Pelisse, dolman, breeches: the three essential components of a real man’s wardrobe, according to Stewart Miller, for whom the idea of a second life as a Napoleonic hussar was not just a hobby, but a passion—more than that, a panacea. Ever since he’d stumbled upon a reenactment festival a few years back while on holiday with his long-time fiancée Mary, his eyes had been opened to a new reality—a world where ordinary men with expanding waistlines and stiffening arteries left their ordinary lives as FedEx warehouse managers at the gate, and like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, like Clark Kent flinging off his glasses and shedding his suit to reveal the superhero within, allowed their nascent warrior selves to run free. There, Stewart had feasted his eyes on the various encampments—from Vikings to Volksgrenadiers, Normans to Nazis—savouring the endless possibilities, as though he were a kid in a sweet shop.
“Is that man really dressed as a Nazi?” Mary had exclaimed, round face contorted in a grimace. Stewart’s response was to pat her fleshy bottom consolingly and reassure her that it had nothing to do with what atrocities they committed; the fascination lay in the particulars of what they wore. It was in the midst of such machismo, such raw masculinity, that an idea germinated in his balding, greying head about the soldier he harbored within. Amid the cosy Celtic roundhouses, the tank displays, the masses of Waffen-SS shooting the breeze in their faux German accents, Stewart spied the sprawling Napoleonic camp. Shrugging off Mary’s nagging impatience, he stood, transfixed, as he watched the display of the elite hussars in all their finery—some riding high upon actual horses. That was when the vision took root.
“Just think,” he’d said to Mary that night through the crack in the bathroom door—she refused to get dressed in front of him—“we could have a Napoleonic-style wedding. I can be a hussar, and you can be my imperial princess.” Met with silence, he pressed on. “Imperial fashion would suit you. An elegant, low-cut, high-waisted dress. Good for pear-shaped figures...” at which point, with a firm click, the door shut.
But Stewart was nothing if not determined. And if Mary had temporarily silenced his idea of a dream wedding, he could at least show her what she’d be missing. This year, the biennial Warriors and Wenches reenactment extravaganza fortuitously fell on his fiftieth birthday. And thanks to Mary’s handiwork (he hoped!) he was going to celebrate in style—in a bespoke Napoleonic uniform, with all the accoutrements.
Although she had played her usual role of the coy mistress, feigning ignorance about what he wanted for the big day, he’d noted the sudden reappearance of her sewing machine, the fully stocked bobbin storage box, the swatches of fabric with neat practice stiches. He’d made a point of complimenting her on the fruits of her labours—the cushions, the reusable shopping bags, the cuddly toys she’d made for her nieces and nephews over the years. But had she ever sewn clothing? There was that “Kiss the Cook” apron she’d made for his 45th—perplexing, as he’d never cooked a meal in his life. No matter, he knew that she wouldn’t disappoint. They’d been together, what, ten—no eleven—years, and those wide-set grey eyes of hers could see straight into his soul. Ask her anything about him, and she could tell you the answer. Favourite meal? Steak and potatoes. Favourite movie? A toss-up between Platoon and Groundhog Day. Dream vacation? Easy: a trip to—where else?—Versailles, topped off with a stay at a four-star hotel (breakfast included). Sexual position? Granted, it had been a few weeks, or months, since they’d . . . but when they did, my God, he was never disappointed.
My Mary, he thought wistfully. She was so different from his first wife. Quieter, but in a good way. He could scarcely recall one argument between them, not like Suzanne, who’d left him after six years for what she deemed “irreconcilable differences.” Stewart had never figured it out. He’d treated her well—flowers and a box of chocolates on their anniversary, the occasional package holiday; he’d always cleaned up after himself, put the seat down, didn’t drink to excess, walked the dog... But Mary was different. Soft. Compliant. Homely. Attentive. She’d never be a looker, that was true, but those breasts, and boy, could she cook... She wouldn’t let him down. Not Mary.
So, like a child fashioning a wish list from a toy catalogue, he had painstakingly pieced together a scrapbook of his favorite militaria, annotating it fastidiously, even adding dividers to distinguish the different units. By far the largest section was that of the 19th-century Napoleonic soldiers, particularly the hussars. Those well-thumbed pages he had studied scrupulously, marveling at the panache of the men in their rifle-green finery, savoring every detail, from the black worsted frogging on the jacket front to the braiding on the back. Why have braiding on the back? was a question that he found endlessly fascinating, one that he liked to pose rhetorically to anyone who would listen—namely Mary, who, with a shrug and a sigh, would only spur him to probe deeper. “Maybe just for the hell of it,” his best friend Bert had offered. Whatever the reason, to Stewart these soldiers looked more like costumed stage actors than fighting men. These were no brown-shirted, trench-digging Tommies, or drab, camouflage-clad bush-fighters. Sure, they were soldiers like any other, paid to fight. But they were above the normal hardships of war. No scars sullied their skin, no blood blighted their boyish countenance; they were lusty youths gallivanting about on horseback, swords unsheathed, across windswept, poppy-speckled fields, no enemy in sight. What a vision!
In the weeks leading up to his birthday, when he was sure Mary must be in the early planning stages, he had cunningly left his scrapbook in opportune places—splayed on top of her bedside table; in the kitchen next to her cookbooks; on the teetering pile of Mills & Boon novels in the downstairs washroom. Here she could find all the visual references she would need to create the perfect uniform. And, to take out the guesswork, he’d drawn asterisks next to the key elements.
