Customs of the Navy

Chapter 3 - Uniforms

The universal colour of the naval uniform is blue, presumably as a camouflage against the sea itself. For this purpose the sails of Roman ships about 55 B.C. were dyed blue so that men dressed in blue standing near the sails would be almost invisible to the enemy

archers. Except during the 14th century when breast armour was worn in action, armour was rarely worn at sea, even by soldiers, if only for the reason that steel plate has an obvious disadvantage as a bathing suit.

A more modern version, which does not exclude the first, is that King George II (1683-1760) was so attracted by the dark blue riding costume with brass buttons worn by the Duchess of Bedford that he ordered the adoption of this colour scheme for the officers' uniform. Until the King's wish became known in 1748 through the first British uniform regulations, the most popular colour for dress in the English and foreign navies had been red. The Admiralty order promulgating the uniform regulations of 13 April 1748 commenced:

"Whereas we judge it necessary, in order the better to distinguish the Rank of Sea Officers, to establish a Military uniform cloathing for Admirals, Captains, Commanders and Lieutenants, and judging it also necessary to distinguish their class to be in the Rank of Gentlemen, and give them better credit and figure in executing the commands of their superior officers; you are hereby required and directed to conform yourself to the said Establishment by wearing cloathing accordingly at all proper times; and to take care that such of the aforesaid officers and midshipmen who may be from time to time under your command do the like."

Slops a term referring to naval clothing stores, is derived from the Old English sloppe - a loose fitting and shapeless garment. Very basic slops were provided in the Royal Navy in 1632, though authorised in 1628, but then as now civilian tradesmen, slop-sellers as they were called, were more readily patronised than the naval stores. At that time, to ensure that his men had sufficient clothing to protect them against all weather, a captain could order a man to purchase up to two months' pay in value. At first the purser's commission was sixpence in the pound, but it had increased to six shillings in the pound or 30% by 1636 when it was again reduced to the former rate.

In 1760, other navies having uniforms by this time, officers petitioned the Admiralty for a uniform for their sailors. The unofficial uniform was described as "a little low cocked hat, pea jacket, canvas petticoat trousers not unlike a kilt, tight stockings and shoes with pinchbeck buckles". Men did not wear cocked hats after 1780, and when worn by officers they were worn athwartships until 1795, and fore-and-aft from that year, at first for only Captains and below. Flag Officers wore cocked hats athwartships until 1825. The cocked hat for men was replaced with a shiny black tarpaulin hat with the name of the ship on a broad black ribbon. Straw hats, introduced from the West Indies in 1802, were in use until 1922. The dress regulations of 1847 stated that men's caps were to be like the officers' but without a peak; this is the origin of the present-day cap.

Being unofficial there were numerous variations to the basic uniform described; mention has been made of coloured comforters and knitted waistcoasts. Captains of ships used to dress their ships' companies, or at least their boats' crews, in the particular rig they fancied.

By 1800 the fashion, still unofficial, was a blue jacket with white stripes or white thread down the seams, a striped or checked shirt, white trousers, either long and bell-bottomed for ease in rolling up or short to show the stockings. Striped jerseys are still worn in the French and Netherland navies.

In 1814 uniforms had not yet been introduced for the lower deck. The unofficial dress was still the short blue jacket with the addition of two rows of large mother-of-pearl buttons. This type of button appears to be the forerunner of the two rows of brass buttons on fore-and-aft rigged uniforms.

The sailors' uniform as we know it was not finally authorised until 1857. At that time it was established that the collar, formerly in use as a protection from the tallow or even tar on the pigtail or queue (the fashion from about 1785-1825) was to have three white tapes rather than the former two. This was probably not a memento of Nelson's victories as is commonly supposed but only to ensure that the unauthorised collars would no longer be used. Pressed men were often lousy and were shorn as a routine; thus wearing a pigtail was a mark of service.

Square rig refers to the resemblance between the sailors' collars and the sails of their ships. The other common type of sailing rig is fore-and-aft; this expression is applied for purposes of contrast to officers' and chief and petty officers' uniforms. From this the reader will understand that round rig, an expression current in World War II, really has no place in naval terminology. A doubtful version of the origin of the expression fore-and-aft rig is that it used to take four and a half years to become a petty officer.

The silk did not originate as a sign of mourning for Nelson as has often been suggested since in one form or another it antedated the famous admiral's birth. It might have been used as a mourning band for Nelson in the manner the crew of H.M.S. BERWICK in 1749 mourned their captain's death, by cutting their silk scarves in half, putting one piece around the cap and the other around the arm. This seems a sufficient precedent for officers to use seamen's silks for mourning bands.

Good Conduct Badges first appeared in 1849, followed by the first non-substantive badges, for gunnery in 1867, and torpedo in 1888.

A rag was often worn about the neck, opened at the back like a kerchief, to protect the back of the neck from tar or tallow on the pigtail. It was also used as a sweat band by the guns' crews. Until the uniform was standardised in 1857 the silk was often a colourful article; one writer describes a pattern resembling a mixture of blood and raw eggs! It was, however, normally of black to show dirt least.

The original use of a lanyard was to hang the seaman's knife in front of his body. It was of such a length that a man aloft could open the knife with one arm outstretched, the other holding onto the rigging. It was and still is worn under the collar for comfort, appearance, and to prevent strangulation should the lanyard be grasped or caught below the turk's head.

