In 1994, the USS Constitution Museum acquired a selection of garments that once belonged to Purser Thomas John Chew. Mr Chew sailed on USS Constitution at the beginning of the War of 1812, and was on board when the ship captured HMS Guerriere. Swapping jobs with the Boston Navy Yard’s purser for a time, he next joined his good friend James Lawrence on the frigate USS Chesapeake. According to family tradition, Chew sat beside his wounded captain when he uttered his famous “Don’t give up the ship” command. Paroled by the British and returned to Boston, Chew next ventured north to join the American squadron on Lake Ontario. After the war, he sailed on the new ship-of-the-line Washington to the Mediterranean. He retired in 1832 and spent the rest of his days in Brooklyn, New York.
Tumbled in his seabag(helpfully emblazoned “T.J. Chew, U.S. Navy”) were two pairs of trousers, a shirt, some silk suspenders, a pair of moccasins, and an odd contraption consisting of whalebone battens and narrow steel springs tightly encased in polished cotton. It turns out that this wonderful survivor is a man’s corset or stays.
A man’s corset. That’s a bit strange, eh? Worn over the shirt, but under the trousers, vest, and coat, the corset performed the same task as it did for a woman – it rearranged the soft bits into a more pleasing and fashionable shape. But rather than enhancing the bust, the man’s corset only reduced the waist.
We’ve all made questionable fashion choices to fit in (or not, as the case may be). Purser Chew was simply participating in a phenomenon sweeping the western European (and American) fashion world. According to The Workwoman’s Guide of 1838, stays or corsets were used in the army (especially among the cavalry), for hunting, and for strenuous exercise, not unlike a weight lifter’s belt today. Go to any warehouse where people lift heavy things, and you’ll see a similar garment in use.
But, there was more than function to this form, and the corset had other uses beyond supporting a weak back. Since the end of the eighteenth century, the fashionable man’s profile had been in flux. The man’s corset assisted the man of fashion to achieve the narrow-waisted look so popular in the late 1820s and 1830s.
Valerie Steele, in The Corset: A Cultural History, argues that the advent of the male corset in the 1820s was directly related to the shift in the ideal male body type. The “aristocratic” body was no longer bluff and prosperous (think caricatures of John Bull), but had become thinner, longer and more “feminized.”
After 1815, dandies increasingly adopted fashions that emphasized feminine characteristics including prominently padded chests, tight, narrow sleeves, and circumscribed waists. Besides skillful, scientific cutting and tailoring, the only way to achieve this ideal look was through body-altering foundation garments. This emphasis on the cinched waist continued throughout the 1830s. One Frenchman of the era insisted that “the secret … of the dress lies in the thinness and narrowness of the waist. Catechize your tailor about this … Insist, order, menace … Shoulders large, the skirts of the coat ample and flowing, the waist strangled – that’s my rule.”
Despite the compelling reasons for wearing the corset, the practice was not without controversy. Many considered the very idea ridiculous, but others looked with uneasiness on a practice that they feared contributed to the effeminacy of men and a concomitant loss of national strength and military might.
That Thomas Chew owned such a garment suggests he was not just fashion conscious, but was willing to participate in a mildly controversial display of sartorial splendor. He would have fit right in on the quarterdeck in the 1820s. According to George Jones, who served as Constitution’s chaplain from 1826 to 1828:
“When I was preparing for sea, a well-informed friend of mine, advised me to get check-shirts, which she had understood, were usually worn by officers, out of port. It was a great mistake: officers are always neatly and genteelly dressed; and, on Sunday, we have, comparatively, as great a parade of ‘Jimmy fellows,’ if I may use a phrase I often hear, as you will meet, even in Broadway. A Jimmy fellow, means one, dressed at the height of fashion; starched, and all in order; for whom, by the way, our ship forms an excellent band-box; an advantage, which your Jimmies ashore never have.”
While some may have scoffed at the expense and trouble incurred by officers in the the pursuit of fine dressing, such displays had an important function in the shipboard community. Clothing reinforced the separation between the enlisted men and officers in a way that even the most inattentive viewer could never mistake.
Matthew Brenckle Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.
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