Persuasions #18, 1996 Page 58
That Infamous Flannel Waistcoat
Willoughby and Marianne take great pleasure in abusing Colonel Brandon—Marianne with the typical prejudice of the very young for their elders, and Willoughby, insecure and perhaps jealous, saying “too much what he thought on every occasion … hastily forming and giving his opinion of other people” (49), and “resolved to undervalue [Colonel Brandon’s] merits” (50). Readers are all too ready to be deluded and seduced by this carelessness and vivacity, and too inclined to ignore Jane Austen’s specific descriptions of Colonel Brandon’s competence and worth.
One of Marianne’s diatribes is about Colonel Brandon’s mention of a flannel waistcoat. Here Marianne displays her naiveté and ignorance of the world, equating flannel waistcoats with “aches, cramps, rheumatisms, and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and feeble” (38). She should have connected it with danger, endurance, and courage, a kind of military uniform.
In the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, British troops were sent to the front line without adequate warm wool clothing, and their officers, out of their own pockets, donated money to buy the men flannel waistcoats (Emsley, 37). General George Washington, whose gallant exploits need no comment, wore a flannel waistcoat at his inauguration (McClellan, 267). Admiral Lord Collingwood, who took command of the British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar when Nelson was killed, wrote shortly before the battle to ask his wife to send him a new flannel waistcoat (Warner, 123).
Colonel Brandon’s military background aligns him with these brave men whose duties and responsibilities kept them in positions exposed to the elements, and who wore sensible and practical garments to protect themselves from the cold.
Fops and dandies and town beaux might consider their silk, striped or brocaded vests as the epitome of sartorial splendour, but Real Men Wore Flannel Waistcoats.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.
Emsley, Clive. British Society and the French Wars, 1793-1815. London: Macmillan, 1979.
McClellan, Elisabeth. Historic Dress in America 1607-1870. New York: Arno Press, 1977.
Warner, Oliver. Life and Letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.