Boys Sailor Suits: Royal Navy Uniforms

Figure 1.--Prince Albert Edward his brothers were dressed in sailor suits, establishing a royal tradition. This famous portrait 1846 by Winterhaller now hangs in the Royal Gallery at Buckingham Pallace. Note the Prince's curls and bell-bottom trousers. He was 5 years old. The painting was Albert's Christmas gift to Victoria. Notice the hands in his pockets. His grandsons were not allowed to do this.

The boy's sailor suit was first inspired by the Royal Navy enlisted man's uniform. Interestingly, the classic enlisted man's uniform first worn by the Prince of Wales in 1846 was a relatively novel invention because the Royal Navy had only just begun to regularize uniforms for enlisted men. Some attention had been given to officer's uniform for some time. Enlisted men until the mid-19th centurty, however, lacked uniformity and its the style and even color could vary substantally the period and whim of the clothing contractor and vessel capatain. Even the blue and white convention is a relatively recent development. A standardized uniform (rig) for enlisted men (ratings) was not established by the Admiralty until 1857. Of course while it was the British Royal Navy uniform that served as the model for the first boy's sailor suit, fashion designers were soon creating suits for boys which diverged radically from the first classic suit. Also as the boy's sailor suit spread across national boundaries, boys wanted suits based on the uniforms of their own navies. It was the Royal Navy, however, which set the standard for the boy's sailor suit.

Queen Victoria

It was Queen Victoria's son, Prince Albert Edward--the FutureEdward VII, who in 1846 first wore a boy's sailor suit. It was based on the uniorm of the British enlisted seaman. It proved a great success. Parents thought the style charming. It also had the happy coincidence that boys in England and other countries wanted to wear a salor suit. It was also a swerd political step. No institution in Britain was as popular and respected as the Royal Navy. The monarch in England as a result of the preformance and personal beavior had fallen on disrepute. Victoria and Albert had set out to rebuild the prestige of the monarchy. Associating the monarchy and the heir apparent with the Royal Navy and especially the enlist ranks was a stoke of political genius of the first order. I am not sure just whose idea it was. It sounds more like Albert's work than Victoria's, but perhaps an advisor firsrt conceived of the idea.

Officers' Uniforms

TThe 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 commionly 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 wweere important for armies involved in land combat to identify friend or foe which was facilitated by uniforms. Naval combat involved only identufying 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 weree individuals of virtually no social standing. Their ranks included impressed prisoner and deizens of waterfront bars and bordellos. After the American Revolution, the Royal Navy would often impress American seamen on vessels tajen at sea. Conditions at sea were brutal. There was thus onstant disertions 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 wonfer, asume 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 pusser 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 subdtanyial 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 beforte, there was still no standard Rotal 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 eexample was the captain of HMS Blazer who ordered his crew to wear blue and white striped Guernsey's. The same capatin also reportedly ordered his crew to wear jackets from which the modern blazer evolved. Some sources, however, are skeptical of this. Thethe 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 siscussion on the amtter eventually was a factor leading the Admiralty in 1857 to finally issue a circular on the enlistedman'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 ir queues was fashionable in the 18th century. Why sailors added tar I am not sure. This fashion disappeared rapidly after the Naopelonic Wars ended (1815). The lst recorded instance of this fashion at sea was reported in 1827.

Uniform Rig (1857)

The Admiralty finally established a uniform rig for enlisted men (ratings) in 1857. Considrable attention had been given to the uniforms worn by officers for some time, but this was the first Admiralty mandated uniform for enlisted men. The uniform was the same for senior and junior ratings, except for the badges worn on the left sleeve. All those dressed as seamen were to wear "square rig". 'Idlers' which the Admiralty defined as those incapable of manning the guns, masts, and yards to fight the ship, were not deemed worthy of square rig and were dressed in a rudimentary form of fore and aft rig.

Sailor Collars

British sailors began wearing broad collars collars sometime after 1830. The first such collars were not cut square, but rather were rounded. This was not a destinctly naval fashion, but rather simply followed the prevailable fashions of the day ashore. The instantly recognizable square collar was not a military fashioned design. It was simply a practical expedient. It was easier for the men to cut and sew designs with straight lines rather than the round design. The three white strips in naval uniforms were also not a military design, but rather rows of white tape were probably added for ornament by some now unknown sailor. As this stylistic touch became popular, there are surviving records discussing whether there should be two rows or three. Only later did lore develop attributing te three strips to Lord Nelson's three great victories.

Bell-bottomed Trousers

Another feature of the square rig naval uniform were bell-bottomed trousers. While they have appeared in modern dress as a trendy styles, for the seamen they were very practical garments for sailors. They could be rolled up securely to free the feet and ankles when working the rigging. Not all sources agree with this asertion. [Royal Navy] One American expert writes, "There is no substantive factual reason for their adoption, i.e., easier to roll up or kickoff in the water, but rather appear to be a tailored version of the pantaloon, designed for a bit of flair which set the sailor apart from his civilian counterpart." [Cruse] The sailor, like all other items in his kit, kept his trousers neatly folded ready for use in a kit bag. They were folded inside out to avoid fluff on the outer surface and to prevent 'shine' as a result of ironing. The trousers were folded horizontally at about a hand's width and taped into a rectangular 'block'. When worn, this produced inverted vertical creases down the side of the sailor's leg and five or seven, depending on the height of the wearer, horizontal creases down the leg. In time these were accepted as the proper uniform look. Thus these creases were pressed firmly into place from the early years of the 20th century. Once sail power vanished in the late 19th century, bell bottoms no longer had any practical purpose. Since World War I, sailors wore bell bottoms primarily tradition. The Royal Navy replaced them with flared trousers in 1977.

Figure 2.--The modern Royal Navy uniform can be seen here with this group of Sea Cadets.

Subsequent Changes

The Royal Navy has made a number of important changes in the enlisted uniform after adopting the square rig in 1857. One of the most sinificant was in 1890 when the admiralty did away with the blue jackets that had led sailors to be nicknamed "bluejackets".

The Admiralty also in 1890 replaced the 'frock' which was to be tucked into the trousers. The term frock has a variety of meanings. Here it refers to a kind of loose blouse. These frocks were replaced by a 'jumper' which was not.

Chief Petty Officers (CPOs) and first-class Pos began wearing fore and aft rig (uniforms) beginning in 1859 onwards. The Admiralty decided in 1956 that all ratings other than artificer apprentices and Locally Entered Personnel (LEP) should be dressed as seamen and their uniforms were changed.

Royal Navy trials in 1995 trials with a female version of the square rig uniform proved extremely successful and in 1996 all female junior ratings changed into the new rig.

The last LEP's went in 1997 and new square rig will be introduced to all artificer and technician apprentices.

The Royal Navy in 1977 this completed a process begun in 1857. All nlisted personnel now wear the same ceremonial uniforms with the enormous benefits that this brings in terms of corporate appearance and the provision of manpower for ceremonial occasions.


Broderick, Justin T. "Royal Navy Items", 1998.

Cruse, B.C. "Navy Uniform Newsgram", January 1999.

Royal Navy, "The History of Rating Uniforms", 2002.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: November 2, 2002
Last updated: November 2, 2002