A Brief History of Royal Navy Uniforms

Officers’ Uniforms

The British Royal Navy adopted a dark blue officers’ uniforms in 1748. This uniform would be the basis for of most of the world’ naval dress. The British were the main maritime power their uniforms influenced those adopted in other countries. [Broderick] The enlisted unform would also prove very influential, but it would not be adopted for another hundred years.

18th Century Slops

There were no uniforms for Royal Navy enlisted personnel in the 18th century. The practice on Royal Navy ships in the 18th and early 19th century was to sell ‘slop’ or ready made clothing to seamen on board the ships. This clothing was hardly uniform. The fashion and color tended to vary widely with both the fashion of the era and whim of the individual contracted to supply the clothing. Even the modern blue and white conventions were not established. During Queen Anne’s reign (1702-14), for example, enlisted seamen commonly wore red and grey. Only in the mid-18th century did blue become the dominant color.

Lack of Enlisted Uniforms

There were no Admiralty specifications on the clothing provided. Royal Navy officers had standarized uniforms. Enlisted soldiers also had uniforms. It is unclear why enlisted sailors in the 18th century did not wear uniforms. We can only guess that uniforms were important for armies involved in land combat to identify friend or foe which was facilitated by uniforms. Naval combat involved only identifying the flag of the vessel. Uniforms were thus much less important. Military uniforms are a substantial expenditure which may have made the Admiralty reluctant to adopt an enlisted uniform. Another factor must have been the social status of the 18th century seaman. Most were individuals of virtually no social standing. Their ranks included impressed prisoner and denizens of waterfront bars and bordellos. After the American Revolution, the Royal Navy would often impress American seamen on vessels taken at sea. Conditions at sea were brutal. There were thus constant desertions when ever a ship was in a port and turn over rates were high. The Admiralty thus was loath to invest funds in expensive uniforms. [Cruse]

India and Indigo Dye

The convention that sailors wear blue is today so firmly fixed that few ask why. Most that do wonder assume that it because the sea is usually thought of as blue. That is, however, not the reason. The adoption of blue is because at the time that uniforms were being regularized and that Britain’s acquisition of India gave it access to indigo–a tropical plant from which a blue dye can be extracted. Indigo based dyes proved the only ones that could stand up to the rigors of constant exposure to sunlight and offer a reasonable degree of color fastness. It was also relatively inexpensive. At the time there was a very limited range of color dyes available. Indigo is extracted from a topical plants native to India and other tropica areas. Britain secured its hold on India from the French during the Seven Years War (1756-63) in Europe. After securing a dominant position in India, indigo was one of the local products which Britain imported. Large plantations were established in both the East and West Indies. It is thus not accidental that it was at this time that blue uniforms began to dominate in the Royal Navy and replace a motley collection of colors and shades that had previously been worn.

French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815)

Royal Navy ships’ officers in the late 18th and early 19th century began to address the matter of enlisted uniforms. Again it is unclear why the Admiralty did not do so. Commanding officers during the series of wars following the French Revolution (1789) began to give some thought to their crew’s’ clothing requirements. As a result, by the beginning of te 19th century, it was common for ships’ companies to be mustered at divisions ‘all in blue’ or ‘all in white’ so providing some degree of uniformity. The ship’s purser would sell ‘standard’ blue, white or ‘fancy’ cloth. The fancy cloth varied and might include tartan, check, gingham, and other prints. The enlisted men then made their own clothes from this cloth and as a result each ship had some degree of uniformity. There could, however, be substantial differences between ships.

Continued Variations (1815-57)

While the Royal Navy in the early 19th century was outfitted in a much more uniform style than ever before, there was still no standard Royal Navy uniform. Considerable variations could occur among different ships, especially when the captains involved had novel ideas about appropriate uniforms. The captain of HMS Vernon, for example, in the 1830s ordered his crew to wear red serge frocks (blouses) and comforters. After wearing the red uniforms for some time, the stock ran out and the red garments were allocated only to the port watch and the starboard watch wore blue. (Green dye was more expensive.) Another noted example was the captain of HMS Blazer who ordered his crew to wear blue and white striped Guernsey’s. The same captain also reportedly ordered his crew to wear jackets from which the modern blazer evolved. Some sources, however, are skeptical of this. The captain of HMS Trincomalee outfitted his crew with red shirts and ‘fancy’ hats. The most eccentric of all was Captain Wilmott of HMS Harlequin in 1853 paid to outfit his crew as harlequins or clowns. This attracted considerable and often ribald attention in the British press. It is likely that the press discussion on the matter eventually was a factor leading the Admiralty in 1857 to finally issue a circular on the enlisted man’s uniform.

Jack Tar

The ordinary British seaman was known as Jack Tar. This was because tar was commonly used on sailing ships. The hands and clothes of ordinary seamen were commonly tarred by the ship tackling.

Tarred Pig Tails

British sailors once wore tarred pig tails. I’m not sure why this fashion developed. Wearing pig tails in queues was fashionable in the 18th century. Why sailors added tar I am not sure. This fashion disappeared rapidly after the Napoleonic Wars ended (1815). The last recorded instance of this fashion at sea was reported in 1827.

Sources

Broderick, Justin T. “Royal Navy Items”, 1998.

Cruse, B.C. “Navy Uniform Newsgram”, January 1999.

Royal Navy, “The History of Rating Uniforms”, 2002.

Courtesy of Christopher Wagner and Historical Boy’s Clothing.
Image: A Marine and a Sailor of the Pallas by Gabriel Bray.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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  1. Concerning the tarring of pigtails I have a theory – because I wear my hair in a plait so I know something about the dynamics of it.
    Newly pressed men often had their heads shaved to get rid of lice, so long hair could have been a sign of long service and thus prestigious. But long hair is the very devil to take care of. Plaits or queues quickly straggle. It takes an hour brushing every day to keep long hair nice, and to replait it, though once plaited tightly it can be left in plait without attention for a couple of days. After that strands will start to escape. In high winds they flog into the face and if wet, they sting. By plaiting and then tarring the pigtail, no further attention to the hair would be required that could then be left for the duration of a cruise, which for a busy sailor who did not have an hour a day to muck with his hair was fairly crucial. The tar would also deter lice.

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