The British army’s 80th Regiment of Foot arrived in Virginia in January 1781 and did not leave the commonwealth until later that year, when its soldiers were marched off to prisoner-of-war camps after the siege at Yorktown.
Since 2006, military interpreters in the Historic Area have portrayed the 80th Regiment, which joined the hundreds of British army soldiers who occupied Williamsburg the summer of 1781 and fought in the decisive Siege of Yorktown that fall. These interpreters now wear more historically accurate uniforms, thanks to the research of one of their own.
Ian MacDougall, a military interpreter since 2013, began studying the 80th Regiment in 2016 to satiate his own curiosity. That research revealed flaws in the uniforms worn in the Historic Area.
During the past year, Colonial Williamsburg’s Costume Design Center, Geddy Foundry, Public Leather Works and tailor shop made new coats, waistcoats — both with and without sleeves — and all the accouterments needed to outfit the Military Programs staff as 80th Regiment soldiers. Guests will see the portrayal of this regiment several days a week, with interpreters alternating between these new uniforms and others from the Revolutionary War period.
MacDougall never imagined his research would result in a complete overhaul of the 80th Regiment uniforms, but Supervisor of Military Programs Thomas DeRose saw an opportunity.
“In the past our military interpreters were often used solely to support other programs,” DeRose said. “We want to drive our own programming, and the best way to do that is to harness the passions of our military interpreters. When they’re passionate, the public benefits.”
A NEW LOOK
The movements of the 80th Regiment, also known as the Royal Edinburgh Volunteers, can be tracked through military documents, as well as through the trail of coat buttons that have been found along the East Coast — including one discovered during archaeological excavations in the Revolutionary War cemetery in the gardens of the Governor’s Palace.
Those documents and artifacts allowed MacDougall to piece together a likely description of the uniforms. Though the red coats remain a part of the interpreters’ uniforms, the new blue facings indicate the regiment’s royal designation. Also new is the color of the lace — the ornamental trim specific to a regiment, which surrounds the buttonholes. MacDougall’s research found it was likely plain white.
There are three other major changes: The wings on the shoulders, the red waistcoats with white lace, and the shorter coat length. The wings indicate a light infantry company, a special unit within each British regiment that went ahead of the main force to screen for the enemy before the main assault. A 1771 regulation required light infantry waistcoats to be red and laced. And because light infantrymen needed to move quickly and covertly, the shorter coats would have been less likely to snag on underbrush or branches.
Before these uniform changes, the military interpreters portrayed one of the 80th Regiment’s battalion companies, which was made up of regular soldiers. MacDougall and the Military Programs decided to switch to portraying light infantry to address one of the biggest misconceptions about warfare tactics.
“A lot of people think that the Americans win the war because they’re hiding behind rocks and trees when in reality the British had developed that style of irregular warfare over a long period of time,” MacDougall said. “These new uniforms are a way to teach the public about it in a visual and visceral manner.”
THE MAKING OF THE UNIFORMS
The Costume Design Center staff made 12 regimental coats, 12 waistcoats and 12 sleeved waistcoats, although the 18th-century soldiers would not have had separate sleeved waistcoats. Light infantrymen likely took the sleeves from their regimental coats and stitched them to their waistcoats to cut down on the bulk of their wool uniforms in the summer heat.
The CDC’s Olivia Ballard and Beverly Prewitt, who led the 80th Regiment project, studied MacDougall’s research as well as photographs of original Scottish military uniforms from the period, which allowed them to see the structure and detail of the garments. The CDC’s Olivia Ballard and Beverly Prewitt, who led the 80th Regiment project, studied MacDougall’s research as well as photographs of original Scottish military uniforms from the period, which allowed them to see the structure and detail of the garments.
Before the sewing could begin, each military interpreter donned muslin military coats that CDC staff members used to measure their different body types and map out the different design elements.
“For me, making everyone look good despite all their differences was the exciting part of this project,” said Prewitt, who used a CAD system, or computer-aided design software, to input the measurements and create the fabric patterns. “You have to create the illusion that each uniform is exactly the same when all the measurements — the pocket placement, the distance between buttons — are actually different.”
Of the uniform’s many design features, the 86 laced buttonholes consumed the bulk of Ballard’s time. A 7½-inch strip of white trim was wrapped around the buttonhole and stitched onto the facing. To save time, Ballard created a template out of cardboard around which she wrapped the trim and then applied steam and ran a seam through it before using a sewing machine to finish the work.
“From a sewer’s perspective, I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to get to know a garment in and out,” Ballard said. “At the end of this project, it’s so cool to say I had the time to master something.”
A military uniform is not done until the accouterments are in place. Erik Goldstein, senior curator of mechanical arts and numismatics, made the pattern for buttons that an outside company reproduced. Goldstein also made patterns for the bayonet belt plate and cartridge pouch plate, which Mike Noftsger and Susie Dye in the Geddy Foundry used to cast both military brasses.
The Public Leather Works made the bayonet scabbards, belts and cartridge pouches. While the CDC’s Melissa Mead and Michael Ramsey made the cap-hats, the tailors in the Historic Area helped the military interpreters sew their own fatigue caps.
“Many different people offered up their expertise to make these new uniforms,” MacDougall said. “The way a project like this comes together is what makes it fun to work here.”
The 80th Regiment of Foot Light Infantry uniforms were generously funded by Diana E. and Donald L. Jones.