Major John Andre’s mysterious white braid

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On the slight chance that you've been watching TURN in an isolated vacuum or have only seen the episodes that don't feature Major John Andre as a major character, I'm referring to the strange little white braid seen here.
Just in case you’ve been watching TURN in hermetic isolation or have only seen the episodes that don’t feature Major John Andre as a main character, I’m referring to the little white braid seen here.

Here it is, readers: the oft-requested, long-awaited Braid Post. Major Andre’s mysterious white braid has been the subject of heated discussion among TURN viewers since day one, who — regardless if they love it or hate it — are dying to find historical justification for its appearance in the show.  If I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned John Andre’s braid in their discussion of TURN, I might have enough money to buy my own cabbage farm on modern-day Long Island.  (Although, since I’m more of a Major Hewlett-esque oenophile, I’d probably opt for a vineyard instead).

The reason why I haven’t previously posted anything about The Braid is because my own searches for historical justification had been coming up short for weeks.  (Well, actually, I did find a similar braid, but needless to say, it didn’t exactly have an 18th century provenance.)

After sifting through scores of contemporary images — including French fashion plates, satirical macaroni prints, British officer portraits, and even Native American hairstyles — I found nothing resembling the curious, tightly-braided strand that, by all appearances, seems grafted onto either Major Andre’s scalp or his natural hair.  (I suppose it could also be his natural hair that he had somehow bleached white, but that would be an even stranger explanation.)

In this still from the first episode of TURN, you can see both of Andre's braids. Click to enlarge.
In this still from the first episode of TURN, you can see both of Andre’s braids. Click to enlarge.

Plenty of 18th century wigs AND natural hairstyles featured braided queues, of course — but nothing like the tiny silver braid running down the side of Andre’s head.  As we can see in the screencap to the right, Andre’s “side-braid” is not the same as the braided queue on his dress wig.

While the widespread lack of evidence does show that these little braids were not fashionable or popular during the American Revolution, I figured that the production team at AMC must have seen something that inspired them to include such a conspicuous and unusual fashion accessory for Major Andre’s character.  So I held off on writing a post about The Braid, and kept searching.

Finally, I happened upon an obscure painting in the collection of the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, titled “A Soldier, called Major John Andre.”  Lo and behold, there appears to be a tiny silver plait running behind the subject’s left ear!  Mystery solved!  Historical justification for Major Andre’s braid in TURN.  It’s an open-and-shut case, right?

“A soldier called Major John Andre,” from the collection of the Huntington Library in San Mateo, CA. Analysis by British military historians has determined that this painting is NOT the Major John Andre of Revolutionary War fame. Click to enlarge.

Well… not entirely.  For one thing, this isn’t actually John Andre.  Not the John Andre we’re all thinking of, anyway.

If you look at the catalog entry for this painting on the Huntington Library’s website, you’ll see that the artist, the provenance, and even the date of the painting are all unknown.  We do know, however, that John Andre belonged to the 7th Regiment of Foot, also known as the Royal Fusileers (or Fuzileers, if you use the preferred 18th century spelling). So if this IS the John Andre we’re familiar with, he should be wearing a Royal Fuzileers uniform appropriate to the era of the American Revolution.

Fortunately for us, several years ago this portrait came to the attention of a select group of historians who specialize in 18th century British military history and are perfectly capable of answering any uniform-related questions: William P. Tatum III, Justin Clement, Christian Cameron, and Professor Gregory Urwin of Temple University.  Drawing upon their encyclopedic knowledge of British regiments, they weighed in on the subject of the painting and concluded that it was not Major John Andre of the 7th Regiment of Foot.  I am indebted to Will Tatum for providing me with the following list, which sums up their main reasons:

  1. The lace on the regimental coat is the wrong metal– the 7th Royal Fuzileers had gold lace, while this officer has silver.
  2. The buttons are in pairs, a practice that is as yet undocumented to the 7th Regiment during the period in question, and which in general is more indicative of a later-war or into the 1780s date.
  3. The wing [patch] on the shoulder, while appropriate for light infantry, features the three feathers of the Prince of Wales.  This was a special insignia reserved for a short list of regiments that enjoyed the Prince’s patronage — a list which did not include the 7th Regiment.
  4. The helmet is of the so-called Tarleton style, so identified because Banastre Tarleton sports one in his British Legion portrait. This one includes a leopard-skin turban, usually seen on Light Dragoons. The helmet does not match the style of light infantry cap authorized for British troops by the 1771 Light Infantry warrant [regulations], nor does it correlate with any of the non-regulation hat-caps and other light infantry headgear that have been documented to this period.  There is some suspicion that the Tarleton Cap became the accepted light infantry cap after 1784, but there is as yet no hard documentation to back this idea up. Since the Tarleton Cap was a mid-war innovation, its presence suggests that the portrait dates from after 1777.
  5. Also notable is the portrait’s background: St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  This would be a strange choice for Andre, who served exclusively in America.
  6. Finally (though this point might be debatable), the facial features of this sitter don’t match well against other purported portraits of Andre that have superior provenance.

As you can see, the devil is in the details.  In this case, the details overwhelmingly prove that the officer in this painting did NOT belong to the 7th Royal Fuzileers, and is NOT Major John Andre of Revolutionary fame. (Hopefully the above list will also help dispel any lingering Hollywood-fueled notions that “all Redcoat uniforms were the same.”)