The seaman's knife, for reasons of safety no longer worn except with working dress, is worth brief comment. There are at least four reasons for the shape of the blade: blunt-ended for poor stabbing qualities and so it would cause less damage if dropped from aloft, because it can be used to cut stops without damaging clothing or sails, or can be used as a screwdriver.

The uniforms of 1857, in particular the blue serge jumper or blouse as it was then called, with a very few changes is still worn today. It is of interest to note the similarity between British naval uniforms and those of other navies, and tribute to the strength and prestige of the Royal Navy in the 19th century. The new-type R.C.N. uniform of soft blue serge with zippers fitted is a recent change, adopted as a trial in 1949 and issued in the following year. The Royal Navy, after a trial of two hundred similar zippered uniforms, has now adopted the R.C.N. pattern.

There was no standard uniform for officers until 1748. Prior to that year officers, and captains of ships in particular, had worn what they pleased. It has been recorded that one captain worn a plain black tailcoat and a white top hat. This type of headgear may seem out of place at sea but was commonly worn until 1850 or later. It enjoys a special use to-day though not in our own service: it is the custom in some ports which are icebound in winter for the mayor to award a black top hat (and often a gold- or silver-headed cane) to the first merchant captain to enter the port after the first winter season. Another captain is said to have worn a coat of such thin material that his red braces showed through. Several R.C.N. officers knowingly perpetuate this custom, if it is one, of wearing red braces.

Senior officers are still permitted unofficially to modify their dress; for example Field-Marshall Montgomery with his white turtleneck sweaters, and several wartime five-star American officers. One sees very few modifications of naval uniforms except at sea where we all tend to think of comfort before appearance. Battle dress, army battle dress dyed black and fitted with shoulder straps, was introduced in World War II for wear at sea.

What is known as the executive curl, the ring above an officers' gold lace or braid, is said to date from the Crimean War when it was called 'Elliott's Eye' in commemoration of a Captain Elliot who carried his wounded arm in a sling under heroic circumstances. The term also refers to an eye in a hemp rope, said to be a memento of the Honourable William Elliot, a member of the Board of Admiralty 1800-1801. It is worthy of note that of almost all of the seagoing nations of the world the French and American are the only navies whose officers do not wear 'Elliott's Eye'.

The curl was originally worn only by executive officers, but in 1915 engineer officers adopted it, followed by officers of the other branches in 1918. Although in the British navies the curl is now common to all officers, some other navies who copied the custom have restricted its use to their deck officers. While in some navies insignia placed above the braid indicate specialist branches Commonwealth navies used coloured cloth berows of gold lace. Coloured branch distinction, first introduced in 1863, went out of use except for the medical, nursing, medical administration and technical branches, on 31 December, 1959. From 1879 to 1891 British naval officers wore three brass buttons between the lace, and several navies still do the same.

In 1795 epaulettes (from the French epaule - shoulder) or shoulder knots indicating rank were worn on the officers' tailcoats. The custom was adopted from other navies because British officers abroad were often slighted by not being recognised as officers. After the Crimean War tailcoats and epaulettes became obsolete except for full dress uniforms, and even these were placed in abeyance for economy reasons during World War II; some effort has since been made in both the R.N. and the R.C.N. to reintroduce the full-dress uniform.

Swords were a part of the officer's uniform from 1805 but gradually slipped into disuse except for ceremonial occasions. They were curved for at least a century. Possession of a personal sword is in abeyance, but it is interesting to note that in January 1954 the United States Navy declared the intention of requiring possession of swords, commencing with admirals and captains, and later including captains and below.

Aiguellettes have always been a sign of an aide de camp. The insignia developed in the army; the general's A.D.C. carried rope and wooden pegs over his shoulder with which he hobbled the general's horse and his own on arrival in camp.

The naval system of awarding medals dates from Lord Howe's victory over the French in 1794, commemorated as the Glorious First of June.

Since the early 19th century it has been the custom of officers to wear civilian clothes ashore. Before that time uniforms were always worn ashore; in fact until about 1815 naval members of Parliament sat in the British House of Commons in uniform. It is a slackness tolerated in some wardroom messes for officers to remain onboard in plainclothes; this privilege was formerly only permitted if the officer were going ashore immediately or had just returned aboard. In any case it is 'proper routine' to say "Pardon my rig, sir" to the senior uniformed officer present, no matter what his rank or branch.

The 1825 uniform regulations were the first to provide for the officers' peaked cap. The present-day crown and anchor cap badge, surrounded by laurel leaves and mounted on a black mohair bank, dates from 1856. White cap covers for use in hot weather followed in 1863, and have been worn all year round since 1956.

It has already been mentioned why blue is the universal colour for naval uniforms; in passing let us comment on uniforms in general. The first British uniform was worn by Henry VIII's bodyguard -- a distinctive dress of gold and silver cloth. A uniform gives prestige to the wearer, and has been shown to add immeasurably to the morale of a military organization. The army now wears khaki, the intention being that it is an inconspicuous colour; similar reasoning stands behind Germany's steel grey (later dark green), France's field grey, and the olive drab of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The reason for khaki in the navy as a summer uniform is that it is cool and yet does not become soiled so easily as the white uniform which used to be worn on the tropics and summertime. The same properties would, of course, exist with a light blue summer uniform.

Next Page >> Chapter 4 - Ranks