This past August, while spending a few days with friends in London, I attended the Handover Ceremony in front of Buckingham Palace where Michael Phelps kicked off the preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games. Watching the proud British moment, I thought how radical it was to feature an American for such a truly British event. You have to admit, Michael’s unprecedented eight gold medals in the Beijing Water Cube warranted the honor. What impressed me more was to hear Michael comment how he couldn’t wait to get home and hug his English bulldog. That scored even more points with the people of the U.K.
London’s “Open Weekend” included an outdoor musical performance with pyrotechnics in the South West port city of Weymouth, host venue for the Olympic sailing events. Although we missed that event, we dashed to catch the lightshow at Windsor Castle. Just as we arrived, we were corralled into the VIP section, moments before the Duke of York threw the switch. I was never so close to a Royal before. Was this a bellwether of the Monarchy’s intentions to be an integral part of the games?
So, if the world was now invited to come to the party, what will everyone be wearing to London 2012? Being a student of fashion, I couldn’t help but notice the colorful outfits in the crowd. A multicolored collage of lycra, nylons, cottons, linens, and a even a smattering of old straw hats dotted the venue. The Adidas logo was everywhere, no doubt because the sportswear company signed on once again as a Tier One sponsor for 2012. I was hoping to find an inexpensive Adidas warm up jacket similar to the ones my friends wore in Beijing. As Kit-maker for Team Great Britain, Adidas provided the Brit Olympians with their ‘TechFit PowerWeb’, a new material that offers built-in elasticity. Imagine a polymer of thermoplastic urethane sewn inside a Lycra singlet that acts like tiny springs to expand and contract your major muscle groups. I padded down my friend’s torso to see if he was wearing one under his jacket. Not anticipating the groping, he really let out a scream.
And where there is Adidas apparel, footwear is not far behind. The AdiStar Rowing shoe featured a radical rowing plate on the bottom of the sole with stabilizing outriggers that nail you to the scull’s flexboard footstretcher. But don’t worry. In the event your scull capsizes, the shoe is equipped with an ‘Emergency Release System’. Other features of the rowing shoe include a ‘Speed Heel’, ClimaCoolâ ventilation, and an optional ‘WindShield’. We can credit Adolph “Adi” Dassler, founder of German-based Adidas, for having the foresight to bank on such innovation. My Olympic friend was wearing his. At first glance, they look like golf shoes but they are certainly not recommended for strolling in the streets. I know how much my Parson Academy rowing crew back in the States would love those AdiStars! I really wanted a pair for myself and why shouldn’t I? I had a reputation to uphold as the Scottish coxswain on the girl’s Fours.
So the next morning our group agreed to board the #137 bus to Savile Row just to see where the Royals shopped. Stepping off the bus, I thought little chance of finding Adidas merchandise on those streets. Instead, I thought of something interesting. What else might the hordes of spectators wear? And suddenly, there it was! A mannequin in a shop window. Something fun, yet functional, but traditional. What if all the Brits were to don traditional Regatta attire for the Olympic rowing venues?
Londoners have a always had a real love affair with rowing going back to the 1600’s. The watermen who ferried Londoners across the Thames found themselves competed for waiting customers. Organized competition in London between the watermen became an annual tradition known as Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, and prizes for wager races were put up by wealthy merchants of the Textile Guilds. The water liveries in their working uniforms looked like the gondoliers of Venice. In commemoration, these costumes are part of the festival. This past July celebrated the 293rd annual race.
English Universities adopted rowing as their own competitive event. King Henry’s Eton College established its Monarch Boat Club and its first ‘Procession of Boats’ was held in 1793. London immediately took to heart the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge university students. Eventually, the popularity of rowing expanded beyond England. At that time, thanks to America’s desire to build textile mills in New England, Boston merchants secretly lured British inventors to bring their patents across the pond. These Brits not only brought their steam engine and loom designs, they brought their families, sons, and rowing sculls. Rowing immediately established itself as a premier sporting event at U.S. schools. We all know that America’s medal count at Beijing was nothing to scoff at. And back at school, Parson Academy Crew competes against every major prep school in New England.