It’s quite possible that this painting is of another completely unrelated British soldier named John Andre, which was not an especially unique name in late 18th century Britain.  It’s also quite possible that this painting was mistakenly mislabeled sometime in its shrouded history.  Either way, there is little doubt that this painting was the inspiration for Major Andre’s braid in TURN — so at least that mystery has been solved.  It is also clear that this painting does not provide solid historical justification for the way Andre’s braid is depicted in the show.  Regardless of the soldier’s identity in this painting, it is clear that the little braid is part of his wig, not grafted onto his natural hair or scalp.  As we see in the pictures above, the designers went out of their way to show that the little braid is a separate entity.  Even if Major Andre’s braid has some creative backstory that is slated to be revealed on a future episode TURN, it is clearly an example of historical fiction, not historical fashion.

So there you have it, readers — hopefully the above foray into historical fashion has shed some light on one of the most elusive and talked-about depictions of material culture in TURN thus far. (The other one being, of course, Abe Woodhull’s wool cap.)  Spread the word!  And if you have any more questions or braid-theories, send them this way via the ask page, tumblr, or Twitter.  And don’t forget to follow along for the live-blogging on tumblr and Twitter tonight!


13 thoughts on “Major John Andre’s mysterious white braid

    J. L. Bell said:
    June 1, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Thank you so much!

    Betty Myers Master Wigmaker said:
    June 1, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    Betty Myers: The style I believe he is wearing is the Cadenette Wig. Which is an 18th century powdered wig with 2 plaited queue’s( braids) worn at the nape. This coiffure was brought into fashion in France in the time of Louis X111 by Honore` D’ Albret brother of the Duke of Luynes, the Lord of Cadanet. Although it is not a very good likeness. The term Rat tail was not used in this manner in the 18th century. This is not a good likeness of this style, but perhaps it is the man one wants to admire rather than his hair or wig etc. Although the wig does make the man just ask any Perukemaker. There are variations of this style and you seem some styles like the Medaillon Peruke 1777 From the Ladies Magazine.

    k maher said:
    June 2, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    I’ve finally begun reading the Alexander Rose book (and not loving it–but that’s for another discussion). After Andre’s capture, it was noted that his hair was heavily powdered, giving a clue that he was Somebody. When he went to be hanged, his fine, long dark hair was noted. So The Real Andre probably didn’t wear a wig.

    Fill me in: Was having your hair styled & powdered more expensive than wearing a wig? It meant you could afford a manservant. Of course, it also meant you had Good Hair. (Remembering John Adams, on HBO–coming home angry & pulling the wig off his balding head.)

    Although, of course, Andre wasn’t a major & wasn’t in charge of spying in 1776 & 1777, I am enjoying J J Feild’s performance. (So is he, it appears.)

    kneelhurst said:
    June 3, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Certainly seems to be a long standing tradition of wearing a braided lock in the hussars….but certainly does not make this correct…

    Brandon Carbaugh said:
    June 11, 2014 at 1:43 am

    It looks like the hair of a buxom beau, braided and tied into his own. Wasn’t that done…some time in history? Maybe not Revolutionary War -era, but I swear I’ve read that before…

    Didier GJ Belksma said:
    November 29, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    actually the side braids where often worn by light huzar type units.. but looking at his uniform and him being in front of london houses and st pauls might refer 2 the units under the banner of the prince of wales called the bank of england volunteers as that is close 2 st pauls.. these where founded with the threat 2 the napoleonic invasion and the irish uprising st pauls being the symbol of that uprising as a wink 2 defend the church of england that would but the date of this painting 2 1798 if i remeber correctly

    Paula said:
    February 10, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    Here’s my guess–based on nothing but my own wild imagination! Some people DO have streaks of white or gray hair in small patches among a head of otherwise normal colored hair. Sometimes it is the result of an injury. Perhaps John Andre suffered an injury (bullet, sword or knife wound?) and wears the braid as a badge of honor comemorating a wound that resulted in the white streak of hair!

    Niki Nash said:
    August 9, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Historical or not, JJ Feild has made that braid dead sexy, my goodness.

    Eric Shellhamer said:
    June 1, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Andres hair was powdered. He had finely milled and sieved starch in his hair. His hair was black. They used powder as a degreaser

    David said:
    June 5, 2016 at 11:29 pm

    There was a fashion in that period … mainly French… of wearing a “Lovelock” – a long, flowing lock, braid or curl dressed separately from the rest of the hair.

    Bob said:
    June 28, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    The English had an old custom dating to the 16th century of wearing a “lovelock” over ones left shoulder as a sign of devotion to a loved one. The lock was usually braided or done up like a dreadlock. It was an old naval custom which continued until the mid 19th century of officers cutting off the lock before going to sea and giving it to their loved ones. Many examples of these locks still exist today. While there is no contemporary evidence in portraits or otherwise to suggest that Andre wore such a lock, it is important to note that TURN is a work of historical fiction and is not ment to accurately represent detail for detail what actually occurred in the culper ring or elsewhere though it is generally a pretty historically accurate series.

    Will said:
    August 11, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    I have also found numerous references to the European male practice of wearing a “lovelock”, on the left (heart) side, intended to show devotion to a loved one. Some sources claim it was a 16th and 17th century custom, others that it persisted into the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the first two British produced “Sharpe” television films, the character of Major Hogan (portrayed by Brian Cox) is clearly shown wearing a lovelock braid hanging from otherwise rather short hair. The Sharpe series takes place during the Napoleonic Wars. (coincidentally, Major Hogan is Lord Wellington’s chief of intelligence…perhaps the lovelock was trendy among spies?) As for the white color, perhaps Andre plaited the lock and then heavily powdered it? Either to announce his “taken” status, or for maintenance reasons? Perhaps the powdered hair would hold the braid longer.

      Frank said:
      July 14, 2017 at 5:28 pm

      Perhaps the authors, knowing about the history of “love locks” (even though no other British officer has one….are they not in love too?) gave one to Andre for dramatic effect. At his hanging, Mrs. Arnold is holding his braid as a demonstration of her love.

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