05 June 2017

Interview with Craig Wilcox, author of Badge, Boot, Button - The Story of Australian Uniforms

NLA Publishing
Craig Wilcox is an Australian historian and author of Badge, Boot, Button - The Story of Australian Uniforms, a book I reviewed last month. Craig is based in Sydney and joins me for an interview on the blog today.

Thanks for joining us Craig, I really enjoyed reading your latest book. Can you tell us how or when you became interested in uniforms?

While painting model soldiers as a teenager in the 1970s. Thirty years later, the editor of the Australasian volume of the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion asked me to write an entry on all kinds of uniforms. But I was already thinking about how this colourful species of costume signals deep changes in our society, in governments and businesses, in official taste.

Have you ever worn a uniform yourself?
At school, of course. And, in a sense, in my first job while still at school, as an extra with the Australian Opera Company. I was kitted out as a dragoon in black and acid yellow for a 1976 production of Bizet’s Carmen.

Author, Craig Wilcox

What was it like working at the Australian War Memorial?A privilege whenever it wasn’t, like every job, drudgery. In fact it was so good I worked there twice. The wonderful collection of relics, artworks and manuscripts was a gift in itself. There was an important mission, to understand a great collective experience and deep personal trauma and to remind the public of both. Uniforms were, and are, a neglected part of the Memorial’s collection and its imagination. There’s so much the place could do with these treasures.

What uniform would you most like to see in real life?
It’s a toss-up between one of the odder confections once worn by the Bolivian army and any bog-standard example of the millions of pairs of red trousers manufactured for French infantrymen from 1829 to 1914. But I want to hold them and examine them, not just see them.

Is the re-enactment scene active in Australia? If so, what can you tell us about it?I’m lucky that Brad Manera, Australia’s most articulate and interesting reenactor, is a friend of mine. He tells me reenactment isn’t embraced here as enthusiastically as it is in Europe and the United States, but there’s still an extraordinary range of clubs and societies around. The largest have memberships in the hundreds. One, called the 73rd Regiment of Foot, reenacts the experience of the original regiment’s 1st battalion in NSW from 1810 to 1814, but it’s also interested more broadly in the Napoleonic period in the Australian colonies and overseas. Seventy of the club’s members, Brad included, journeyed to Waterloo in Belgium in 2015 to bring the battle alive on its bicentenary. 
That's great to hear and I'm pleasantly surprised to discover we have active re-enactment groups here in Australia. (Anyone reading this who might be interested, seek them out and get involved).

Next, I have a question from a Carpe Librum reader: Does it annoy you when watching films and drama documentaries when the uniforms aren't accurate yet there is a "historical military adviser" in the credits?
Don’t get me started. On the one hand, I really can’t see why you’d go to the trouble of creating costumes and not get them right - it just isn’t that hard. On the other, thinking about the question more broadly, Shakespeare didn’t give a damn getting the past right when he imagined Julius Caesar or Henry V, and if he had we’d be hugely poorer today. Historical license taken for a genuine reason, or in the hands of a master, is a good thing.

Here's another question from a Carpe Librum reader: Why do women still wear tricorn hats in the Royal Australian Navy?
The tricorn was worn by women in Britain’s Royal Navy during the first world war, a visual reference to the felt hats worn by many men in the eighteenth century including by naval officers. It migrated to Australia’s navy as easily as many other British uniform items. Its survival today, against the trend for eliminating feminised items of uniform, is probably due to a belief it’s a traditional headdress, a symbol of the wearer - a powerful obstacle to change throughout the history of uniforms.

What kind of treasures in the form of vintage uniforms do you think the average household has squirrelled away? How should we preserve uniforms?
I’ll take a random sample by looking in my own attic. There’s my grandfather’s whistle and lanyard from his time as a second world war warrant officer. There are reels of cotton thread stolen by my grandmother from a uniform factory she worked in while my grandfather went to war. There are medals too, earned by a neighbour and somehow passed to me. None of this quite rates as vintage, though. Brad Manera assures me “there are still remarkable treasures in people's homes”, and he mentions one Sydney family pulling from their wardrobe “the uniform their great-grandfather had worn home from France in 1919.” The best way to preserve a uniform is to get advice from a conservator in a large museum. Before that advice arrives, store it in the dark and away from damp, dust and insects, and don’t try to clean it until you’ve spoken to the conservator. On the other hand, show your treasure to as many people as you can. When no longer wanted or if damage threatens, call your state museum and arrange to give others the joy and the responsibility of looking after it.

What are you reading at the moment?

The latest numbers of the New York Review of Books and the New Left Review, a 1990s textbook compilation of Chinese writing over the past three thousand years, and a uniform book, of course - Richard Brzezinski’s and Richard Hook’s The Army of Gustavus Adolphus: Infantry, published by Osprey in 1991.

What’s next? What are you working on at the moment?
A book that I’m hoping will expand our sense of frontier fighting in early colonial Australian history into the southwest Pacific. It will follow the sometimes violent push by whalers, sealers, traders, missionaries and officials out from Sydney and Hobart into New Zealand and beyond from there 1790s to the 1840s.

Thanks so much for joining us Craig and sharing your expertise on uniforms. I'm sure my Carpe Librum readers will enjoy seeing their questions answered and good luck for your next book.

Would you like to comment?

Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!