His plan had worked. First, she’d made up excuses for taking measurements of Stewart’s chest, waist, arms, legs; then, when he’d happened (innocently!) to view her Google search history, he saw that she’d sought out woolen fabric, gold braiding, bullion tassels. Although it took all his willpower to resist the urge to peek into the spare room she used for her “women’s work,” as he called it, the telltale hum of the sewing machine late into the night alerted him to the mysterious goings on within. Sometimes he’d stand outside and listen. Truth be told, it turned him on.
And with every day that passed—now only a week to go!—his vision became more vivid, his imagination boundless. He found it increasingly difficult to rein in his excitement: would she be able to make him the signature stovepipe shako cap as well? He fantasized about the feel of the tunic on his skin, the intricate braiding on the dolman, the buttons polished to a silver sheen. Oh, how he hoped the jacket would be fur-lined like the real thing! And that the breeches would be reinforced with leather! If he squeezed his eyes shut, he could picture himself, tall and stately (never mind the receding hairline, the middle-age spread, the love handles), regal, in his custom-made finery. He would turn heads at the Warriors and Wenches festival, maybe even win a coveted blue ribbon (“Best Dressed, Napoleonic”). For those few hours at least, as he entered his sixth decade, he would be transformed into a stylish, strapping, handsome hero. He imagined the gasps of the onlookers, their envious stares. Would you look at him? Did someone say he’s FIFTY, and he can pull off that uniform like a man half his age?! Better keep an eye on the missus...
The only question in his mind was how Mary would fit into the festivities. She’d reassured him that she would accompany him on the day, but despite his urgings that she “dress the part”—he’d painstakingly catalogued the most alluring sartorial options for ladies, from winsome wench to Viking vixen—Mary wouldn’t budge. “You can have your hobby, Stewart,” she’d said in an uncharacteristic show of opinion, “but I’d rather not be an accomplice in an event that glorifies man’s savagery.” But Stewart had an inkling that if he could just find the right outfit, she would be putty in his hands. He would be Pygmalion, shaping her into his perfect paramour as he swaggered through the masses of secondhand soldiers in their ill-fitting borrowed costumes. His would be the real deal, a uniform as authentic as the man who donned it. And his woman, if not classically attractive, would be tantalizing in her front-laced, bosom-enhancing pirate wench costume, complete with fishnet tights, tricorne hat and eye patch. The whole ensemble—a steal at £29—had been delivered to his doorstep with just the click of a button, and he’d carefully stowed it in the garage, where Mary would never look, in a box labelled “spare parts.”
When the big day dawned, cloudless and blue, just as he’d hoped, he awoke with a flutter of anticipation, silently rising so as not to wake Mary, then padding down to the kitchen for his morning brew. And there it was: a ribboned box nearly as big as the table, secured with a bow, the message HAPPY 50th BIRTHDAY XX visible in Mary’s neat schoolgirl handwriting. Should he open it now? He couldn’t possibly delay any longer. Yes, he decided, he would put it on, then waken Mary with a kiss from her strapping soldier of a fiancé. Maybe then she would finally share his vision: see how the uniform utterly transformed him, stripped away the years, rubbed away the wrinkles, and made him into the man—and the groom—of her wildest dreams. And she would be his pirate wench. He shivered with delight at the thought of the dark, cavernous trough of her bosom beckoning him to reach in and touch...
With trembling hands he untied the bow, then slid the top off the box. Beneath layers of carefully folded tissue paper he spied the telltale rifle green wool of the dolman. His spine tingling, he gently lifted the jacket out from the wrapping, admiring Mary’s scrupulous attention to detail, down to the intricate gold braiding. He slipped it on over his nightshirt. It was... big, too big, the arms stretching over his hands by at least a couple of inches, the hem hanging well over his thighs, the neck drooping halfway down his chest. He shifted and wriggled his body in a futile attempt to make it fit, puffing out his chest as if he could will himself to expand into it. Panicked, he unveiled the fur-lined pelisse, holding it out in front of him. It, too, was enormous, made for a man twice his size. And the breeches? So beautifully stitched—and yes, reinforced with leather on the inner thigh—but he could slip them on over his pyjama bottoms without even opening the buttons, pull them practically up to his neck. The cylindrical shako cap, topped with a bright red pom pom as he had hoped, slid over his eyes, blinding him. For a moment he stood, stupefied and speechless. The whole thing gave the distinct impression of a child playing dress-up in his father’s clothes. A clown. What was the matter? How could Mary make such a gross miscalculation of his stature?
Could it be a dummy costume, a fake? Perhaps the real one lay hidden somewhere, all part of the surprise? He shook his head; even to his untrained eye he could see the quality of the material, the expense she had gone to. This was no fake. Heat rising to his face, pulse racing at an alarming rate, Stewart knew there was only one explanation: it was a mistake. She’d screwed up. And on this, of all days—his birthday; his day to shine, to show the world who he really was! It wouldn’t do; it just wouldn’t. He glanced at his watch: seven o’clock, four hours until the show was due to start. She would have to fix it, or else... Well, he just didn’t know what he was capable of in these direst of circumstances.
So, clutching his falling breeches with one hand, balancing his cap with the other, he trod heavily up the stairs, heart pumping, surging with adrenalin, to wake the wench. He stormed into their room to find Mary nowhere in sight. The en-suite door stood ajar—empty. But the bed was made, the sheet tightly tucked, the hand-stitched cushions all positioned neatly against the headboard. The duvet had been evenly spread, in Mary’s usual meticulous manner. His eye was drawn to a ridge that ran lengthwise down the bed, slightly off-centre, the fabric pinched out by some clumsy finger. It marred the surface like a line of battle.