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Uniform History

Over the next few weeks we will look into everything from the concepts of uniforms over all down to why we have particular styles and tailoring specific elements within RN uniforms over time.

Uniform History

The Officer and the Gentleman

Stamp from a Royal Mail collection published in 2009 detailing various RN uniforms


RN uniforms began way back in 1604 with King James I when he appointed six “Principal Masters of the Navy” and dressed them in liveries made from red and gold velvet embroidered with silver and gold threads.  This was the first time naval men had been denoted as clearly in service to the King. 


By the 18th century we began to see the first regulated naval uniforms for naval officers.  To avoid being associated with liveries given to servants, officers petitioned the Admiralty to grant them a uniform, allowing them to create their own uniform rather than have one imposed. 


Naval officers unforms were by no means “uniform” though.  As they were each cut by the individuals tailor of choice, they were often styled to reflect their own interests in fashion.  Groups like the Dandies, whose fashion was influenced by the French Revolution, or the Fops, who were characterised by their elegance and deportment, all identified themselves through the cut of their uniform. 


So, naval officers began to dress in “regulated clothing” to distinguish themselves.  Rather than silks worn in court they wore wool, but the embroidery and gold thread embellishments remained, thus bringing together “The Officer and the Gentleman”. 

The Origin Story 

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The first uniforms of the RN were not imposed by the Admiralty, rather, they were requested by Commissioned Officers to distinguish themselves from sailors of other ranks. 


Uniforms were seen as a signal of professionalism and exclusivity, separating Commissioned Officers of the Royal Navy from those in the Army (wearing red), so denoting themselves as the Senior Service. 

After meetings in various coffee houses a group of officers, known as the “Navy Club”, sent a proposal to the Admiralty Board, proactively seeking to present their proposed uniform to the King.  The new uniform would not only distinguish commissioned officers, it would differentiate the Royal Navy from any other force and raise the identity of the RN Officer across society. 


Officers were asked to have garments created to their own taste, which were to be presented to the King who would make the final decision. 


The final uniform choice was introduced by the Admiralty in April 1748, consisting of two suits, dress and undress, both made from blue wool with white facings and different levels of embellishments of gold lace or metal threads which would become more elaborate with rank. 

Following the implementation of officers uniform a thriving second-hand clothing trade began in the Royal Navy as uniforms were circulated from sales of deceased shipmates belongings at the mast, from the “dead mans chest”. 


Our very own “dead mans chest” is open in HMS Nelson Wardroom Wednesday mornings 0930-1230.  You can book an appointment here 

Dress or Undress

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When originally created, the terms dress and undress relating to uniforms simply meant the difference between formal court attire (dress) and informal day dress (undress). 


Dress uniform was a formal wool coat, cut from the highest quality cloth the officer could afford, wherever possible this was to be superfine cloth, but in reality, more hard-wearing wools were favoured.  The dress coat was worn with a white waistcoat and had deep white cuffs to match along with blue breeches.  These hard-wearing wool cloths were embellished with embroidery and lace. 


Undress uniform and the midshipman coat were both versions of a frockcoat.  Both featured the mariners cuff to distinguish it as a daily rig, midshipman's coat was single breasted with a turn down collar, while officers undress had button back lapels. 


The dress coat, for Admiral ranks was heavily embroidered with gold thread and lace on the cuffs and front, whereas Captains and Commanders were embellished with gold lace while the humble Lieutenant was not embellished with gold in any way. 


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Prior to uniforms being instigated by Commissioned Officers, sailors already had an occupational clothing style.  While fashions of the time called for knee breeches and coats with tails, sailors could easily be picked from the crowd with their wide leg trousers and short coats.  Created to keep sailors safe and allow them to move freely without catching on rigging.  The mariners cuff featured on jackets allowing the buttons to be unfastened and sleeves rolled back to keep the cuff relatively clean and dry. 


The RN had ready made clothing available for sailors to purchase from the purser (as long as you were a standard size!).  Blue wool jackets and breeches, woollen waistcoats and chequered shirts along side worsted stockings and knitted caps were known as “Slops”, a term still used widely within the RN today when collecting uniforms from stores. 

Pattern Uniformity

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The latest edition in our uniform history series explains how we create uniform uniforms!

As tailors we regularly use “patterns”(graded templates for each garment panel) to recreate garments time and time again and ensure they are identical to each other but fit the individual. 
The term pattern was adopted by the Royal Navy when the first uniform regulations were issued by the Admiralty in 1748.  These patterns were examples of the garments, made up by tailors and displayed around the various dockyards.  They were available for other tailors to view and recreate when requested by their clients. 
To show the pattern was made to Admiralty approved regulation the Admiralty fixed a seal to the garment, so becoming the “sealed pattern”.  This is still used today for everything from uniforms to badges and buttons. 

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