The Naval Uniform

GrandDad 3 Ganges 1910

“ Heart of oak are our ships,
Jolly Tars are our men …”

Since earliest times differences have always existed between members of the ‘Senior Service’ and their counterparts in other branches of the military: Not least in the adoption of a uniform.

As an island nation dependent upon sea trade, Britain’s rulers had long understood the need for a regular Navy that could both repel enemy invaders and offer protection to its merchant vessels. Often little more than privateers acting under the sanction of the Crown, this embryonic Royal Navy grew in strength and numbers to keep pace with the demands of Empire.

But unlike the army – in which individual regiments were usually maintained, fed and clothed by members of the aristocracy, (who indulged their own particular fancies in the design of uniforms), and which, during peace-time, could be disbanded to an affordable size – the manpower needs of the Royal Navy were constantly expanding in an effort to keep the rapidly growing fleet of ships at sea.

“With his bell bottom trousers and coat of navy-blue,
Let him climb the rigging like his daddy used to do.”

With few people prepared to volunteer their services for a life of privation, hardship and danger, recruitment techniques were elementary. What might start out a celebratory night on the town often ended with a headache, (caused as much by the blow of a cudgel as by alcohol!), and the realisation that the Press-Gangs had claimed another victim to serve in the Fleet.

Although opposing armies relied on uniforms to readily distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield, such conventions were never deemed as necessary aboard a ship of war; especially when cannon fire could generally be relied on to subdue an enemy vessel from a distance. For the Board of the Navy it was sufficient that uniform regulations for officers had been introduced in 1748: As for the crew? All that mattered was their ability to sail and fight the ship.

Faced with the prospect that it might be years before they again saw home, and often owning little other than the garments worn when they were forcibly ‘enlisted’, recruits into the Navy were obliged to rely on their ingenuity and whatever materials came readily to hand in order to clothe themselves.

Regularly granted ‘Make and Mends’ – time off from their ship-board duties – sailors designed and made clothes that reflected the nature of their work. With a sail-makers thread and needle, canvas was transformed into short, baggy trousers that could easily be rolled up and out of the way when swabbing the decks; pieces of cloth or linen hung around the neck served as sweat bands when manning the canon and doubled as bandages for those who were wounded. Learning to knit, to sew, the use of tar and oil to waterproof their garments and even how to weave straw into useful sunhats, sailors of whatever nationality had always had – for centuries – a certain distinctive uniformity of appearance.

“ ‘Tis as freemen we call you,
Not press you like slaves,”

With its position as the world’s dominant maritime power confirmed during the Napoleonic Wars, successive British governments began to pay more attention to the needs of the Royal Navy and the conditions under which men served.

The old order was changing. As sail gave way to steam, the new technologies demanded more specialised skills and a more formal approach to clothing.

In 1825, the officers’ dress of frock coat and breeches received an overhaul with the introduction of the ‘fore and aft’ rig, consisting of jacket and trousers; later complemented by a peaked cap with cap-badges and stripes on the sleeves to indicate rank. As yet, however, there was no authorised uniform for ratings. Even Petty Officers, (the senior members of the crew), were only to be distinguished by badges worn on their left sleeve until 1859 when they, too, were required to wear a uniform jacket, trousers and peaked cap.

The latitude allowed to sailors in terms of dress codes came to an end in 1857 with the introduction of the ‘square rig’ uniform: An outfit that, with slight modifications in style and materials, has lasted through to the present day, (and been adopted by most of the world’s Navies), it still reflects the time when seamen were required to be a jack-of-all-trades; one moment clinging to a rigging in a howling gale while they reefed in a sail; and the next fighting an enemy ship.

The Nelson Touch

Although – until recent times – supplemented by denim trousers, shirts and other clothing more appropriate to the day-to-day tasks involved in running a ship, the distinctive dress uniform, (referred to as “Number One’s” following the Navy’s numerical code for dress regulations), retained much of its original design – and its attendant folklore.

Junior ratings, for example, always claim that the purpose of the three brass buttons spaced around the cuff of a Chief Petty Officer’s jacket, is to act as a painful reminder that, as a senior rating with a position of authority to maintain, it’s no longer appropriate that he wipe his nose on his sleeve!

But it’s in the “square rig” – the flaring bell-bottom trousers, tight-waisted jumper, collar and white-topped circular cap – that sailors were better recognised.

Getting dressed for a ‘run ashore’ was no easy business – even when zips had replaced buttons. First came the ‘white-front’, a form fitting cotton shirt with square-cut neck opening bordered in blue and with a knife-sharp vertical crease down its centre line. Putting on a white-front was one thing; trying to get out of it un-assisted was an altogether more difficult business.

Next came the bell-bottom trousers that, when standing to attention, would often cover the shoe and negate the need for too much spit-and-polish. Originally with seven equally spaced horizontal creases down each leg, (supposedly representing the seven seas but that, in reality simply made the trousers easier to fold away in a limited space!), the early bell-bottoms featured a flap held in place by buttons rather than a fly. An inconvenience that was remedied with the introduction of zips!

Once dressed in white-front and bell-bottoms, (regarded as casual wear), it was time for the sailor to don the collar, a piece of dark blue linen with, around its border, three white stripes to commemorate each of Nelson’s great Naval victories at the Battles of the Nile, Ushant and Trafalgar, (and overlooking his fourth one at Copenhagen!). With the collar held in place by waist ties, in a similar fashion to the life-jacket demonstrations seen on aircraft, the sailor then struggled into the jumper. Another feat made easier in the age of zip-fasteners!

Wide and low cut down to below the sternum, the long-sleeved jumper generally pinched in at the waist with the underlying collar folded out and around the lapels and lying flat down at the back on top of the jumpers own collar.

Then came the lanyard, a length of white cording with a slip-knot loop passing beneath the collar and whose original purpose allowed a sailor carrying a knife to let go of the tool when both hands were needed to hold fast to the rigging.

This was followed by the ‘silk’; a large rectangle of black silk originally worn much like a scarf but that was later folded and re-folded into a narrow strip before being sewn together at the ends, it also passed beneath the collar before being held in place by a black bow. Black, it is said, to mourn Nelson’s passing, silk had a practical purpose in battle when it was used to bind and staunch wounds or even acted as a sling.

Capping everything off was the distinctive round hat. Originally made of a dark material with provision for a white, heat-reflecting, cover that could be added in summer or when in the tropics, but now permanently white year round, the final touch was a detachable piece of black material with the name of the sailor’s ship embroidered in gold.

“ … for who are as free as the sons of the waves? “

Worn with pride in peacetime and in war, the traditional dress may no longer fit the needs or demands of a modern, instant-response Navy, but for a Service that, each year on October 21st, still celebrates the death of their nation’s greatest naval hero, the “square-rig” uniform is a link to the past: A constant reminder that, down through the centuries, all of those who have gone to sea in ships are members of that same, ‘Band of Brothers’.


Categories: General


2 replies

  1. I have always wondered about the significance of the ordinary Naval rating’s uniform. My Dad who was a leading Seaman during world War 2 and was mentioned in dispatches had told me but I was very young and not very interested! I was delighted to find your very interesting explanation of each piece.It brought back for me a lot of memories of my Dad in his Royal Navy uniform. Thank you very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome!….as always!


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