I learned quite a bit of history about the Royals while doing research on the British Colonial Period for Mrs. Jonas’s class. In the first decade of the 1800’s, Britain’s most beloved Royal was Arthur Wellesely, better known as the Duke of Wellington.
Wellesley attended Eton when the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, was also a student. Before commanding British troops at Waterloo, Wellesely’s first victory over Napoleon in Spain made him instantly popular with the collegians at Eton. Through the years, the Royal Regatta has attracted the cream of the world rowing fraternity. The French Baron, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, was a competitive rower.
It is fiting that two hundred years later, Eton College will host the 2012 rowing events at Dorney Lake, a 400 acre park designed around the 2,200 meter eight-lane course that will offer 20,000 seats and a new finishing tower. Eton College presently touts the largest school boat club in the world that regular finishes in medal honors in the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race that today draws 250 thousand spectators. These races produced no less than seventy Olympic competitors in venues that included doubles or the Coxless Four.
So, it only took a few seconds to tear off my tee shirt and shorts and step into the wardrobe that hearlded me back to the Regency Period where the styles of the day were founded on well-cut, tailored clothes worn by Prince Regent George IV. After graduating Eton, the Prince entered the military and was a Captain of the Tenth Hussars. It was during his service where he met George ‘Beau’ Brummell, also a Captain of a British Dragoon unit. A thirty thousand pound inheritance enabled Beau Brummell to sell his commission and take an oath to live the rest of his life as a proper gentleman. Brummell associated exclusively with the Royals, frequenting extravagant dinners and holding court at gaming parlors. The dandy, as he referred to himself, became the unofficial advisor to the Prince. Arthur Wellesley disliked Brummell for his vanity and excesses, but it was Brummell who is credited with changing the way Britain dressed. Dressing up in proper attire to attend the rowing matches became an integral part of English society.
I stepped out of the changing room and stood there in the Royal Regatta outfit. My friend’s jaw dropped. Looking at my reflection in the full-length mirror, many things crossed my mind. Through my research back at school, I discovered that the McCallen men, seven generations removed, returned to their previous rank in the British Army in 1811 after a brief respite from service under Wellesley in India. Sure enough, as I inspected the male mannequin’s linen trousers, the year 1811 was written on the back of the price tag. My friends asked if I really was serious about wearing this to London 2012. For me, this was truly a dilemma. Dare I explain this new feeling that overcame me?
I knew how prevailing economics and politics played such a decisive role in activities of the Western Hemisphere during the first decade of the nineteenth century. Britain and France will forever be marked by imperialistic wars and global expansion, while the burgeoning United States of America opted to avoid war. And what did Britain have to show for it? The country was mired in a recession. Emperor Napoleon laughed himself silly with the realization that France could suspend battlefield maneuvers in favor of a well-calculated financial deterioration of the British economy. In 1807, Napoleon’s ‘Continental System’ slowly crippled Britain’s trade with Europe to the point where America became Britain’s only real hope of economic stability. But the fractious triangle between Britain, France, and the United States continued to erode trade relations to the point of destruction. And no other commodity was more at the core of battle than was American cotton for Britain’s textile trade.
Boulton & Watt steam engines were on line throughout the British countryside powering cotton-spinning looms. And with the introduction of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the cost of producing finished cloth fell by 90%. In 1810, Great Britain consumed 80 million pounds of raw cotton vegetable fiber. Half came from America’s south. A steady export of raw cotton from America was reciprocated by importing finished cloth from Britain.
As New England textile mills began to flourish, the balance of trade tipping badly for Britain. Parliament voted for embargos. Britain’s dependence on imported raw cotton from the United States prohibited the U.S. from shipping its cotton to any country in Napoleon’s Empire. America decided that it would not play ball with Britain, and the U.K. went ballistic. It is important to note that New England traders, many of whom maintained offices in London, still enjoyed a favorable status with Britain. Their ‘Federalist’ political beliefs made them popular with Britain’s Parliament who shared a common distaste for Jefferson’s administration. Indeed, Jefferson saw the opportunity to keep the full circle of its garment industry within its own borders, leaving Britain dependant on the cotton export without benefit of resale from its English mills.
