.  However C. Hamilton Smith illustrates a Grenadier of the 29th Regiment of Foot in 1813 with only one button of his breeches knee showing.   After measuring a pair of original 1813 Officer’s Breeches, the overlap by the gaiters on the bottom of the breeches would have been 3 or 4 inches (Breeches in Author’s Collection). 

[11] Public Records Office (PRO) WO 7/56, p. 96, Report of the proceedings of a Board of Officers…

[12] White wool forage jackets discontinued in 1830 due to health concerns about the pipeclay dust being breathed in after the jackets were whitened.

[13] List of Soldier’s Necessaries for the 85th show a ball of pipe clay.  National Army Museum , AN 7810-86.

[14] Standing Orders of the 33rd Regiment, 1799 in The Iron Duke no. 21, 1932, p. 50.  These order is repeated through numerous order books and Standing Orders of regiments in this time period.

[15] PRO, WO 26/34  p. 209. H. M.’s Warrant for establishing certain Regulations relative to Clothing,  31 May 1791 .

[16]  Regimental Order, 30 May 1793.  Regimental Order Book, 5th Regiment of Foot, 1793-1795. Public Archives of Ontario

[17] War Office, A Collection of Orders, Regulations, and Instructions for the Army; on Matters of Finance and Points of Discipline Immediately Connected Therewith. ( London , 1807) pp. 437-438.


[18] Account published in the Morning Herald, 17 March 1840 and quoted in H. Everard, History of Thomas Farrington’s Regiment Subsequently Designated the 29th (Worchestershire) Foot, 1694 to 1891 (Worchester, 1891) p. 243.

[19] Andrew Pearson, Autobiography of Andrew Pearson, A Peninsular Veteran  ( Edinburgh , 1865) p. 34.

[20] General Order 15 June 1807 .

[21] PRO, WO 123/135 p. 311. Horse Guards Circular Letter, 8 June 1809 .

[22] A watercolour of Fort George , Upper Canada in 1806 by Surgeon Walsh shows the 6th Regiment of Foot parading in white linen trousers.  When Napeolon returned to France 1815, many Regiments in the UK , who were issued with white breeches and black gaiters for Home service, deployed with Wellington in the Waterloo Campaign wearing their white linen trousers.   General A.C. Mercer of the Royal Artillery recounted how the Artillery officers wore pantaloons instead of the breeches every time they were away from headquarters.  MacDonald, Dress of the Royal Artillery p. 49. 

[23] 1st Regiment of Foot Inspection Return at Quebec City , 23 September 1812 as quoted in Rev. Percy Sumner’s research notebook on the said regiment.

[24]  Robert Jackson, A systematic view of the formation, discipline, and economy of armies. ( London , 1804) pp. 248-249.

[25] Ibid.

[26] PRO WO7/56, pp. 96-97, Report of the proceedings of a Board of Officers…

[27] Orders in 6 September 1811 initially called for grey trousers and short gaiters for just troops serving in Spain and Portugal .  National Archives of Canada (LAC), RG 8 I, vol. 30 p. 77.    This was expanded in the 1812 Dress Regulations to included all Regiments on Foreign Service not including East and West Indies .  War Office, A Collection of Orderss, Regulatioins, and Instructions for  the Army on Matters of Finance and Points of Discipline Immediately Connected Therewith. ( London , 1819) p. 456-457, “Regulations for the Provision of Clothing…, 15th July 1812 .”

[28] As early 1794, the 5th Regiment of Foot while in North America were having cloth winter trousers constructed.  (Regimental Order Book, 5th Regiment of Foot, 1793-1795. Public Archives of Ontario ). The standing orders of 7th Regiment of Foot in Halifax note the use of “grey cloth gunmouth trousers”.  (Percy Sumner, “Standing Orders of the Royal Fusiliers, 1798” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research Vol 27.)  An order dated 1 October 1799 in North America notes soldiers wearing “a pair of grey cloth trousers down to the ankles and shoes.” (quoted in Lt. Col. Boss, The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, 1785-1951 ( Ottawa , 1952) p. 6.).  In 1800 this dress was standardized for all of North America “…salt and pepper coloured cloth trousers, without Tongues, half gaiters of Black cloth with regimental Buttons” for fatigue duties and “salt and pepper trousers with tongues” for drill. (LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 223, p. 274, Code Established by General Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s forces in British North America…)  This code was illustrated in a series of watercolours of the 6th Regiment of Foot  with a soldier in drill dress wearing  trousers with tongues or gaitered-trousers (Michael Barthorp, British Infantry Uniforms Since 1660 (Dorset, 1982) p.56.)   This code continues to be in force up to 1812.  A paybook of the 49th Regiment of Foot shows soldiers paying for “grey pantaloons” in 1811 (US National Archives, RG 98, no. 531).

[29] PRO WO7/56, pp. 96-97, Report of the proceedings of a Board of Officers…

[30] Buckmaster’s Tailor Book reviewed by Rev. Percy Sumner who noted “a pattern of dark grey cloth for trousers very much like the original Oxford mixture before it became black.” 

[31] Lt. Col. Charles Cadell, Narrative of the Campaigns of the Twenty-Eighth Regiment since their Return form Egypt in 1802. ( London , 1835) pp. 83-84.

[32] PRO WO 26/39  pp.186-187, Clothing Regulations for Cavalry and Infantry, 1803.

[33] PRO WO 123/135 p. 567. Circular Order, Horse Guards, 29 August 1811 .

[34]  PRO WO 123/33 no. 404. General Order Horse Guards 18 June 1823 .

[35] War Office, A Collection of Orderss, Regulatioins, and Instructions for  the Army… 1819 p. 469, “Regulations for the Provision of Clothing…, 15th July 1812 .” The reference “British or Russian Manufacture”was a reference to the type of linen used.  Inexpensive hemp linen was produced in Russia while flax linen was manufactured in Britain .  Most British military items that were made of linen canvas like trousers and tents were usually made of hemp linen.  However when Russia allied itself with France in 1807, Britain say its supplies of hemp linen dwindle somewhat, and military contractors turned to domestically made flax linen canvas to fill the gap.  

[36] LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 1017, p. 52 Statement of the loss of Company’s necessaries sustained by… 8th Coy on the retreat from Chippawa, 8 July 1814 .


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