Who Fights in a Cuirass?

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In my most recent post, I discussed how head-to-toe suits of armor went out of fashion beginning in the 1700s, when muskets began to replaced swords, pikes, battle-axes, halberds, and other more primitive methods of mayhem.  In the Invalides Military Museum in Paris, I came across the distinguished officer above, proudly posing in a display case. He’s wearing an early version of the bulletproof vest, a partial set of armor called the cuirass. This military getup dates from the 1870s.  There were whole units of “cuirassiers.”  By that time, it seems the cuirass was more for show than for real protection.

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In a nearby case, there was a cuirass that did not work out so well for the soldier who wore it.  Musket fire crashed straight through it, front to back.


In Princess Ida , the 1884 comic opera, Gilbert and Sullivan made delicious fun of  armor. The Mike Leigh film Topsy Turvy features a satirical musical number about the uselessness of armor, however fearsome it might look. The scene is on a blistering hot summer day in the Savoy Theatre in London, long before the days of air conditioning. The great actor Timothy Spall sweats mightily and pries himself out of one piece of armor after another as he solemnly sings,

“This helmet I suppose, Was meant to ward off blows…

It’s very hot, and weighs a lot, so off that helmet goes.”

He unstraps his cuirass without missing a beat:

“A man is but an ass, Who fights in a cuirass” and so on, hilariously.

Leave it to Gilbert and Sullivan to skewer the military pretensions of their day.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!


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