Ignorant of global concerns, cries from the Royal Costumer at Buckingham Palace were heard loud and clear. “The Prince Regent wants a new wardrobe for this year’s boat race! The Prince Regent wants his cloth!” The King’s Privy Council knew what problems lay ahead as less and less cotton was shipped from America. Hopes to defeat Napoleon on his secret advance toward Russia found Britain allied with Prussia as the Fifth Coalition assembled in 1809. The Coalition successfully made Russia an ally of Britain. Russian garments and textiles must have been a top priority as Czar Alexander proudly displayed the linens of his palace. Linen instantly became the talk of Europe. After all, linen was the oldest fabric in the world but only in abundance in Persia, India, the Middle East, and western Russia. After the flax is harvested, it is made into fiber and then woven. In the House of Commons, Parliaments not only debated laws proposed for social reforms in the mills, they had to convince British manufacturers that they needed to retrofit their looms to work the alternative fiber. Meanwhile, the Prince Regent’s father, King George III, already reported to be insane, continued to deteriorate and was confined to Windsor Castle. Indeed, his condition reflected the underlying state of the British nation. That dark era whose only reprieve for the British people were botanicals, sports, and fashion.
The Royal Costumer was immediately summoned to Buckingham Palace to persuade the Prince Regent and Brummell’s circle to inspect Russian linen. Beau Brummell liked the look of freshly laundered material. “Fine linen and plenty of it!” A well-knotted linen cravet eventually became the modern necktie. “Beau” Brummell, was quoted to say, “The well-dressed man about town should wear clothes that are simple, functional and discreet’. British supply merchants saw the opportunity to introduce the new commodity to a small but influential group of Londoners. Beau Brummell suggested to his influential friends that a former British investor in Russian textiles, John Bellingham, be considered to supervise the exports from Russia. But Wellesley and the Privy Council rejected the proposal, precluding Bellingham from arranging the deal.
Within the year, the Boathouse look of the Prince Regent’s Royal Box was complete. Competitors rowed in white flannel trousers with turn-up bottoms. School colors, such as the fiery red for St. Johns College, designated the rower’s bright blazer jackets. Finishing the look, a straw hat called a ‘boater’ sat proudly atop the rower’s head. The Prince Regent took up the look and naturally, so did the rest of London. Even women wore the ‘boaters’ along with their matching parasols and gloves.
So, there I stood in my costume. I bit my lip and declared that I thought it proper to pay tribute to my ancestors, the brave McCallen clan, who were shipped off to Halifax to reinforce Britain’s remaining North American colony of Canada. In my own small way, I thought this was the least I could do. So I paid for my new duds and wore them out of the store with parasol in hand and ‘boater’ on my head. I must have fit in well, standing in front of a poster of Prince Charles in his traditional sporting attire.
My friend from Team U.S.A. asked me what historical admission might we expected from the Royal Box in 2012. After all, it would be the 200th anniversary of two British milestones? No doubt, the Queen will take time from the pageantry to acknowledge the anniversary of Britain’s abolition of slavery. And perhaps with a little less fanfare, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will formally recognize the Anglo-American War. Undoubtedly, both America and the United Kingdom will spotlight the bonds now shared between the former enemies while pundits peddle the economic factors of linen versus cotton as the key reason for that war.
But, sitting on the bus, I thought back to the most revealing document found at Parson Academy’s time capsule discovery. I did not want my friends to think of me as too pedantic, so I kept this ghostly information to myself as we passed London neighborhoods in silence. By the hand of France’s Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice Talleyrand de Perigord, Napoleon cleverly escalated the tension between Great Britain and the United States. Now France realized it had to somehow stop these new developments in Britain. With Talleyrand secretly at the helm, irrate English textile workers attempted to sabotage Britain’s textile machines under the guise of the Luddite Rebellion. When this tactic produced a relatively minimal impact, an operative convinced the disgruntled John Bellingham to assassinate Spencer Percival, Britain’s Prime Minister, in an act of apparent revenge. What’s more, mysterious delays in correspondence between Washington and London thwarted Britain’s concessions in hopes of averting an American declaration of war.
