Irish-American Fashion: Mose the Fireboy

1848 print of Frank Chanfrau as Mose the pugilistic fireboy.

In retrospect, this is self-evidently the ensemble I should have started with, as I have been essaying the story of Mose almost since the start of this blog. Actor Frank Chanfrau’s butcher and volunteer fireman is about as well-documented as any character from the stage, and I think this ensemble would look smashing in a modern form.

Mose was supposed to be a Bowery B’hoy, and so he has a Bowery B’hoy’s primary affectations: The top hat and the soap-locks, which, as I have documented elsewhere, was essentially the mid-19th century version of the wet look. Let’s start with the hat.

It is possible to get modern reproductions of Victorian top hats that have a quaint, old-fashioned elegance to them, but Mose seems to prefer the high, shiny silk stovepipe version preferred by Abraham Lincoln. As it happens, Vivo Masks out of Michigan offers something they call the Bill the Butcher top hat that looks right, and of course it does — the look of Bill the Butcher was borrowed directly from the Bowery B’hoys. It’s spendy at $289, which is probably why Bill took his hat off when he was getting ready for a muss.

It’s the perfect hat for a rowdy dow. Ain’t you never been the the theater before?

Next there is Mose’s bright red shirt. It looks to me like he is wearing a long-sleeve cavalry-style shirt with a button front, and Western Emporium sells a bib shirt for $69.95 that’s bang on. Unfortunately, it’s a little too bang on — you wear that, you’re going to look like a historical reenactor, and the goal of this project is to suggest contemporary versions of older fashions.

Instead, I am going to recommend a simple red long-sleeve t-shirt. Gildan offers them for $13.65 in cherry red.

Nothing says fireboy like a red shirt.

Mose’s pants are probably the easiest thing about his outfit, as he appears to be wearing black jeans with rolled up cuffs. Might as well go with Levi’s, which may well have been what Mose wore. They offer a black boot cut pair of jeans on sale just now for $43 that should do nicely.

Actually, Levis started in 1853, just a few years after Mose debuted on stage.

I’d like to offer an addition to this ensemble not worn by Mose, but appropriate nonetheless: A pair of thin black braces. The Mose look we have here is not for removed from that traditionally favored by English and Irish working class youth, and they always include suspenders, and, to my eyes, the look is just incomplete without it. The Suspender store offers a green plaid set for $34,95 that will give this ensemble a bit of Celtic dash.

Or just black suspenders, if you’re going for understated B’hoy elegance.

Finally, the boots. Mose wore soft leather boots that look to my eyes like contemporary Cuban-heels style, and there’s just something that feels strange about this now — it doesn’t suggest a street fighter, but a mambo dancer. I’m going to go ahead and suggest Dr Martens, because it has become a contemporary classic of working class rockers and street fighters alike. If you’ve gone for the green suspenders, you might consider their green 1460 boots at $130, but just about any of their boots is going to look right.

God, these boots look rugged.

There is just one last thing you will need to complete your Mose look — a big cigar, which he was always seen chewing on, jaw jutted out, stogie pointed sky high.

For added authenticity, you might consider wearing a New York firefighter’s pin. Bowery B’hoys were often members of volunteer fire departments, and wore their pins all the time to show off the fact. If you’re in New York, the New York City Fire Museum sells them and has the added benefit of supporting the museum.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.