In 1994, the Museum acquired a selection of garments that once belonged to Purser Thomas John Chew. Mr Chew sailed on 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 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 a 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.
|Thomas Chew’s corset. The whalebone battens hold in the stomach, while the metal springs confine the rest of what later generations would call the “spare tire.” USS Constitution Museum collection.|
|Detail of right side showing “elastic” and buckles. USS Constitution Museum Collection|
|Plate from Costumes Parisiens showing the fashions of 1826.|
|Plate from Modes de Paris showing the fashions of 1828. Notice the extremely narrow waist, padded chest, wide shoulders and hips, and puffed sleeve cap.|
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.”
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.