So what turned the tide in 1812 to stabilize the British economy? British economists realized that trade with Russia would not significantly help Britain financially overnight. Some documents suggest the most probable answer. Arthur Wellesley offered a proposal to the King’s Privy Council. Wellesley’s interest in sustaining Britain’s military was of utmost importance. He knew expanding trade with China was Britain’s only hope and a esoteric substance that was in such great demand by the Chinese could immediately save the Crown from financial ruin.
The Privy Council seized the opportunity to quietly fill Britain’s coffers by shipping Turkish opium to China. With the proceeds of the China trade, Wellesley’s dark passion for the mastery of rocket technology was a fete compli. The Asian rockets made their way to the Royal Woolrich Laboratory through a strange, serpentitious route. Wellesley was still haunted by the nightmares he experienced in India, during his final Seige of Seringaputam. In 1799, the expansive stores belonging to the most defiant Islamic ruler of the Indian subcontinent, Tipu Sultan, better known as ‘the Tiger of Mysore’, were seized. They remained in Bangalore for more than ten years. These were the very rockets that stifled Britain’s painful expansion over Colonial India.
For years, agents of the East India Company tried to introduce Bengal opium as a profitable commodity. Parliamentary thought discouraged such wide scale growth of the opiate on Indian plantations would undermine the new religious and moral fabric they were trying to establish in its exemplary colony. Instead, Wellesley and the Privy Council gave their nod to a consortium known as ‘The Combination’ is granted a charter to ship the commodity to China.
As the opium trade secretly funded the work at the Woolrich Laboratory, William Congreve was able to expand his research and perfect Britain’s weapon technology. Rockets would soon fill the sky with Britain’s newest version of deadly century’s old Asian fireworks. What more opportune theater was there for Britain to show off its new hardware than showcasing its ‘Rockets’ Red Glare’ over America’s Potomac Peninsula. A more in-depth revelation of the events leading up to America’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and Britain’s Regency Period can be found in Mark Sysson’s novel ‘Parson’s Academons’.
Speaking of fireworks, now that it was nighttime we heard the explosions as we approached the River. The man behind the ‘Open Weekend’ celebration, Christophe Berthonneau, France’s ‘Emperor of Pyrotechnics’ was once again lighting up another Olympic venue. His team of 40 technicians and engineers performed a military-style operation laying seven miles of cable along the Thames from Waterloo to Westminster Bridge where the synchronized lighting and sound system accompanied the detonation of 6,000 fireworks from three barges were docked in front of the London Eye.
But perhaps, with the delicate remembrances of the War of 1812 in mind, concern for anything smacking of overmilitarization has been carefully factored by authorities who want to downplay any hint of warlike power. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has determined that the Royal Air Force Red Arrows “Aerobatic Team” should be sidelined for the Olympic ceremonies. So perhaps pyrotechnic masters of the 2012 Olympics will take their cue from their clever ancestors of seven generations past, and the fiery display shall be reminiscent of fireworks that exploded in America two hundred years earlier.
These thoughts will no doubt accompany me back to Parson Academy. Me, the Scottish coxswain, who returns to the battleground venues of New England’s rivers and lakes where my friends, the American Olympic rowers, will be training for their fair share of London’s medals. I embrace my other set of friends from Team GB and wish them farewell. In the back of my mind, I envision them back on the water, training in gear emblazoned with the Adidas logo. But with the blink of an eye, I can also see them outfitted in the fashion of Beau Brummell’s Boathouse Regatta style. Why not bask in a splendid smattering of representations from both worlds? Adidas had better quickly add the familiar crest of the Royal Regattas to their tee shirts and outerwear. So however you decide to dress for the London Olympics, you may bump into me. I’ll be wearing my ‘boater’! http://parsonacademy.com