A uniform for a dapper diplomat

A uniform for a dapper diplomat
Author Craig Wilcox examined a diplomat's heraldic uniform while researching his new book, Badge, Boot, Button
3 April 2017

During my research for Badge, Boot, Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms, I looked at one of the many curious treasures in the National Library's collection: a large metal trunk painted red and black, with a label engraved ‘P. Shaw Esq'. Inside the trunk, folds of black wool and a burst of feathers resolve themselves into a uniform decorated with gold braid and topped with a plumed bicorn hat. A black leather tube, hard to see at first, contains a sword, exquisite and expensive.

Craig Wilcox unpacking Shaw's trunk

Here I am unpacking Shaw's trunk

The trunk and its contents came to the library in 1976. They were among the relics of one of Australia's first diplomats, Sir Patrick Shaw, who had died the year before. But Australian diplomats don't wear uniform. How, then, do we explain the gold braid, the ostrich feathers, the elegant sword?

European courts were visual spectacles in the nineteenth century, crammed with soldiers in gala dress and footmen in wigs and livery. Politicians at court buttoned themselves into uniform too, generally a blue coat heavily and expensively ornamented with gold. Diplomats who were not soldiers wore similar dress.

Shaw's uniform, detail

Detail of Sir Patrick Shaw's diplomatic uniform, c. 1940, nla.cat-vn882877

The British version of court dress was sometimes called the Windsor uniform, sometimes diplomatic dress. It was rarely worn by politicians. Only two of seven federal government ministers sworn in on 1 January 1901 wore it, and it was rarely seen again. Prime Minister Edmund Barton set a precedent that day, dressing in the stately black emblematic of the middle class men who then dominated English-speaking societies.

Yet there was a world elsewhere, more formal, more martial, more hierarchical, and the new Australian nation would eventually have to trade and engage with it. British diplomats wore Windsor uniform on formal occasions. Would their Australian counterparts wear it when the first overseas posts were established in the 1940s? The government decided that formal civilian clothing would be sufficient, ‘although, technically,' one newspaper argued, ‘Australia might be entitled to adopt the British uniform'. And tempted, too. Why should British diplomats look more important than Australian ones?

We may never know whether it was personal taste or professional calculation that prompted young Patrick Shaw to have a Savile Row tailor make up a Windsor uniform for him on his posting to Tokyo in 1940. Or how much it cost. The coat and trousers bore a prudent amount of gold decoration, enough to advertise the prosperity and status of a middling nation without showing off. If a truly formal occasion required them, a pair of breeches could be substituted for the trousers. The feathered bicorn, flat and without features on one side, would slip neatly under a right arm as the hand rested, following tradition, on the pommel of the ornamental sword.

Shaw's uniform

Sir Patrick Shaw's diplomatic uniform, c. 1940, nla.cat-vn882877

Shaw was interned when Japan went to war with Australia late in 1941, but was mercifully released a year later. He remained a diplomat but almost never wore his uniform again. Heraldic clothes seemed a little obsolete after 1945, at least in English-speaking countries. A design for a distinctively Australian diplomatic outfit was proposed by staff in the Manila embassy in the 1960s, but it was overruled by the ambassador, Francis Stuart, who himself wore Windsor uniform on occasion. ‘I took advantage of the late King George VI's dictum that all diplomatic officers carrying the Crown commission would wear the same rig,' Stuart explained. ‘I certainly found it better to wear King George VI's uniform in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Manila and Kabul, than a morning coat or tails, which I should otherwise have had to endure.'

Appointed Australia's ambassador to India and Nepal in 1970, Patrick Shaw did as Stuart had done on one occasion. He brought his old uniform with him, and wore it when presenting his credentials to Nepal's King Mahendra. Shaw's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as punctilious about etiquette and a ‘dapper dresser who retained into middle age a boyish look'. That physique enabled him to squeeze into a coat made for a young man 30 years earlier. ‘I can remember him putting it on for festive occasions and he was proud of the fact that it fitted for his presentation of credentials to King Mahendra many years later,' his daughter Karina Campbell later recalled.

Perhaps it was the last time an Australian diplomat wore Windsor uniform. Civilian dress was now entrenched for ambassadors, and when Alan Renouf, head of Foreign Affairs, later in the 1970s proposed a uniform the idea was swiftly vetoed. Shaw's uniform can rest in its metal case. 

Cover of Badge, Boot, ButtonBadge, Boot, Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms by Craig Wilcox was released by NLA Publishing on 1 April 2017.


The national library holds so many surprising things.. Enjoyed your previous books on the South African war Craig and looking forward to this one.