As a war story with an all-male cast, Master & Commander is immediately predisposed to look more realistic because in movieland, war + men = dirt = authenticity. While men's costumes in period dramas are typically less showy than women's, they tend to be a lot more accurate because female characters are almost always idealised. Pirates of the Caribbean came out at around the same time as M&C, and while it's a Disney comedy about zombie pirates and therefore can be taken with a pinch of salt, it's still weird to see so many scenes where Keira Knightley looks immaculate while the male leads look like they haven't washed for a week. The female lead in a historical drama is expected to be alluring regardless of the state of everyone else, but the cast of M&C is made up of rugged, grime-spattered sailors who occasionally happen to be played by handsome movie stars. They even made the actors get their teeth stained in the name of historical authenticity, which I can pretty much guarantee has never happened to Keira Knightley in anything. Although in Master & Commander's defence, a 19th century Naval ship is one of the very few instances where it's legitimate for there to be zero female characters, so it doesn't actually bother me in that regard.
Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for movies where a lot of the characters are in uniform, because it forces filmmakers to be more thoughtful about costume design. One of my favourite examples of this is Alien, another shipboard film that actually has a few parallels with M&C when it comes to the divide between officers and working stiffs. The thing that makes Master & Commander particularly interesting in this regard is that in 1805, British Navy Uniforms really weren't all that uniform. The first Naval uniform guidelines were issued to officers in 1748, and by 1805 those had been narrowed down to a more-or-less uniform selection of navy blue coats, white waistcoats and so on. But that still didn't translate to everybody looking the same, and the general attitude towards the uniform was very different from the way it is today.
The uniform's main purpose was to create a clear distinction between the upper and lower classes onboard ship, so it wasn't hugely important for all the officers to wear precisely the same thing -- just for them to represent the officer class in a respectable manner. The basics of a Naval officer's uniform were a navy blue coat, white breeches or trousers, a white shirt, and a waistcoat. Within those parameters, you can already see a fair amount of variety among the officer characters in Master & Commander. It's closer to a strict office dresscode than a modern-day military uniform -- as in, you have to wear a sombre suit, but your boss doesn't tell you what colour of tie to wear. If you look at the officers onboard the HMS Surprise, you can tell they're wearing near-identical coats and other "uniform" items, but their waistcoats, shirts and cravats are often different, as are the styles in which they wear them. The standards were more exacting when it came to dress-uniform occasions but for everyday wear, officers had a certain amount of leeway.
Military uniforms in the early 19th century were closely tied to current fashions and images of masculinity, so it's not surprising that the uniform guidelines were so malleable. Not only was there a certain amount of fashion-based posturing among officers in real life, but there was also a generational divide -- one that we see quite clearly in this film. Captain Aubrey, a traditionalist in early middle-age, represents the old guard in canvas knee-breeches and long hair. But the teenaged midshipmen look more like Victorians in terms of style, with short hair and long trousers. The enlisted men wear what were known as "slops" -- non-uniform clothing that was generally bought either from the ship's stores or at the docks when the ship was berthed. Enlisted/pressganged men often made and mended their clothes themselves, whereas the officers, as Gentlemen, were expected to pay for their uniforms to be made from scratch. Since mass-production wasn't yet an option, the officers would have their uniforms tailored professionally, which further adds to the lack of uniformity among the ranks. Aubrey is probably wearing the same coat he's had for years, whereas a younger officer's coat would be tailored to a more modern style.
One of the things that makes this movie seem so true to the period is the widespread grime and the characters' attitude towards it. This was the beginning of the "cleanliness is next to godliness" era, with a great deal of pressure being put upon people to look smart and therefore "civilised". There are several scenes where Midshipmen are told to smarten up or Aubrey references the importance of neatness and efficiency to a British Navy vessel, but to a modern eye everything still looks filthy. Maintaining an image of British aristocracy and cleanliness is no picnic when you have a full-time manual job sailing an 18th-century frigate, and have relatively little fresh water or, indeed, soap.
This post is already getting too long, so I'm going to split it into two and write about the individual character costumes in the second half. But for now, have some nerd facts:
- When filming onboard ship, the actors in Master & Commander were segregated according to class, meaning the officers never socialised or ate with the enlisted/pressganged men.
- The reason why a long pigtail is the stereotypical fashion for the enlisted/pressganged sailors was originally because it showed you hadn't recently been shaved for lice.
- When it came to "uniforms" for the enlisted men, captains were encouraged to set guidelines, which were semi-enforced by the ship only selling a particular colour of fabric to the sailors for clothing manufacture. Of course, this also meant that captains could effectively make their entire crew dress in red gingham, if they wanted to. According to legend (mmm, reliable), the captain of the HMS Blazer made his crew wear blue-and-white striped jackets, which may or may not be the original source of the modern-day blazer jacket.